Graduation address: Bishop Wardlaw Professor Kathryn Rudy FBA FRSE

Lauren Sykes
Wednesday 29 November 2023

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Morning ceremony

Welcome, proud parents and supporters, bored siblings, and relieved graduates! And congratulations to you!

Today, as we stand on the precipice of the future, I want to talk to you about something unexpected: the incredible, often overlooked, benefits of failure.

You have the rest of your life ahead of you to try new ventures, and I sincerely hope you fail at some of them. Why? Because in every missed step, there is a lesson that success could never teach.

As I have prepared these comments, I have reflected on my missteps, which have been far more educational than any of my achievements. The large failures are too embarrassing to discuss in front of 900 people, but I will tell you about some small- to medium-sized failures that relate to language. Language is what we, in the Humanities, do all day, every day, and there are many ways in which it can go wrong.

Coming from another culture (as you can hear from my accent), I try to be aware of the nuances of language, but often fail. I used to go to the Hay-on-Wye literary festival every year in Wales, and this experience taught me that, in the UK, the national pastime was queuing. Later, when I moved to London to work at The Courtauld, I fully expected that Kew Gardens was a place where people went to line up. For fun.

Although I have published eight books with a ninth on the way, as well as dozens of articles, many of these were initially rejected before eventually being published in a revised form. In every case, the revised versions were better organised and had tighter arguments.

I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers, even though their words were, at the time, devastating. Re-reading hundreds of pages of pre-publication reports tossed up a few gems.

The anonymous reviewer of my very first article 25 years ago commented on my language skills, writing: ‘The author is clearly not a native English speaker and the writing needs thorough editing.’ The report on my first draft of my first book stated: ‘The author has an interesting subject with a lot of potential but cannot decide how to approach it.’ Another critiqued my work as having ‘a focus so narrow it might pass through the eye of a needle’, and suggested a broader perspective might be useful. That stung, but it taught me to paint my thoughts on a grander canvas.

Misadventures in language can happen anywhere, like my two unintended visits to Bangkok – once because I was so absorbed in the book that I was reading at the gate that my flight to Delhi – which happened to be the last flight of the evening – left without me. I had to get a hotel in Bangkok, with the guidance of star ratings on Yelp, and discovered when I arrived the hotel was actually a brothel. The following year I went to Bangkok by accident again, this time because I had the wrong visa for India, and they would not allow me to board the plane. This initiated a chain of events that resulted in my spending a week with some of the most fascinating contemporary artists in Thailand. These experiences taught me to embrace the unexpected.

As we part ways today, I want to leave you with one final thought: your journey will be strewn with unexpected detours and delightful mistakes. Embrace them. The world has enough people who walk the straight path without falter. It is in the stumbles and falls that we find our path. Spend weekends navigating with paper maps, sans screens. Ask for directions the old-fashioned way. Paying attention to landmarks will not only give you more opportunities to make interesting errors, it will make you a better observer – a crucial skill no matter your path in life.

So go forth, fail gloriously, and let each tumble be a stepping-stone to a richer, more insightful life. Congratulations again, graduates. May your failures be as fruitful as your successes.

Thank you.

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