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20 September 2016


AN ETHICAL LIFE - Advice for School Leavers

This is the week when all around Australia many boys and girls in their final year at High School are saying goodbye to their time at school, usually in a festive ceremony or at a Valedictory Dinner, before they embark on their final school examinations.  I was thinking about this lovely tradition, as tomorrow a group of girls who are particularly close to my heart are saying farewell to their golden school days.  If I were to give them some parting advice for their journey into adulthood, these are the key things that come into my mind:

  • If you think of your career as a ladder, please make sure to stop every now and then, as you climb up the rungs.  Ask yourselves whether the ladder is still leaning towards the right wall.  I first came across this metaphor during a speech day talk at one of my previous schools, and the image has never left me.  It is a powerful metaphor that reminds us to stop and think every now and then, to reflect about our life and to ask ourselves whether we have embarked on the right path.  I have always had the greatest respect for students who changed course or for colleagues who changed careers, for people who assessed their priorities and who were prepared to take a career dip or a pay cut if they felt they had to change direction.  Career progression for its own sake becomes meaningless, if the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

  • Sometimes you may be given the advice that you should not care about what other people think of you.  In my view, this is only partly true.  You should never be people-pleasers who betray their own beliefs in order to further their careers or to avoid trouble.  You should stand up for your values and be courageous enough to disobey unethical instructions.  You should take a stand and defend yourselves and your friends against injustice.  You should walk your own path in life and, given the opportunity, be leaders rather than followers.  You should live your lives in ways that make you proud to look into the mirror and feel that you are true to yourselves, that you know what you stand for and what you believe in.  You should be authentic human beings, guided by your inner strength and your moral compass.  Sometimes this comes at a price, but it is worth it.

  • At the same time though, you should not be oblivious to those around you.  As you climb the ladder and stop and think, you should not only be mindful of your own needs, but also those of others.  As you live your lives, every now and then you ought to stop and ask yourselves how you wish to be remembered.  Do you want to be remembered for the money you accrued, the power you held over others, the positions you earned?  Or do you want to be remembered for the kindness you showed to others and the compassion that guided you even in difficult situations?  If you reach a position of leadership: do you want to go with the credo of the ancient emperors – “may they hate me, as long as they fear me” (oderint dum metuant) – or do you want to rule with gentle authority and with consideration for the needs of those entrusted to your guidance?


During my months as a university student in Vienna, I spent a lot of time exploring the fascinating Viennese cemeteries and reading the epitaphs on the gravestones.  One I remember particularly well for its unfortunate wording:  “Here lies the three-storeyed house owner’s widow Amalie Maier”.  (I am making the name up but not the rest!).  The conundrum whether it was the house that was three-storeyed or the deceased lady made me giggle at the time, but the epitaph begged the bigger question whether those who commissioned this gravestone got their priorities right! How much nicer to be remembered for our contribution to society, our creativity, our loyalty, our compassion, our broad perspective and open-mindedness.  The odd failure, the odd dip in our careers, the odd disappointment pale into insignificance by comparison.  Thinking about the possible wording of your own epitaph and the qualities you wish to be remembered for may not be a bad guide to determine the trajectory of your life and career!


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