SPEECH TO ARTS AND SCIENCE GRADUATES AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CANTERBURY- 13 April 2017
For the last 30 years, I’ve had the nagging feeling that I don’t actually know what I’m doing. By which I mean that I am basically a fraud. This applies not only to my work but also to every other part of my life.
Apparently, this is not uncommon in professional types and there is even a name for it- the imposter syndrome.
In my case, things came to a head when I tried to find something profound to say to you. I realised that the reason I had a nagging feeling that I don’t ever really know what I’m doing is because it’s true.
This necessarily limits what I have to say to a group of university graduates about to embark on their journey in life.
Therefore, I will tell you a story about some recent experiences I had with some slugs.
Over the years, I’ve tried many strategies to cope with the anxiety of trying to live my life while not really knowing what I’m doing. Recently I decided to grow vegetables in my backyard. I thought this would bring me some solace.
I spent weeks digging soil and planting seeds. Every day I came home from work and watered them. Soon, lettuces and celery and beetroot began to grow.
But one day holes appeared in the lettuces, first tiny ones, then bigger and bigger, so big that in some cases there was more hole than leaf.
Being a novice gardener, I didn’t know the cause of this phenomenon. I was advised that it was undeniably the work of slugs.
I tried to find these ‘slugs.’ But even though they were eating so much that they must have been as big as soccer balls, they were very good at hiding.
And they were shrewd. They only came out at night.
Gardening was supposed to be my way of relieving stress. But every night when I went to bed I knew that the slugs would be just starting their daily work. I tossed and turned and in the morning I found more of my hard work chomped away. I became more stressed than ever.
Where had they come from? And why were they targeting me? What had I ever done to them?
The slug became my sworn enemy. Every waking moment was dominated by thoughts of how I could defeat them.
I studied slug eradication. I found that, if I put a small container in the vegetable patch and filled it with beer the slugs would drink it and fall into the beer in a drunken stupor.
Using this strategy, I defeated some slugs but the beer-slug-broth which resulted meant that the work was grisly. And it only really worked with Guinness, which is very expensive.
One day, I managed to find a few leaves which were only 75% chomped. I picked them and brought them inside to make the first salad for my family- a special night for me.
But as I prepared the salad I found a slug, an especially blobulous one.
Something in me snapped. They had ruined my vegetables and spoiled my dreams. Now there was one in my home.
‘Why are you ruining my life?’ I asked the slug.
Then the slug said, ‘You’re such a moron!’
For some reason the slug said this in an Australian accent.
‘We don’t give a stuff about you. We just wanna eat. I got kids too, y’know.’
‘I could put a pinch of salt on you and you’d shrivel up and die!’
The slug laughed. HAHAHAHA.
‘We got an army out there, mate. If you knock me off you’ll never see the colour green in your garden again.’
‘A slug army?’
The slug nodded.
Clearly the slug had all the bargaining power. So, I carried him back to the vegetable patch and set him down.
But then I saw something strange. A family of slugs squelched over to their lost father, weeping mucous tears. A little slug stretched out a quivering feeler to her daddy.
I looked at this family, squirming together, covered in affectionate slime, and thought, ‘You’re not so different to me.’
So, I tried to learn more about slugs. And I discovered that they do many good things. Slugs help turn plant material into compost and are a food source for animals such as birds, frogs and chipmunks.
I also discovered that if you plant fennel next to your vegetables slugs will stay away because they don’t like. But they do like red clover and if you plant that they will eat it instead of your lettuce.
And that is what I did.
My family eats lettuce. The slugs eat red clover, create compost and feed chipmunks.
And we live in harmony.
So, as you embark upon your journey into the world, what lessons can you draw from my slug story?
First, alcohol can kill. You should only drink in moderation.
Second, many times when you try to achieve something in life, an army of slugs will try to take it all away. Often you won’t even see them doing it.
There’s no use thinking it’s unfair. It’s just the way life is.
Does it mean you should stop growing lettuce? Of course not. If growing lettuce brings you joy, if that is your dream, then that is what you should do.
And there’s no use hating the slugs. They’re only trying to get by, just like you are.
The best thing you can do is to learn about the slugs. Use the intellect powers you have honed here at University to study the problem and work out a solution. The slugs might want your lettuce but maybe they’ll settle for red clover if it’s available, especially if there’s fennel around the lettuce. You need the slugs to work on your compost so that’s a good compromise. That’s a win-win. That’s how you achieve your dreams.
But you may find that the definition of success is different to what you expected. Today, you might think success is growing a lettuce. But perhaps you will find that real success in life is meeting a slug.
Your sworn enemy could be your best friend if you take the time to see the world from their point of view.
After all, we’re all on the same journey, never really sure of what we’re doing but trying our best anyway. You, me and the slugs.