On Dealing with Doubt: QUT Graduation Ceremony Commencement Address

Today I gave the Commencement Address at the graduation ceremony for the Creative Industries Faculty of the Queensland University of Technology, held in the Concert Hall of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Here is what I said:

I really don’t know why I’m here. 

I think you've been fooled into thinking I'd have something interesting to say. 

But no.

I’m a fraud. 

Standing here, I remember my late friend Nick Enright. He was a great Australian theatre artist. As a playwright he gave us a few classics – A Property of the Clan, Blackrock, Good Works and an adaptation of Cloudstreet. As a librettist for musicals he gave us The Boy from Oz and The Venetian Twins. As an acting teacher at NIDA he taught Mel Gibson and Judy Davis and a raft of other big names. He was loved, and a great mentor to many. 

He was also nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for George Miller’s film Lorenzo’s Oil. Nick and I spent a lot of time together during this period. After his nomination – he lost to Neil Jordan for The Crying Game – Nick was inundated with Hollywood film offers. I remember Nick taking calls from Steven Spielberg. His house in Sydney's Newtown was full of scripts commissioned by American studios. He was being paid a lot of money.

At the height of this success, Nick turned to me and said, "One day they’re all going to wake up and realise I’m a fraud." 

We all have moments like this. We hold our secret doubts and put a confident face to the world. When I was appointed Artistic Director of Brisbane Festival, I secretly thought to myself: "Well, I guess I fooled some more people. One day they’ll realise." 

In the darkest of these times, in those moments when doubt gnaws like a sewer rat, I comfort myself by remembering that more talented people than me have these same feelings.

It was Robert Hughes, perhaps the world’s greatest art critic, who said: “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is given to the less talented as a consolation prize." 

You will feel doubt more and more. There’s really no way around that. Away from the comfort of the finite world in which you’ve lived and created over the last few years, the world will conspire to make you think yourself a fraud. You will say to the world, "I am not yet being recognised for my talent", but secretly you will doubt you have talent at all.

I do. 

But remember this. You're not a fraud; you’re simply human. Doubt is normal, and it is important. It keeps us honest. It makes us question. It makes us strive. It is not something to be avoided. It is something to manage. 

How might we deal with doubt? 

First tip? Just do it. 

Doubt can get a footing when we dwell too long on a single project. I see this in playwrights all the time: chipping away, for years, on one play, circling into a dramaturgical hell.

My advice? Forget it – move on to your next play. 

As Sturgeon’s Law has it, 90% of everything is crap. And when you’re deep into something, it’s hard to know if it’s crap. But the chances are good. As Henry Ford, one of history's great entrepreneurs, said: "I know only half of my advertising works. I just don't know which half." He was aware that at least 50% of his marketing was ... well ... crap. 

There’s a telling exchange in Voltaire’s Candide that goes like this:
'How many plays have been written in France?' Candide asked the Abbé. 

'Five or six thousand.''That's a lot,' said Candide. 'How many of them are good?' 

'Fifteen or sixteen,' replied the Abbé. 

'That's a lot,' said Martin.
I know a young artist named Jake Connor Moss. He just turned 21. I’ve never come across anyone like him. Last month, I helped launch his first exhibition at a gallery in Paddington. What was launched? Three walls of paintings, three walls of photographs, a novel, a memoir, a book of poems and three feature films. 

This was a fraction of his output. Jake set himself the task of making a painting a day for something like a year. Through all that - and while studying for a few degrees - he wrote endless poems, took thousands of photographs, wrote a 200-page memoir of his school days and a 200-page novel, made the films and so on and so on.

Do you know what? Amongst the crap Jake churns out, there’s good stuff. One of the photographs I saw on the gallery wall was breathtakingly beautiful. A handful of his poems are cut-glass gems. One of his paintings was so good I wanted to buy it, but I was beaten to it. I don’t know if Jake will ever be a great artist, but I do know that his creative muscles are match fit. I know that he has vastly increased his chances of making something that isn’t crap and might just be gold.

And I know that Jake has no time for doubt. He’s too busy doing.

As Andy Warhol put it, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done.  Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it.  While they're deciding, make even more art.” 

A second tip?  Develop a hinterland. 

The most interesting people in the world have a rich hinterland. What’s a hinterland? It’s that place on the outskirts of your life where the intellectual pursuits outside of your career thrive. The back paddock of ideas and influences that make us fuller. 

I know a surgeon who reads old Italian poetry – it reminds him that his patients are people with deep histories. 

I know an urban planner who reads Stephen Jay Gould – he finds that it opens his mind to new ways of thinking.

When he was Prime Minister Paul Keating used to listen to Mahler or Bartok symphonies when he was reading cabinet papers at the Lodge. He said it made him think bigger.

It’s too easy to get trapped in the small circle of our work, caught in a cycle of tasks and deadlines and conferences. Our work might be interesting and important, but the world is always bigger, and it is ready to give up its gifts. A rich hinterland makes our doctors more empathetic, our teachers more exciting, our politicians more human and our scientists more creative.

And it will make you better at what you do.

So be curious, for curiosity is doubt's principal enemy. Cultivate a hinterland. Plant it lovingly, and don’t let it go to seed.

Without it, your spirit might starve and you will be, well, just a bit boring.

But if you have a rich hinterland, you’ll always have somewhere nurturing to go when doubt wants to imprison you. 

A third tip? Look outward to your audience. 

It’s likely you’ve been looking inward these past few years. Focused on your subject and on impressing your teachers and peers. Now it’s time to look to your audience. To the public. 

Now, I don’t mean that you should just give people what they want, that you should simply be driven by market demand. That’s deadening.

I mean that art is a dialogue, not a monologue. I mean that people will look to your creative gifts for their own nourishment and that there is a kind of human obligation to provide it. How often have you visited a theatre or gallery and been frustrated or (worse) bored because the artists have not been clear and have been only interested, you suspect, in talking to themselves? 

Creating a dialogue means sharing a story. What is your story? How clearly are you telling it? 

I think this is really important, because I think people are now craving story. I sense that the world can now feel so fragmented, so uncertain, so breathtakingly full of a million unconnected things all available with the touch of a screen, that we need stories even more. We need their structure and form to help us make sense of things. 

Think about it. We spend a phenomenal amount of our daily lives with stories – telling them, listening to them, reading them, watching them being acted out on Netflix or on TV, or sharing them on Facebook or Twitter. The news is presented in the form of stories. “Today, a man was caught…” Much of our conversation is taken up recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories. "How was your day?" "Well, let me tell you…" As small children, we have no sooner learned to speak than we begin demanding to be told stories. 

The need for story is part of our DNA. We're hard-wired that way. Neurological studies tell us that the same part of the human brain that recognises the self is also responsible for inventing narrative. 

What is your story? If your story is rich and clearly told to your audience, if there is dialogue and not monologue, then that audience will be your support when doubt wants you lonely.

I envy you. You are going out into the world, as creators, at a time when anything seems possible. The internet is still a baby. Sharing is a new currency. We share every day on social media, and more and more we live in a share economy. This is a world ready for a conversation. A conversation with you. 

I’m reminded that at the beginning of the Vietnam peace talks in Paris in the ‘70s, they spent the first two years arguing over the shape of the table. What shape would permit all parties to sit down so that everyone could feel they were being heard?

In this wondrous new age, with New Horizons past Pluto and the world shifting from west to east and from north to south, your generation will determine the shape of the table. You will create the space that will help bring the wildly disparate elements of our society together. Your story, and how you share it, will help people feel included. Your careers, and the hinterlands that nourish them, will help us all understand more about what it is to live in this world at this time. 

You have in your hands something the world needs. 

So now is the time to deal with doubt, the time to be brave, the time to share your story and to release the power, beauty, grandeur, courage and danger that is present in the creative act. This is the time to go forth and to create a more substantive, more sharing world. A world not of doubt, but of hope; not of terror, but of beauty; not of apathy, but of empathy. 

Your world. Go forth. Make it. 


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