In my day, there was no Tinder. The only phone we had access to was a family landline, which, in my case, was mostly monopolised by my sisters. Yours is the first generation to have spent your entire time in high school with the current suite of social media options being part of your daily lives. Even when our son Max started school, which, as his dad, doesn’t really feel that long ago, Snapchat and Instagram hadn’t been created.
These mediums have changed communication. There are two important points I’d like to make. Firstly, social media has changed a lot about how we communicate, but it hasn’t changed what it means to be a human. In particular, it hasn’t changed what it takes to be a good human.
Values are important, yet somehow seem an old fashioned topic. Values like honesty, integrity, hard work and generosity. None of those have changed since people could communicate only by hand written letters.
And values matter. They get you a long way. My values took me from a state house in Christchurch to the prime minister’s office because they underpinned my approach to my working life and how I treated other people, whether it’s my first job cleaning stables or laser currency trading, or indeed politics. Your values and how you live will matter to you too, whatever career you hope to pursue, even if you have no idea of what it is yet. In the world of work, it’s personal qualities that get you far. Being considerate is always in fashion. Snapchat might disappear as a valuable commodity – honesty will not.
The second point that I’d like to urge you to make is to differentiate between what matters on social media and what matters in real life. The number of likes or followers you have on social media measures your success at social media, nothing else. It doesn’t measure your contribution to a group, your thoughtfulness or your stickability when things are tough. It’s one measure, but not the most important measure, of a person. It’s an adjunct to a full life. It’s not a substitute for a full life. In this era of constant change, the relentless clamour for attention and the desire for instant gratification in the noise, it matters more than ever before that you know what’s important. Knowing what’s important helps you ride out job rejections or relationships breaking up.
In the end, how you cope with those things defines who you are and is more important than the fact that they ever happened – and difficult things will always happen. There is no perfect life. No one has one. Not even the people who have millions of followers because that’s not a metric for happiness or personal fulfilment. You are about to step out into the world with friendships from school that may endure your whole lives. That’s a different definition of a friend than your followers on Facebook. You should treat both well, because you should treat everyone well. But when it comes down to it, you need to know what relationships are meaningful and enduring and which could disappear with a sense of no loss (except a numerical one). Humans are collective animals. We all want to be liked and we all want to fit in, but social media has allowed us to hand enormous power to strangers who judge us.
You Year 13s will have already developed a sense of self and now as you go out into the world and without the support of school structures, it’s going to test you. Stay true to who you are. You’re often making choices without realizing it. Choose what feels right to you on the inside. Be good people. Be good friends to your friends. Be helpful to those who need help. Be confident on behalf of those who lack confidence. Be ambitious. Not in the dog-eat-dog way, but find out what you can achieve by trying, and if you don’t succeed, by trying again. I don’t actually know of any other way of being successful without at some point being brave enough to try and, as I said earlier, being committed enough to work hard. Be the people that Auckland Grammar is proud to call its own. Be the people that New Zealanders are proud to call one of us, and be the person that you’re proud to having become without compromising your own value. As Prime Minister, I was so often in awe of the young people I saw around our country.
Some people talk about the good old days, but if you want my view, the best days are both in front of you and our country. Make the most of them. Enjoy your lives. Don’t forget to laugh and don’t be afraid to cry. But most importantly, enjoy everything you do. Hard work will open doors and earn your respect.