The best fruit is at the top of the chakata tree...

The world gets better because of and not in spite of those with a questioning mind.

....and it is for those who dare to climb that tree! 

A Commencement Speech Delivered at the King's School, Ely, Cambridgeshire

Thank you very much Madam Principal for the kind introduction. I had the pleasure of meeting the Board of Governors this afternoon and can confirm your assertion that this school is in good hands.  

Madam Principal I must tell you from the onset that I am as nervous to be speaking from this podium as my son is seeing me here. Don't ask me about the reactions of my wife and my girls! A lot is riding on this performance.

That the Principal asked me to speak today can only mean that everyone else she has asked has declined or fled the country 

Enough about your mistakes Madam, I'm here and you can't take it back. For the next (looking at watch) two hours I'll embarrass my son.

Today I want to leave a message with two groups of students  ...

  1. those whose academic achievement did not meet their expectations this term, and...
  2. those whose academic achievement has been stellar.

I grew up in a small mining village called Eiffel Flats, in Zimbabwe. Going to school in that village was a challenge. We had everything stacked against us. Few books, no internet, overcrowded classes and very little hope of ever making it out of the village.

Insofar as opportunities after school go, it does not get any worse than that small town. Our world view was limited. We largely travelled on foot, walking for miles to the nearest town to see the latest model of cars, which wasn’t great.

For most of my classmates, the only opportunity to escape that village was to do well at school. I am one of the lucky ones that made it out.

Well, last summer I decided to go back to Eiffel Flats. While I was there, I visited a local restaurant, one that my family used to visit in the old days.

I found a nice spot and decided to let history roll back as I enjoyed a bottle of Zambezi (Zimbabwe’s finest lager).

Halfway through my lager, I felt a soft tap on my shoulder. "Max?" A husky voice said.

I looked back at the old man who was trying to get my attention. Torn shirt, missing one tooth, and looking really old and spent... I was struggling to recognise him but he obviously knew who I was.

"Max, its Webster!" He said.

Webster? My childhood friend? I was so embarrassed I had not recognised him. But I quickly recovered:

"Webster!" And the conversation went on. I was to learn that Webster was now a local taxi driver, made a few dollars a day and had five children.

I could not believe what had become of Webster's life. Webster was one of the brightest kids in my class.

He told me that one term he got really poor grades from school and he decided to withdraw from college to join his father at the Mine.

He thought he was out of the game...

He was wrong. Clearly. 

And that's the first lesson I wish to share with you:

To those whose academic records have not been so stellar this term, you are still in the game!

Stay hungry - seek wisdom

School is still the best chance we have at preparing ourselves for an uncertain future. We all build models of reality and the future. The one with the best model of reality and the future, often wins the survival game. Schools help equip ourselves to deal with uncertain future.

You are still in the game!

Yes, some famous people have dropped out of school and done exceptionally well in  life, but there are very few of them. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are the most cited, but I should also say even those two dropped out of Harvard University, not 9th grade! And Bill Gates will tell you himself that he is the exception to the rule, not the norm.

Do not choose what might seemingly be the easy route.

In the great Shona tradition of my people, we say "The chakata fruit on the ground belongs to all, but the one on the tree is for she who can climb."

Webster decided to pick the fruits on the ground, decided on the easy choice. Webster was not able to deal with failure and rejection. Perhaps he failed to make use of the resources available to him: family, friends, faith groups, teachers…

He failed to pick himself up and have another go.

The challenge that Webster faced is even greater for today's children.

Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors of our time, once said: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

So do not give up. Dust yourself up and try again. And again. And again!!!

You are still in the game!

To those who earned stellar results this term, it's not over.

It is hard to climb to the top of the chakata tree. It's even harder to stay there nowadays. You have snapchat, iPhones, and Justin Bieber competing for your time.

We only had football on black and white TV, and outdated cars.

As the Principal mentioned, I work for UN Environment, where I lead the institution's biodiversity and ecosystem services program. I was no better a student than Webster. I guess I just refused to accept the fate that Eiffel Flats offered us. Today, I am in charge of directing the world's biodiversity and ecosystem services work.

I work with a great team of people from countries all over the world, to save wildlife. If we succeed in what we are trying to do, we will for example save the elephant for the future.

Not just that, we are working to change how well we measure how our economies are performing and hope to offer something we are calling Inclusive Wealth Index, to replace the current measure called Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. If successful we will have contributed to the creation of a fairer and more just world for everyone.

If however we fail, the results would be dreadful. The future of the elephant is in peril. Elephant populations have fallen from 1.3 million to under 500,000. By some estimates there may not be any elephants for you to see by the time you get to my age.

Similarly did you know that one out of every three bites of food we eat is a result of pollinators like honey bees, yet the value of pollination is assumed to be zero in our economies today? Did you know that when we bring down a forest, it registers as economic growth? We do not account for the natural services and resources that we all use to sustain our lifestyle. Why? Gross Domestic Product has been implicated as the culprit. If we fail to reform it, the future could be dreadful.

So staying on top of your game, where that fruit is, is not easy but the rewards are great.

As a young boy from Eiffel Flats, I never imagined that I would end up with so much responsibility.

For me, even as I stand here today, the game is not over…

Finally, as one great teacher wrote to his students, the achievements this term do not assess all of what makes you special

They do not tell us everything about you.

They do not tell us how kind you are, how trustworthy you are, how thoughtful you are and that everyday you try to do your personal best...

If there is one thing I have learnt in my career and life, its got to be that kindness is at the core of what makes us human

Kindness is now an invaluable attribute for any hiring manager.

To most hiring managers, superior academic qualifications are no longer the distinguishing attribute.

What distinguishes you from other hopefuls is how well you fit in a team, how kind you are, how trustworthy you are, how thoughtful you are

A famous man summarised it well for me - ‘be kind whenever possible, it is always possible.’

The good news is that we are all born with equal capacity to be kind, to be honest, to be human...

Let me end by emphasising four key messages for all of you:-

First - Never give up. Be an expert at being you. And do it well

Second - Make and Value Friendships. The process of building your personal and professional networks begins now. Be a friend. What determines happiness are not the material assets we have -no disrespect to the Ferraris and i-Anythings you may own in a lifetime - it's how we relate to other human beings - whether they are family, friends, strangers.

Third - Reach out and discover other cultures. You are the generation whose careers and lives will reach their peak when the world will be truly global. Some of you will choose to pursue their careers in the United Kingdom. I hope most of you will go out and share what makes you, this school, and the British culture truly special. Therefore, take a genuine interest in learning other cultures and languages; I would hope some of you learn the language of my people, but whatever meets your fancy, go for it!

Fourth - Develop and embrace the art of questioning. The world gets better because of and not in spite of those with a questioning mind. Always seek to leave the world a dash better than you found it – whatever your calling. My son, who I suspect by now is hiding somewhere, asks more of me than I asked of my father. I hope that makes him a better person.

Conclusion: That night when I got back home, I was very troubled by the person Webster had become.  And it became clear to me that he had taken different choices in life and accepted them... it became clear that Webster had accepted what his environment had to offer than what other kids were going after.

The choices you make today decide who you are tomorrow. But you are still young and it doesn’t matter if you don’t have your whole life figured out yet. What does matter is that you keep striving to be your best and don’t give up, don’t be like Webster. The best fruit is at the top of the chakata tree...and it is for those who dare to climb that tree!  Keep climbing and never give up. 

Thank you very much for your time… and good luck with your studies

Maxwell Gomera