Hello. I am the Chairman of Gordonstoun School. We aren’t as old as you are. You were founded the year my Great Granny was born. We were founded in the 30s by an extraordinary man called Kurt Hahn. He fled Nazi Germany and introduced to Scotland a schooling system designed to emphasise the formation of character. Our oldest former pupil is Prince Philip, who sent his boys to Gordonstoun too, and Princess Anne also sent her children to us. Three generations of Royals, because of our emphasis on character. But why is character so important? Isn’t it confidence that you are supposed to get from coming to schools like ours?
Let me tell you a secret. I teach senior business people, with scary jobs. And you know the thing they have in common? Most of them suffer from katagelophobia. That’s the fear of ridicule, of being ‘found out.’ Imposter syndrome, if you like. It’s as if they’re worried that their Mum is going to show up at the next Board meeting and tell them off for not tidying their bedroom. So it seems to me confidence is not all that common. In fact it is character that is the better goal, because it is character that gets you through when your confidence runs out. So I want to talk to you about character, by way of these props. My handbag, this medal, and these sunglasses.
First, my handbag. Heart-shaped, for love. The most important of the virtues. Maybe you suppose it’s hard to practise love when you are away from your family at boarding school. But the sort of thing I mean is about listening to each other well, looking each other in the eye, and asking good questions. It’s about forgiving a friend for a hurtful remark, or a casual betrayal, by trying hard to understand why. By the way, lots of these same grown-ups I teach are still bearing the scars of being bullied at school, and it still affects their confidence and their ability to form healthy relationships with other people. So please be careful with each other. Just small things like smiling can make such a difference. And if you need a selfish reason to be more loving? Acts of loving kindness stimulate the para-sympathetic nervous system, which tells your body you are at peace, making you feel less stressed.
Now, here is a medal. Not one for valour, in this case – I got it for triumphing in the American National Latin Exam (!) But it is to help me talk to you about courage. It takes a lot of courage for you two to come up here and make a speech. And every time you put up your hand in class to ask a question, every time you face down a bully, every time you try something new, this muscle gets a little stronger. And if you have courage you don’t really need confidence, because it will carry you through. Just pushing yourself a little more every day will keep this muscle supple. Take a deep breath, and go for it.
My third item is this pair of sunglasses. They are rose-coloured spectacles because I want to talk to you about hope. All the adults here are looking at you, because you represent our greatest hope for the future. Hope is one of the reasons we get out of bed every morning, and keep going when things seem gloomy. And optimism is good for your health, too. There is a famous study they did on some nuns. This convent had a tradition that those entering it would write a letter about how they felt. The research compared the tone of these letters with medical records and dates of death, and found that the optimistic nuns suffered fewer illnesses and ailments, and lived longer than their pessimistic sisters. So looking on the bright side is really good for you, and cheers up those around you. Please keep hoping and dreaming, and don’t ever give up imagining a better tomorrow.
So love, courage, hope. I am wearing them all now. Do any of you love singing hymns? You might know St Patrick’s Breastplate, which is all about putting on the armour of God. And some days it may feel that you need to clothe yourself with righteousness before you feel able to start your day.
And don’t worry if this is hard won. You will be learning at your best if being virtuous feels hard. At the business school where I teach, we did an experiment on people rather like your parents – captains of industry, and business leaders from across the sectors. We put them through a leadership simulation and wired them up to heart monitors so we could see what happened to them. They had to wear them all night, too. I could tell you interesting things about the effects of red wine on sleep, but the main thing we discovered was that increased heart-rate correlated with increased learning, and this learning stayed true long after the event itself. So if your heart is going like the clappers when you step up to give a speech, or do a solo, or take a penalty, rejoice! You are learning brilliantly, and these hard-won uncomfortable lessons will become the bedrock of your character in the future.
Esse quam videre. Your motto is about being, not just seeming to be. Character enables you to deliver on this. Kurt Hahn gave us a motto, plus est en vous: there is more in you than you think. This is a great rallying call for your teachers, whose job – education, from the Latin educare – is to draw this out of you. You are just starting on a long journey of character formation. There is already more in you than you think, and over the coming years you will discover more and more of yourself, and you will build yourself a character that will keep you safe wherever life leads you.
To those who are staying, good luck next year. To the leavers, all the best at your new school. Thank you to the staff for making this such a special place, and to all you parents for entrusting them with your children. They clearly love them almost as much as you do.