Monthly Archives: February 2017

Stellenbosch Academy Address – 2016.

Good evening everyone.

Thank you for inviting me to speak here today. I have to be honest, I find such events quite stressful.

You’re essentially entrusting me to land the last profound piece of advice to all these young minds as they embark on a life time career in various creative fields.

That’s quite a responsibility to carry.

And ideally, I’d prefer not to cock this up.

So I sat down some time ago to gather my thoughts. I started collating all the pearls of wisdom that I could muster, when I had a rather disturbing thought.

I’ve automatically assumed that I’ve been invited here to inspire and motivate you. And offer you some invaluable, career altering advice.

It occurred to me that might be very presumptuous to say the least.

Do you know how schools sometimes take their kids on day visits to prisons so that they can see with their own eyes what happens when you make bad choices in life?

It occurred to me that maybe that’s why I am here today.

Maybe I’m here not as a symbol of moderate success but a symbol of failure and bad decisions. Maybe I’m here to show you what you shouldn’t strive to be.

I’m hoping that’s not the case.

But the idea is not totally ridiculous.

The line between success and failure in the creative industry is a very fine one – on a razor edge in fact. And if I think back on my life and the decisions I’ve made, it could have gone either way.

And the question of success and failure is one that will sit in your mind for your entire life. You will think about when you’re 30. Again when you’re 40. And by 50, you may even have come to terms with where you are at, and with what you’ve achieved.

It’s very in-vogue for successful people write books in which they tell you that you need to embrace failure. Welcome it even. They’re very quick to tell you that you must take the shots, be prepared to miss and fail, and be OK with that because its an integral characteristic of success.

And that’s all very well coming from people who generally have managed to succeed much more than they’ve failed.

But I guess if you string too many failures back to back, that’s eventually what you become.

No one has ever written a book

“How I failed 9 times out of 10, but look at me now.”


 ‘How I failed so often I got to meet the president’.

I’m personally not convinced that failure is such a romantic notion. It never feels good. And I never want to be comfortable with it.

But I also think that failure is misunderstood.

I mean, who decides on whether you’ve failed? Who decides what failure looks like? Why does it seem that your failure and success is nearly always determined by others?

And why does luck seem to play a big part?

In any creative field, issues of failure and success are murky as hell.

Is Rodrigues a failure? Is Miley Cyrus a success?

I’ve come to believe that failure and success are much like beauty.

“It’s in the eyes of the beholder”.

So I think that makes success a rather dubious thing to pursue.

Good creative people have a sometimes-overwhelming drive to create things of obscene originality. Things that look familiar to us aggravate us because we know that anyone else that looks at it will know that they have seen it before. So we push our boundaries out, further and further. The norms shift constantly for those of us who strive to bring a unique perspective and a unique voice to what we do.

It’s important to understand that this is not normal.

Normal people don’t seek out the uncertain. Normal people don’t keep gravitating to the unreliable, the unpredictable and the uncomfortable. Normal people prefer the security that is found in their comfort zones – and in the comfort zones of others.

When you operate outside of those comfort zones and you dare to challenge those comfort zones, it goes without saying that you’re going to rub up against those who’s lives you’re unsettling.

Picking a life in a creative field is essentially picking a life of interpersonal friction.

You will always have to fight for ideas that have no precedent. You will always have to fight for ideas that don’t come with a guarantee they’ll succeed.

You will always come up against people who don’t see the need to constantly reinvent. They don’t see the point in venturing into unchartered territory. They don’t see what you see might see – that small idea that can be turned into greatness.

And history is full of such examples.

We all know about the guy that passed up signing the Beatles. We all know about the guy that suggested to the Rolling Stones that they drop Mick Jagger.

And we are so busy celebrating the triumph of those bands by overcoming the dumbness of that ‘one guy’ that we forget that not everyone survives that ‘one dumb guy’.

Don’t you think One Dumb Guy sounds like a Thai Soup?

Great ideas, by their very nature, are uncomfortable to recognize by those that didn’t create them.

Van Gogh, as you no doubt know only ever sold one painting in his lifetime.

So technically he was a failure his whole life, only becoming a success after it. Which is pretty damn sad in my opinion.

John Kennedy Toole committed suicide when his book Confederacy of the Dunces was repeatedly turned down. His mother later fought for it to be printed and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

But imagine taking your own life because others called it wrong. Egg on the faces of all concerned – including, sadly, John Kennedy Toole.

Andy Warhol, who was so desperate to be noticed, gave his Marilyn collection to the New York Museum of Modern Art, and they sent it back.

When Queen released Bohemian Rhapsody, reputable music magazine Melody Maker said that Queen ‘Contrived to approximate the demented fury of the Belheim Amateur Operatic Society performing the Pirates of Penzance.”

  Today that song is considered to be one of the greatest songs of all time.

Steven King’s First book, Carrie, was rejected over 30 times. His wife rescued it from the trash and resubmitted it.  The rest is history.

Dr Seuss First Book To think that I saw it on Mulbery Street was rejected 27 times.

When Physician Ignaz Semmelwis proposed that Hand Washing could save lives, he was ridiculed by other scientists during his lifetime.

Great ideas get rejected all the time. And they will continue to get rejected. That’s the world you’re entering. That’s intangible world of creativity.

With all of these people the question has to be asked:  Are you a failure until you’re become a success. Or are you just a ‘pending success’ all along?

It’s a lovely thought actually.

‘We’re all just undiscovered successes’

 Or to put it another way….

“We’d all be successes if we could get past that One Dumb Guy.”

 Or series of dumb guys as the case may be,

When George Lucas and Steven Spielberg pitched the idea of Raiders of the lost Arc to movie executives, they were rejected all over town. No one could see the merit, as one person put it, of a film about an archeologist looking for relics in WWII.

That’s the thing about ideas. Some people see what they can become. While others find it easier to reduce it to something so simplistic that they can easily and rationally discard is.

So I guess the big question is, if those judging your work are essentially always going to be flawed in their assessment of it, and of you, is success worth pursuing.

Is it worth attaching your entire sense of self-worth to the judgment of others.

If people consider you a failure until proven successful, what does that say about humanity? And if people’s judgment is really that flawed, should you be assigning so much importance to it in the first place?

I’d suggest not.

I have many very close friends, in music, art, photography and performing arts. And I’ve come to learn a very important lesson from them all.

All of them have sought success in their lives, and many have attained it to varying degrees. But when you change yourself, when you change what you do in pursuit of success, it hardly ever works.

I’ve seen musicians be proud of albums that sold very little and be embarrassed by albums that did well. When you achieve success with a voice or a point of view that’s not your own, it never sits comfortably. I’ve seen artists crave commercial success but then feel slightly awkward when it arrives. People want to be famous, but only if it’s the good kind of fame – the fame that comes with a deeper respect.

Imagine creating the artistic equivalent of Achy Breaky Heart or Gangham Style, achieving massive global success and reaching No 1, and then having to sing that song for the rest of your entire life.

I guess what I’m saying is this:

Don’t crave success. Don’t hunt it. Don’t got bogged down on issues of success and failure and definitely don’t set yourself deadlines to achieve it. Don’t spend your life rating yourself according to the opinions of others.  Just be who you are and create what you create. And be prolific at it.

Try new things constantly. And be prepared for whatever consequences that may bring. If there is one thing I want you to take from me today, it is this:

You must determine what kind of work you spend your life creating. Don’t let others impose their agendas. Don’t second-guess what you think the world wants to see and hear.

It’s all inside your head – just let it pour out.

Know that not everyone will see it. Know that not everyone will get it. Know that everyone will have an opinion and they’re probably wrong. And be ok with that.

Because when you’re sitting there one day in your rocking chair, being proud of what you’ve spent your life doing is significantly more important than which side of the success and failure line you may have landed. I genuinely believe that.

You’re entering one of the greatest, most valuable industries on earth. You’re going to have obscene levels of fun, while simultaneously changing the world.

The best you can do in life is to strive to create bold, beautiful, original ideas. And one day, hopefully far from now, die peacefully having being proud of your attempts.

I hope that doesn’t sound like a bleak premise for a speech aimed at such young people, but I genuinely worry that you will stop being the creative person you are when One Dumb Guy puts a spanner in your works.

You’re bigger than that, and greater than that.

I realize of course that all of you leave this Academy with a mark that has been assigned to you, and I guess that mark might be considered a symbol of your success and failure over the past few years, but put that all behind you. Your creative life starts anew. Clear your mind. Wipe the slate clean. These are new beginnings and it is that which you should embrace. Go and express yourself any way your imagination sees fit. And take a lot of creative risks. That’s where all the good stuff can be found. There’s more risk these days in not taking risks.

The greatest tragedy is if you choose to live your creative life in that cold, soul-destroying, mediocrity-infested place called the collective Comfort Zone.

I wish you nothing but the best.

Good luck and congratulations for getting this far.