Last Thursday (12th July 2018) I attended Beacon Academy's Honours Evening as guest speaker. Below is the written version of my speech I shared with the teachers, students, and parents.
Congratulations to all students in attendance tonight. As cliché as this may sound, you are all winners. Success I’ve realised lies in our efforts far more than any outcome, which can often be beyond our own control. Just to be nominated for such awards is a testament to your hard work, mind-set and perseverance to be better day in and day out.
It’s been fifteen years since I was last stood in this hall. Back in 2003 I was here sitting my GCSE’s, and since being kindly asked to be guest speaker tonight, I’ve been busy reflecting on my time at Beacon and the fifteen years that have followed.
In all honesty, if there had been an Awards Evening back when I was a student here, I can almost guarantee I wouldn’t have received an invitation. Truth be told, I didn’t try my hardest, my effort was average and my GCSE results reflected this. Parent’s evenings went something like “James is a likeable student, but he is easily distracted and has a tendency to talk too much. He has terrific potential, yet he’s not fulfilling it.”
I don’t have many regrets, but my lack of effort during my time at Beacon is most certainly at the top of the list. Fortunately however, somewhere along the way I must have started realising my potential, otherwise why on earth would I have been invited to speak to you this evening?
My invitation for tonight was in light of my recent charity fundraising event. For Mental Health Awareness Week I completed 4 Iron Triathlons in 4 consecutive days raising over £7,000 for two mental health charities, Mind and Samaritans. Whilst raising awareness of my wellness initiative, Smilinggg and The Smilinggg Mile. To provide a little context, an Iron Triathlon is a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, followed by a 26.2 mile run, a marathon.
The goal had in fact been to complete 7 in 7 days. Yet my legs had pretty much given up on me by the end of day four. So here’s my first lesson for you, failure is not fatal. If you’ve given it your absolute best effort, failure doesn’t even exist. Failure can in fact be one of life’s greatest gifts, it provides an opportunity for you to learn and become better. No failures. Only feedback.
When I reflect back at defining moments throughout my journey, it’s two particular experiences that stand out. The first story involves a broken leg.
On April 22, 2012 I snapped my tibia and fibula playing football. Things had been going great for me up until that point, I had achieved a 2:1 in marketing at University, experienced life in an office and realised it wasn’t quite for me, qualified as a personal trainer and established JC Fitness Experience, a specialist at home personal training business, and even had a meeting scheduled with a Men’s Health Magazine representative. As I lay on my back in excruciating pain, I recall looking up at my dad and telling him I felt "numb".
It's six years on that I can reflect on this moment and realise it in fact turned out to be my lucky break. It opened a new chapter of my life, which lead me to my greatest experience to date; teaching English in Phuket, Thailand.
My second story is about a broken heart. I had met an American girl during my time in Thailand, and we fell in love, arrrrr. We moved to Vietnam in October of 2014 and we started to envisage a life together. Certain events unfolded and the relationship collapsed. For a number of months I fell into a deep and dark depression. It was by far the hardest period in my life. You know times are hard when you’re Googling, ‘How can I be happy’. But what Google shared was three fundamental concepts, Gratitude: being thankful for what you do have, Generosity: in helping others and Growth: knowing through purposeful practice both you and your situation can and will improve. I began walking and jogging around my neighbourhood in Vietnam applying these concepts, and as they say, the rest is history… On Sunday 17th May 2015 The Smilinggg Mile was born.
I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, but it's how we approach adversities and hardships on the micro level, the daily actions that make all of the difference as to whether we bounce back or bounce forward over time.
I recalled listening to Steve Jobs Stanford commencement speech and his words left a huge impact on me. "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."
As former Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “if you're going through hell, keep going.” I'm noticing more and more often that everything tends to figure itself out in the end, even if right now it seems so murky and unclear. The lessons we learn along the way are worth their weight in gold and it's only with these challenging times and experiences that we grow as humans. Adversity breeds opportunity if we're open to it.
Success is often defined as achieving a desired aim or result, yet I continue to learn that success is more about having the courage to try something that’s outside of ones comfort zone, to put your heart and soul into a meaningful pursuit that offers no guarantees of ‘success’, yet showing both resilience and perseverance in doing all that’s in your power to positively influence the outcome. That to me is what defines success. Effort over outcome.
I share my message as a means to express that we are all capable of so much more than we can ever believe possible, and what I love about Beacon’s motto ‘Ambitious for excellence in all we do’ is that we can only ever find out our true potential through hard work, ambition, drive and having belief that we can and will get better.
I hope my words reaffirm what you already know... that you are limitless in your potential, and maybe, just maybe I can help to inspire you to believe in yourself that little bit more, to achieve your goals and to succeed. Ps. you’re not required to swim, bike or run stupid distances to realise this.
Everything you see today was once someone’s idea. It’s often said, an overnight success is ten years in the making. Before it was reality it was simply a thought, a vision, a dream. These people were no different to you and I; they simply were living examples of Beacon Academy’s core values. They had been inspired to make a contribution to this world, they believed in their idea long before anyone else did, they most certainly poured their heart and soul into turning the initial idea into reality, and through a lot of hard work clearly achieved success.
So if you are inspired to think up an idea, or a goal of your own, don’t make the mistake of thinking it isn’t possible. To recite the words of Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius “… If a thing is humanly possible, consider it to be within your reach.”
Famous psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl once wrote, “He who has a why can bear any how.” With any goal, always start with why. Without knowing the driving reason behind your goal, you’ll be hard pressed to stay on track.
Training for The Smileathlon Challenge spanned 145 days and during this time, we had the Beast from the East and the Pest from the West to contend with. There were many days that I didn’t want to train, and it would be during these moments of struggle that I’d be required to call on my reasons why. It was still a struggle at times but I was willing to struggle for something I deeply valued, mental health advocacy, and helping others build healthier happier lives. Find what you deeply value.
Back when I was at school we didn’t have smart phones and we had to wait for our parents to finish their telephone calls before connecting to the Internet, it took an absolute age to get online and the moment your first web page FINALLY loaded you’d hear “Get off the internet, I need the phone!”
Fast-forward fifteen years where everything is now instantaneous and on-demand. Technological advancements are staggering. Artificial intelligence is rife, we turn to Google to answer our questions, and we use our telephones to navigate the world… Yet there’s one thing Google, your smart phone, social media and artificial intelligence cannot tell you… and that’s, who am I? Why am I on this planet? And what’s my purpose? Only you can answer these questions.
I can however provide you with a valuable question to ask yourself, a question that I always return to when I’m feeling a little lost or confused…
What makes your heart sing?
I began asking this question in 2009 after an extended period of feeling deeply unfulfilled in my job after University and have been asking it ever since. It’s one question I wish I had thought to ask many years earlier.
When you can combine what you love with a meaningful goal, I think that’s all the ingredients for a life well lived.
Don’t stress if you’re not sure what makes your heart sing. It’ll likely require many experiences, trying out new things, stepping out of your comfort zone, because before you know it’s your favourite thing it’s something you may have never tried before.
In addition to academic success and grades, school is also about life; it’s about friendship and teamwork. Your time at Beacon Academy is an opportunity every single day to contribute, to cultivate key life skills, to embrace challenges, and to learn about yourself and grow… but only if you see it this way. Unfortunately, 15-year-old James Cooper didn’t recognise nor appreciate the opportunity school could offer. It took me until I was a lot older. Don’t make the same mistake I did. A love of learning is the greatest skill you can ever cultivate.
So here’s my final piece of advice for you. Stay loyal to the ultimate smart device you’ll ever own, and no I don’t mean your iPhone… but instead your heart.
A big thank you to Beacon Academy for allowing me the opportunity to share in the celebrations of Honours Evening. What a memorable event and one that I’ll look back on with fond memories. Congratulations to all students and a special mention to the terrific performers too. It was a truly fitting way to honour the hard work and achievements of the students this past year.