Mark Isaacs at Sydney Town Hall. Photo courtesy of Simon Cadman.

In December 2014, I was invited to address students at the end of year presentation night of my former high school, Normanhurst Boys. I was told to “impart wisdom upon them”. This is what I came up with. 

I’ve been asked to speak to you today, I imagine because I’m viewed as a success story, whatever that means. I say that tongue-in-cheek because three years ago I was an unemployed university graduate who couldn’t land a job. Believe me, no-one was asking me to speak at schools then. It’s amazing what can happen in a year or two. Conversely, I may very well fade into insignificance in the coming months, if I haven’t already.

I published a book this year called The Undesirables. The book was about my work with asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat. These asylum seekers flee their home countries due to persecution, risk a perilous boat journey to arrive in Australia and then ask for protection. Australia sends these asylum seekers to an island called Nauru in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Australia keeps these men, women, children, and babies in prisons on this tiny island and leave them there indefinitely. The conditions are poor, the level of care is atrocious. I worked in this hell hole for 10 months before speaking out publicly against the policy.

I saw that I had the ability to personally change the world I knew for the better. It was one of the first times in my life I acted on a responsibility for humanity, at least on a large scale. I achieved a life goal of publishing a book and started a career in humanitarian work.

When I told my girlfriend I was doing this talk she told me to impart wisdom upon you, teach you some life lessons. I find it funny because it’s only nine years since I left Normo – believe me, it’s not that long – so I don’t know how much wisdom I can impart, but here goes. I want to tell you how I got to the point I’m at. That was always one of my concerns at high school. How do people make it?

For most people, success starts with luck. I think privilege is an important concept to learn. When you have privilege you have advantage over someone. You have something they do not have. The irony of privilege is that often it is invisible to the person who possesses it. Often, you only notice privilege when someone holds privilege over you.

To live in Australia is an obvious privilege. Australia is at peace, it is a rich country, there are jobs, public health care, welfare systems, we have a diverse population from people all over the world, we have free education.

Growing up here many people don’t recognise this privilege. When I was in Nauru, seeing how much people sacrificed for an inch of what I took for granted I became fully aware of my privilege. By virtue of being white, male and Australian I have the world at my fingertips while others suffer based on the misfortune of their birth. I recognise this privilege and view it as my responsibility to give back to this world and assist others to have just as many opportunities I am lucky enough to have.

I’m not sure if you guys realise how lucky you are to go to Normanhurst. I can’t attest for the quality of the school now, it’s been 9 years since I graduated, but I can’t imagine they’ve let the place go to ruin in that short amount of time. When millions of children around the world can’t go to school at all, you are lucky. When you attend one of the better schools in NSW, you are very lucky. As much as we hated school at the time, in the big scheme of things we had it good.

My playground memories of Normanhurst generally involved being a nuisance. I was by no means the worst student but I did manage to infuriate Mr Pettit by never wearing the uniform to the letter of the law. I remember fruit fights across the basketball courts at the bottom oval. Throwing bags on the roof of the cricket nets. Jumping the concrete hill on to the rugby ground. Alerting the hiding smokers whenever teachers came to catch them. Rolling the scrum machine down the back hill. No-one ever knew that was us, until now.

The worst fight I ever saw at Normo among my peers was over a calculator. Although one time we did have a gang come to the train station with trolley poles and start hitting students. Thankfully the woodwork and metalwork teachers such as Mr Rumbelow and Mr Rudd marched down to confront the gangsters looking more than a little fearsome. This may be urban legend, but I’m pretty sure I was there when Mr Kimberly, who I always suspected of wanting to start a fight with a student, stood before a group of the teenagers and said:

“I might not be able to get all of you, but the first few who come are going to be mighty sore in the morning.” They scattered.

I remember the shame of bullying and the shame of being bullied. It’s the dark side of the human spirit that convinces those in power of the need to oppress those without power. Bullying is the schoolyard version of oppression and prejudice. It is capable within all of us.

I was fortunate enough to be a part of a school that promoted a holistic education, not just emphasising academic excellence. Normanhurst always reminded us of the importance of being well-rounded people. Neville Warren’s catchphrase, although we scoffed at the time, was ‘a Gold Duke of Edinborough is worth more than a 99 UAI’.

I was fortunate enough to be educated by one of the best Arts departments in the state made up of Amanda Stavert, Fiona Schubert, Mrs Motherwell, Mrs Nelson, Margaret Johnson, Mrs Ramsay, Ms Jacobs, Ms Rudzis, Sally Cousins. Apologies if I’ve forgotten anyone. Under the guidance of these amazingly talented women, my peers and I began our first forays into the creative arts. Even if that mainly consisted of ‘sinking the sub’.

The importance of literature should never be underestimated. Richard Flannagan stated that:

‘[Novels] are one of our greatest spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual inventions.’

A good book, he concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul.

Through literature you can hear the words of societies lost and communicate your experiences to society’s yet to come. It is through the power of word that people rise up against tyranny and it is only through the power of the word that people will unite in harmony. The best way to understand the importance of literacy is by imagining not having it.

I decided at high school I wanted to be a writer. I don’t think I was exceptionally talented at writing. But I remember at high school making a decision of what kind of person I wanted to be. I wanted to be my own boss. I wanted to get better at my career with age rather than become obsolete over time. And I wanted to be able to work anywhere in the world. I decided to be a writer because I liked it. Because I could imagine worlds or stories and desperately wanted to write them down but never felt talented enough to be able to do it. I always wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t call myself a writer for many years yet.

We, who live in Australia are lucky in that way. A lot of people in the world are just happy to have a job. We can choose our life path, decide what we want to do and who we want to be. We talk about needing a sense of purpose and having to love what we do. These are wealthy concepts, but that doesn’t make them any less important.

My best friend at the time was a better writer than me, but he decided to be an accountant because he wanted to make money. He spent many years working with and for money before he became a gardener in a Buddhist temple.

When I finished at Normo I left my girlfriend and went to Europe. My thinking was, how can I write about the world without knowing anything about it? Very early on I followed a philosophy of ‘the call of the void’, best translated as the urge to jump off high places. Leaps of faith motivated by uncertainty, anxiety, and adrenalin. The sweet elixir of adventure, a thirst for conquering fears and challenging oneself. I chose adventure and the potential life, over the comfort of what I knew.

I didn’t know if what I was doing was the right thing. Hell, I was 18, how could I? I don’t believe there are right decisions or wrong decisions in that sense. The truth is most people have no idea what they’re doing in life. They make it up as they go along. Some people have it all figured out, they know when they’re going to graduate from university, they know who they’re going to marry, and when. I reckon those are the people that wake up one day hating themselves. Most of us don’t know what we’re doing because life is unpredictable. My belief is, don’t be so concerned about where you’re going, just try to enjoy the ride.

I studied writing and international studies at university. I purposefully chose a vague degree, one that wouldn’t point me in a direction. I didn’t want to study law to become a lawyer the rest of my life. I travelled to Mexico where I learnt Spanish and lived like a Mexican. It made my brain think differently. Learning a language meant constant problem solving that left me exhausted and gave me an appreciation for how hard it must be for migrants in our country to ‘assimilate’. I learnt about war and I learnt about discrimination. In the United States, Americans would talk about dirty Mexicans stealing jobs, the same Mexicans who were suffering from a drug war that was caused by American drug habits. This was in the context of Latin America, a continent abused by the politics of the United States.

So please travel. Travel because it will show you different ways of how to live in the exact same world. Travel because it will show you that your way isn’t necessarily the best or only way. Travel because memories and experiences are more valuable than things. Travel because it will challenge your way of life and show you that we are not the good guys. We are the rich, the wasteful, the greedy, the powerful.

It was only until Mexico that I started calling myself a writer and it was only until I started calling myself a writer that I truly began to write. I mean I wrote things before that, but I started telling people I was a writer, even if it meant people asking me: “What have you published?” I started to assume the identity. If I didn’t believe I was a writer, why would anyone else? I wrote a manuscript on Mexico that hasn’t been published, yet. But in truth I still didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t really try to get it published.

When I finished university I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I hadn’t thought about it at all. I hadn’t prepared at all. I realised that I was supposed to be starting a career but I’d studied Communications. We didn’t have a vocation. I’d studied writing for 5 years and had nothing to show for it, at least I thought I had nothing to show for it. I asked people how they got into work and they told me: “I fell into it.” That didn’t explain anything to me. What does that even mean? I wondered how one ever gets into their dream job.

If you want a tip. Don’t do what I did. Find out what your dream job is and start working for it now. Work your arse off and don’t give up. For most of us though, it may take us a life-time to find our calling. And that’s okay.

I was unemployed for 6 months. It was a depressing, isolating, experience. I lost confidence as job applications went unanswered and as I lived below the poverty line in Glebe. When I say that, I always had my parents to go back to but I was determined to stick it out. I eventually took whatever job I could, a government job, a desk job.

I continued to write, but it never seemed a realistic career goal. So many people try, so few make it. But I continued doing it for the love of it. I wrote manuscripts for a long time with nothing ever getting published. Travel diaries, poems, writings on scraps of paper that no-one will ever see. I didn’t realise it but this was my training. Then I started to get articles published. I started to build a portfolio of work.

My friend described this period to me as preparation and opportunity. You do your utmost to prepare yourself for the opportunity to snatch a dream. If you are ready when the time presents itself you will take it. The trick is if you can combine something you’re good at, with something you’re passionate about, with a cause you believe in. Easy.

When I was given the opportunity to go to Nauru, I took it with both hands. Funnily enough, I fell into the work. I was chasing a very pretty girl and it led me down the refugee path. I managed to start a career in humanitarian work, combining my love of travel with my desire to work with people. I went to that hell hole and I wrote about it.

People ask me, how did you write a book? Well, I wrote it. I started with one word which became a sentence, which became a page, which became hundreds of pages. It took a long time but it’s the only way. If you ask anyone who has ever done anything how they did it, they’ll tell you. I just did it.

You will start to notice that as you get older each year seems to pass by quicker and quicker, and you will notice that you have less and less time, and you will realise that time is the greatest resource one has and is an investment. You will start to decide how you spend your time and it is where you invest your time that shows where your interest and love lies.

Your life will be made up of decisions, big ones and little ones. As you get older these decisions will have more and more impact on your life, until you realise that every decision you make in life is a choice of how you want your life to turn out. And then you realise that the decisions you have been making have always had a big impact on who you are as a person and how you are shaping your life, you just never realised before, and as you get older you have a greater perception of this effect.

These decisions start to encompass our society and the way we want our country to be run. The future you want your family to live in. You start to fight for a society you believe in. If you don’t, who will? You are the future right here. You may play pivotal roles in influencing the path of this nation. Don’t think it so distant or unattainable or impossible.

You must ask yourself, what kind of country do I want to live in? One that promotes cruelty to fleeing refugees to ensure our way of life? One that taxes the poor to make the rich richer? One that trades in our children’s future and the future of this planet for short term political gain?

Or do we fight for equality and fairness? Do we support the global fraternity and sorority where all are born equal with equal opportunity? These are lofty goals but why should we aim for any less? Who are you to say you deserve a place at the table more so than anyone else?

Democracy, freedom, safety are precious and should not be taken for granted. People fight for these ideals and they need to be maintained. It takes active citizenship outside of Election Day at the polls. You are the future and only you can shape the future you want for Australia.

For my final pieces of advice:

Don’t be an arsehole. Care for your mind. If you have a fight with a loved one, apologise, even if you’re not in the wrong. Learn to talk to girls. Travel. Practise inner peace. How can you expect the world to be at peace if you can’t be at peace with yourself? Respect women. Sex is a shared experience, a privilege, no one owes it to anyone else. Care for our planet. Learn to be alone. Love broadly. Show compassion for your fellow man. Don’t get wasted, it’s not cool. Every now and then get wasted, it’s fun and who cares what other people think. If you want to wear fancy dress for no reason at all, do it. Strive to be happy. Be gentle with yourself, you’re allowed to make mistakes. And my mum’s favourite, always use a condom.

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