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Carpe Decade - why your twenties matter

06 June 2016

This is the text of the graduation speech our Principal, Richard Dyer, gave on Saturday 28th May for the British International School, Budapest Class of 2016.

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Carpe Decade - why your twenties matter


Your excellency, Mrs Lindsay, graduating students, parents, colleagues, guests.

It is a delight and a privilege to speak in honour of the impressive young people sat with us here on this glorious May afternoon in Budapest. It’s a special day for our graduates, and we’re all very proud of them. It’s a special day also for parents. Your children are grown up and ready to go off to make their own way in the world. I am sure it doesn’t seem so long ago that they were babies. The graduates won’t remember being babies of course, but parents will always remember. So, graduates, for your part, remember that you’ll always be your parents’ babies, even when you are 25, 45, and beyond.

For some parents, this is the first time you have experienced this. Others have been here before, with older children.

But for all of you, our graduates, this is a first. This is your first graduation, the first step in the next big phase of your lives. You’ve come a long way, you’ve learned so much, you have good friends and you’ve laid down memories that will stay with you for life. You are well prepared and you have everything going for you. If we’ve done our job well, parents, teachers, you are ready.

Despite that, despite everyone’s confidence that you are the best you can be, it’s usual for people like me to offer a few final words of advice. It’s almost as if we have to have the final say, at the last minute, just in case we’ve missed something. Wear sunscreen, floss your teeth, phone home, get to bed early, eat well, exercise. Don’t talk to strangers. It’s almost as if we are saying,“We have great confidence in you, but here’s some advice nevertheless.”

Often the advice runs along the lines of:  when I was a teenager, I made the following mistakes, so make sure you don’t do the same. Or more likely, when I was a teenager, I made these mistakes, and I’m still OK, I’m successful, in life, love, career. That’s a little overused in graduation speeches.  

And it’s also largely irrelevant – you’re not me, and you live in a different world to the one I inhabited as a teenager. And most of you will only be a teenager for around 18 months more. So I’m going to look beyond, and talk about the years after. I’m going to offer you a few thoughts on your twenties.

The reason is this. Your twenties are the defining years in your life, possibly more than any other time. What you do in your twenties counts like never before and never after. And that idea runs against much that we’ve come to believe and expect. What we believe is that in your twenties you have the luxury of time.

What we all know is that your generation will live longer than ever before. You will also have the opportunity to change careers more often and, if you wish, work later in life, into your 70s, 80s, maybe beyond. We know that people these days are getting married later than ever and having children, starting families later.

For this reason, we are led to believe that you should take your time. We are tempted to regard the age you are approaching as an age of experimentation and exploration.

You have the luxury of time. Serious plans can come later.

For the first time, you’ll have some real independence; that much is true. You’ll make your own money, live in your own place, in a city or country of your choice. So relax. Take your time. Have some fun. Make some plans. Make some mistakes. You have another ten years or so to get started on your life.

To approach your twenties in this way would be a monumental mistake. This decade, the one you are all approaching, is the defining decade of adulthood. To trivialise these years in this way robs you of any sense of urgency. Lack of urgency may lead to your life being determined by chance, by circumstances, by other people. By accident.

The illusion that you have plenty of time removes the urgency needed to take action, to take control and to achieve. Having just crammed in four years of IGCSEs and the IB Diploma, you know how urgency and a lack of time, competing demands, tight deadlines and a non-negotiable exam schedule add a certain edge to what you do and what you can achieve. Exceptional achievement often comes from having a plan and not quite enough time to achieve it comfortably.

Let me explain why you need to approach your twenties with a sense of determination. Clinical psychologists have called your twenties, a developmental sweet spot that comes only once. A sweet spot refers to that spot on a tennis racquet, or a golf club where, if you hit the ball just right, it will fly, straight and true. If you hit slightly off centre, who knows what will happen. The ball goes on holiday somewhere unintended.

I’ll give you three reasons why your twenties are a developmental sweet spot in your life, why you need to get it right, and why your life will run & straight and true if you do. Here is the first:

80% of life’s defining moments will happen by your early thirties. 80% of the decisions and experiences that will make your life what it is will have already happened by that time. And many of those defining moments come about through the relationships you have with other people.

So please don’t have second rate relationships. It’s too easy to have second rate relationships. To have a friend, maybe a boyfriend or a girlfriend, who will do for now. Someone OK to hang out with. But it isn’t serious. It’s easy to say that you’ll find a real friend or a real partner later.

What happens?  People reach 29, 30, 31 and then decide to grab the first convenient person to settle down with. Sometimes that’s like a game of musical chairs and you grab the one nearest to you, in case you’re the last one standing.

Sometimes the choice is made more carefully, but comes after a decade of learning how to have shallow, trivial relationships, after a decade of practising being superficial and insincere. What sort of choice do you think you’d make if you were to do that?

Don’t be like that. I’m not advising you to get married next week, or settle down early on in your lives. This is about close friends of all sorts. What I’m advising is that you make mindful, conscious, deliberate choices about who to be with and who not to be with. I’m advising that you treat your partners well, even if the relationship ends. They are your teachers and you theirs. They will teach you. Through them you will learn to love, you will learn loyalty, affection, tenderness, intimacy, friendship. You will learn to communicate and have fun. You will learn who you are.

If you learn well, your future relationships will be all the more fulfilling, and you’ll define your life in such a way as to build the foundation for all your other hopes and dreams.

Here’s the second reason why your twenties are a developmental sweet spot, an opportunity not to be wasted. This is about your career. The first ten years of your career have a huge impact on how much money you will earn in your life. What you do in your twenties impacts in a way like no other decade.  That doesn’t mean you need to concentrate on earning lots of money right away. It doesn’t mean that at all. It means that you should spend your time wisely. If you spend your time unwisely, you can’t take it back and get a refund later.

So, if you find yourself in something that will do for now, something that isn’t part of your real plan, don’t simply regard it as an exploration or an experience. An experience without a purpose isn’t exploration, it’s procrastination.

Keep alert. Look for the next big opportunity. Look beyond your current group of friends, beyond your current employer, beyond your colleagues. Over half of new job opportunities come from weak ties and aren’t advertised. So, actively network, in a conscious and selective way.

Build a LinkedIn profile and manage your connections in a deliberate manner. Facebook can be random – career networks can’t. Make the opportunities happen. Don’t sit and wait – it’s your life, and it’s being defined in your twenties. Get in the driving seat.

The third and final reason is more scientific but it underpins the other two. During your twenties, your brains rapidly re-wire themselves for adulthood. This is the last great growth spurt in the brain and it sets you on track for life. Whatever you want to change about yourselves, however you wish to define yourselves, this is the time to do it.

Your personality, your life, your future is shaped and defined by the defining moments of your twenties, so make sure they are worthwhile moments. Make deliberate choices, make good choices. Do things that develop and add to who you are. Build “identity capital”. Spend your time in the way you would spend your last Euro, your last Forint. Wisely, with care. No refunds, remember?

You have exciting times ahead. I’ve described three areas: relationships; careers; and the development of personality and identity. Three contexts but one message: this is your time, it’s your decade and it’s about to start. Make it happen for you, don’t just let it happen to you. Patience is a virtue. That may be true, but procrastination isn’t. All good things don’t come to those who wait.

Graduates, I’ll sum up in four words, in badly pronounced Latin:

Carpe decade, carpe vitae. Seize the decade – seize your life.

Graduates of The British International School, Budapest, Year 13 of 2016, you go with the best wishes of all of us here for a future of happiness, fulfilment and success.