Headmaster’s Assembly – 5 May 2017

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

You have heard many times, from this stage and from various other sources that it’s ok to fail and to make mistakes. All of us have made mistakes and the lessons we learn from these are often the most valuable ones for us. Perhaps what we don’t hear so often though is that it’s also ok to change your mind and to change your opinion and that is what I want to focus on today.

One of the first decisions you took that will change is your career path. Many of us, when asked as a toddler what we want to be when we grow up will give careers we have read about, watched on television or experienced in our short life with limited exposure. If our career decision at age 5 was cast in stone we would have an excess of teachers, firemen, policemen and women, doctors and nurses and superheroes! You will change your career decision many times in your lives, even during your actual working lives and that is fine.

You will change your opinion of someone too. We make assumptions based on our exposure to people that are often based on our own preconceived notions or our own biases without getting to know the person. If we do make an effort to know the person, many times our opinion changes and we are forced to concede we were wrong. They may not be the good person we thought they were or they are actually the kind of person you would like to be friends with. How many times have we walked into a social situation we were dreading, saying we know no-one, only to leave a few hours later grudgingly admitting that we were wrong and actually had a good time?

You may change your opinion on a matter – be it a matter of choice, politics, sport or indeed anything. This is all absolutely normal and must not be something you fear doing. If people accuse you or being inconsistent, fickle, fake, a flip-flopper – ignore them as long as you have a sound reason for your change in heart. Don’t feel guilty – you have the right to change your mind.

Your parents have the right to change their decisions too. The one that changes most often is when you ask them for permission to go somewhere and you give them just enough information to get you the decision you want, hoping that it stops there! Some parents, however, insist on knowing more and may then tell you that, based on their new information, they are withdrawing the permission they gave you to go somewhere. They may also simply decide that upon reflection on something, they have changed their minds.

So with this freedom to change our minds, what about the pressure we put on ourselves and others to be consistent. We speak of honourable people who are those who commit to something and remain committed. We speak of being a “man of your word” and “your word is your bond”. Are we now permitted to drop our commitment because it’s ok to change our minds? Is it ok for us to say we will go out on a date with someone and then drop them when we find someone we think is better? Is it ok to take up a sport and when we get dropped from a team or don’t play in the position we want just to bale out saying we’re entitled to “change our mind”?

Here I am afraid is where it gets murky and where I cannot give you hard and fast rules for your decisions. I want you to be young men of honour whose word means something yet I want you too to be flexible and adaptable, not sticking rigidly to something out of stubbornness. It is going to be up to you to make these decisions – when to stand firm and when to change. Each of these decisions will have consequences for you and for those around you, so make your decisions as best you can with as much information as possible and considering the impact they may have.

One of the wisest mantras I live by many times is to put time between a situation and a decision if possible. If someone throws a rock at your head, you will not have time to think and your immediate reaction will determine the consequence but if someone asks you to bunk class with them, a certain amount of time spent thinking often makes for better decisions.

The phrase I use is “between action and reaction lies consequence” – a phrase I heard many years ago that has stuck with me ever since. If you can slip as much time as possible between action and reaction, chances are you will have a better consequence. In my work, this is often in the writing of emails. Many times I have written a response to a parent, staff colleague or GDE official in haste but had the sense not to press “send”. An hour or so later, or even the next day, my feelings are often very different and my emotions slightly duller which often allows for a better outcome.

So – make your decisions wisely with as much information as you can get but make your decisions at the speed that is required. If it is urgent like the rock scenario, you better react urgently. If it is not, then take some time. Stand firm on matters of principle, values and morals but don’t be afraid to change your mind if you feel it is right. Don’t let guilt get in the way of change and don’t let tradition and established practice hamper progress. Just because we have always done it doesn’t make it right…

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