This year Phoebe Blyth was invited to speak at St. Columba Angelican School's graduation dinner for 2013 seniors. Here is what she had to say.
When I was thinking of what I could say to you all here tonight, I tried to remember how I was feeling when I was about to take my HSC. I remember the stress some of you might be feeling that you could fail these exams. I remember the pressure of thinking that the results you achieve will define the rest of your life. I remember the fear of the unknown, wondering what will happen if some faceless, anonymous marker deems your offering unworthy, and you don't make the cut off for your chosen degree. If you take nothing else away from tonight, I want you to remember this: no matter what your final mark is, you have not failed, because when you are young, there is no such thing as failure, only experience.
As someone who has survived these exams and many others, and lived a little bit of the rest of my life, let me tell you that you should take pride in getting the best mark you possibly can, because in a few years time the only person who will care what that mark was is you. If the number isn't high enough to get you straight into the degree you want to do, well, there's always another way in, and it may be that as your perspective shifts over the next few months and years, you realise that you want something different. It is impossible to know who we are when we are just stepping out into the world, because the person we become is shaped by our experiences in it. This is the time for you to go out and challenge all of your assumptions, take risks, get some things wrong, and start again.
Let me share with you some of my experiences, which, at the time, seemed like set backs and even failures.
When I finished school I took a year off from study and moved to Sydney to work, and train with the Australian climbing team - I don't know if you know that I'm a climber - it's a mild affliction of the brain which compels you to repeatedly put large distances between yourself and the ground for no apparent reason. After eight months of training with the team, I competed in the World Cup, and on the day, I choked, and came dead last. I was devastated that I had failed. However, being part of the climbing community inspired me, and a few months later I went climbing in Thailand, and got my first taste of traveling solo.
I graduated from school with good marks, and I felt some pressure to do a degree which reflected them, so that they weren't "wasted". I had toyed with the idea of doing an Arts degree, and then teaching, but decided to go for the more prestigious title of "international relations". I had wanted to go to Sydney University, but I didn't make the cut off, so I went to UNSW instead. I moved in with some of the girls I met there and now I'm the maid of honour at one of their weddings. A few weeks into my degree, I realised that I wasn't cut out to be an international businesswoman/work for the UN/be a multilingual translator, and I decided to change degrees, and do a Bachelor of Arts after all. I chose to study English (because I was good at it), history (because I was curious about it) and Spanish (because someone told me it was easier than French). I tried not to worry that I wasn't 'using' my HSC marks, but every time I heard a jibe about how arts students are just a waste of space I would flinch. So I resolved to finish my degree with a distinction, just to show them.
In my third year of study something terrible happened: my mum got sick and then suddenly she wasn't there anymore. We read a very beautiful quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson at her funeral, about how success in life is measured not by money or power, but by the things you do to make yourself and those around you happy. It is an idea which is easy to quote but hard to live by, when the prevailing belief in our society is that our success depends upon our education, income and possessions.
I had two options after my mum passed away: take a break from uni, or push through it as best I could. Unable to face the idea of having nothing to do, I worked like crazy over the next six months, even taking a summer course, so I could finish my degree with a distinction. When it was over however, I felt very little satisfaction. I had been accepted into Sydney University for a masters in teaching, but I was exhausted and knew I needed a break. However, my place at the university was non-deferrable, and so I had to give it up and take the risk of re-applying in order to take time off. Because of this, I felt under great pressure to make that time count for something.
I decided I would go and teach English in Spain, because it seemed somewhat relevant to my degree, but when I got there, I encountered hurdle after hurdle until it became apparent after three months or so that the teaching wasn't going to happen. I had been having amazing experiences traveling around Spain, seen the most beautiful places, and met some incredible people - I even met my boyfriend while I was there - and yet I was petrified that people would perceive this year as a failure when I told them about it, because really, what was I achieving? After four months, and a pretty impressive meltdown in Barcelona, I finally opened my eyes and stopped worrying that I wasn't doing any of the things I had told people I was going to do. Instead, I went climbing in Greece, diving in Israel, trekking in Nepal, and exploring in south east Asia, until I finally ended up in the south of Thailand in the same place where I had first gone climbing four years earlier.
I found out towards the end of my trip that I had been accepted for a second time into Sydney Uni, but this time, it felt like I was doing something which I was really meant to do. Going away for that year and having pretty much nothing go according to plan was an amazing experience, because if I can take that big a risk, have it all go wrong, and still end up where I am supposed to be, then anything is possible.
The last thing I want to say is this. While university is a fun, amazing experience in itself, I want you to know that there should be other things in your life which define you. Take some time off after high school. Work, travel, volunteer - just have a little time in your life where your sense of success and satisfaction isn't dependent on some tired teacher marking your papers (and I say this as a future tired teacher).
Please please don't buy into the myth that if you take time off from something - work, study, anything - you will lose the motivation to keep going. Time away will give you perspective, and if you are truly excited and happy with what you are doing, then time away will fuel your desire to continue. If you can't motivate yourself to go back to whatever it is you left, then you shouldn't be going back. A change of direction is never a bad thing.
And who knows, maybe you will find, like me, that you end up exactly where you wanted to be, but that you are a different person, because of the experiences you had along the way. Never be afraid to take risks because the beauty of being young is that there are no failures, only experiences.