Anne McReynolds’ Prize Night Speech

Below is Anne McReynolds’ speech to Prize Night.  Look out for some excellent advice in her 4 key points.

Anne McReynolds with the Platform Party







Reverand Fathers, Governors, Principal Brady, distinguished guests, teachers, parents, and most importantly all you awesome students, it is my huge honour to be here tonight, and to add my congratulations in recognition of your amazing academic achievements.

You deserve to feel really proud of yourselves.

I think you should also feel genuinely lucky to be part of a school like St Killian’s.   I remember my time at GarronTower (as St Killian’s was then) with great fondness.

I came to this school for 1 year to repeat my English A Level and to do 2 others: Ancient History and History and Appreciation of Art.

I loved GarronTower long before becoming a pupil – my big brother had boarded here for 7 years and had become Head Boy –  and the annual Gilbert and Sullivan opera was a highpoint in my social calendar – let’s not forget I lived in Ballymena in the 1970s – so the school had almost mythical status for me.

You might think that the ten months of a single academic year could be a relatively inconsequential period in a young person’s life.  But this school did so much to get me ready for the scary challenges, and the sheer fun that lay ahead of me at university and beyond, and looking back I think it was down to one singular aspect of what this school is about.

GarronTower was the first place in my academic life where I was treated as a young adult to be listened to, rather than a child to be talked at.

In fact the culture of this school was so radically different to what I had experienced up to that point that I was bowled over by the concept of mutual respect between teachers and their students. Now, in 2013, it seems like a total no-brainer, but, but back then it was revolutionary, and it changed my world.

There was one other aspect of my year here that made it unusual. I was part of the first intake of very nervous female students to attend GarronTower. Up until my arrival along with 5 other girls in Year 14 this school had been a bastion of maleness.  And just in case you missed that – yes there were 6 girls.  In total.  In a year of over 100 boys.

I’m going to do a quick jog trot through what happened immediately after I received my send off from the Garron Tower Good Luck and Farewell Committee I studied English at Queen’s, then Law and Business at the University of Ulster, and at 23 having run out of delaying tactics I hadn’t a notion what I wanted to do with myself. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be bored.  I should also say that I graduated into one of the worst recessions we had ever had in Ireland and the UK (up to that point) – so it wasn’t as if there were too many job options open to me – boring or otherwise.

I went off to America and sold ice-cream and insurance – those were 2 separate and distinct jobs, but both became very boring very quicky.

So I came back to Belfast and got a position as Box Office Assistant and Administrator in The Belfast Festival at Queen’s – I’d volunteered with the Festival before, and I had enjoyed the buzz.  In this job I got my first real experience of being part of a team of people who helped create amazing arts events that entertained thousands of people.

And this is when I began to figure out what I wanted to do and what I (hopefully) could be good at.

After again dipping my toe in living in America, I returned to Belfast, and ran away to the circus. Not to juggle or to walk tight-rope – I landed the post of Manager  of Belfast Community Circus. I was thrown in at the deep end – fundraising, personnel management, financial responsibility, project management – it was four or five jobs rolled into one.

And it gave me migraines.  Crippling, lying in a dark room for 24 hours migraines. BUT it was worth it. I learned from all my many mistakes and kept learning, including a Post-grad in Cultural Management.

After 4 years I got my dream job – Director of the Old Museum Arts Centre in Belfast. For those of you who don’t know, the Old Museum Arts Centre (or OMAC) was a very small and very important arts centre in Belfast in which we presented world class art during a time in Northern   Ireland when things were really grim.  In my first week in the job as OMAC Director I had my first conversation with a consultant about creating a  brand new, world-class and huge arts centre in Belfast.  That conversation happened in May 1996 and the Metropolitan Arts Centre (or MAC) opened in Spring 2012.   In the 16 years in between that first conversation and the day when we opened the doors of the MAC for the first time on 20 April 2012 I learned a lot.

To make the MAC a reality rather than another failed project, that just didn’t quite manage to get off the ground, I had to influence a lot of people, I had to raise £18M for the building, I had to work with architects, quantitiy surveyors, electrical and mechanical engineers, acousticians, cost consultants, theatre consultants, BREEAM assessors, planners, project managers, builders, artists and bureaucrats – so many many bureaucrats.  I had to establish a new arts organisation from the ground up by building a team, creating an organisational structure and a business model that would work.  I had to deliver an artistic programme including theatre, visual art, dance, music, comedy and opera and I had to create a new brand.  And I also had 4 children during those 16 years.

And at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious – I didn’t do any of this on my own – especially the bit about the 4 kids.

So the MAC is where I find myself and I can tell you I am never bored, always challenged, and with considerably fewer migraines.

If any of you haven’t visited the MAC yet you are really missing out.  It’s such a cool place – I still can’t believe they let me work there.  Just so you know, it’s got 2 theatres, 3 visual art galleries, an artist-in-residence studio, a Den for our work with young people, offices for our 4 resident arts groups, 4 rehearsal, workshop and conference rooms, a Family Room, a really cool café and bar and lots of toilets.  It’s really, really big.  In fact it’s the same size as 72 3-bedroom semi-detached houses.

The civil servants had projected that if we were really successful 170,000 people would visit the MAC in its first year.  Since we opened 16 months ago 450,000 people from all across Ireland and Europe have been to the MAC.

It’s a great fantasy for people of my age to imagine returning to the 17 year-old versions of ourselves with all the experience and knowledge we have gained in the intervening years, and sharing with our younger selves all the lessons we have learned.

Obviously this can never happen but for a few moments I want to indulge myself by pretending this is possible, and hopefully it won’t be too deadly dull for you and some of what I say might be of some use to some of you.

From the start can I just say that there’s no way I’m suggesting that I have all the answers – far from it – but I thought I’d share with you 4 things I know now that wish I’d known when I was 17.

And they are: it’s going to get better, everybody’s frightened a good part of the time, pretending can be quite dangerous and what ‘just be yourself’ means.

So if the adults in your life repeat the mantra that was so often said to me about your school years being the best years of your life – don’t panic as I did.

I remember thinking that if this was as good as thing got, then things were going to be pretty rubbish later on.

Because in my experience it was tough to be a teenager and a young person.

There are huge stresses and anxieties around exams, university, relationships, having no money, very little power, having no real idea of who you are and what you are going to do with your life.

You lie awake at night wondering:  What’s the career for me? Will I ever even get a job? Should I stay in Northern Ireland or not? Is it actually possible to have enough shoes?

So my first bit of advice is – don’t panic – life after school and university gets better and better.

And just to put you out of your misery on the shoe question, the answer is  NO, NEVER. It is never possible to have enough shoes. Even if you have to buy another wardrobe.

The 2nd thing I wish I’d known when I was 17 is that fear is a normal part of life. It’s all about how you deal with it.

No one ever told me that everyone is petrified most of the time in their first job and the same goes for the second, third and fourth job.  I thought it was just me.

But it makes sense – you”ve never done it before! If you don’t have the answers, that’s okay – how could you? Fear can either paralyse or motivate – you can decide which.

This is such a recognised and established concept in business management that books have been written and conferences held about how professionals should manage their way through what’s been termed the Dark Night of the Soul.  When you’re in this place you have lost faith in your abilities and strengths and this happens all the time when things go wrong as they always do and always will.  I lost count of the number of times over the years when the MAC was dead in the water and was absolutely not going to happen.  During those times there were many occasions when I totally lost faith in my professional ability, I was just useless, I wasn’t good enough to meet the professional challenges facing me, everyone knew more than me and was better than me and if only someone really good had been working on the MAC etc etc.  Sound familiar?

So again the advice is – don’t panic.  It will all be allright – especially if you learn the next lesson:

Don’t feel the need to pretend you know more than you do.

If you have a question – stick your hand up.  (I mean this metaphotically – don’t actually stick your hand up in a meeting, ever!)

We all remember in school when someone asked a question, and half the class sighed with relief that they weren’t the only one who is in the dark.

This happens to me all the time in work, and I am always the one who asks the question. Because I know if I don’t understand something being discussed, there’s a very good chance I’m not the only one.

Asking questions is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It is all about having confidence in yourself and your intellect. Be the one who asks the question. That’s how you will continue to learn.

Remember the list of people I had to work with to get the MAC built?  Well I was the most senior representative of the client team which meant that they were all answerable to me and yet I was always the person in the room who knew the least – by a very significant margin – about how to build a 7 story, 72,000sq m, £18M building.  I have very poor spatial awareness and I absolutely could not translate the thousands of lines drawn on hundreds pages into what they actually represented – the floors and walls and ceilings of what would eventually become the MAC.  And the thing is I really really needed to be able to understand the lines because the MAC was too important to make a mess of.

An architect told me about 9 years into the 16 years that Good Clients get Good Buildings.  This was a really mean thing for him to say to me because it put so much pressure on me.  We talked about what it meant to be a good client and out of that I set myself a number of rules:

– don’t make changes too late in the design process because that will increase the cost.

– be clear about the most important functions the building needs to deliver on and don’t compromise.

– don’t trust any member of the design team who either says or acts as if they have all the answers.  Building a building as technically challenging as the MAC is too difficult for any one discipline or individual to have all the answers.

– surround yourself with artists, actors, musicians, set designers, theatre technicians, curators and customers and get them to help you design the building.  They know about what makes good buildings from their perspective which is a different perrspective from yours and so is incredibly valuable.  AND you’ll be able to share out the blame if it all goes horribly wrong.

– and keep asking questions until you get answers that make sense to you.

And now finally the 4th thing I wish I’d understood when I was at school.

Just be yourself.”

I can’t tell you how many times I was told ‘just be yourself’ when I was your age by people who were genuinely trying to help me.  They usually said this before I was about to do something I didn’t know how to do like going for an interview or going on a date.  But at the time I hadn’t a clue who I was so how could I ‘be myself’?  I would have loved someone, anyone, to have told me what this actually meant and I’m afraid I don’t have a straightforward answer on this one for you either because it can take decades to learn who you really are.

The thing is – it is life – all the good and bad bits – that make us who we are.  And when you are 15, 16 or 17 you are at the beginning of things and so it’s not so easy to definitively and confidently say: right.  This is who I am.

So how about instead using a different form of words because despite the challenges involved in understanding what ‘just being yourself’ means I think being able to achieve this is fundamental to being happy and successful in life.

What helped me to crack this one was to finally accept that even though I admired someone else’s attributes and competencies the fact that my strengths may have been in different areas didn’t necessarily mean I was less able than them.  (I finally got that when I was 39.) Another way to put it is: play to your strengths and don’t undervalue any skill that comes comparatively easy to you – nurture your natural competencies and rely on them.  Celebrate what you’re good at rather than beating yourself up about what you think you can’t do.

Another way of saying ‘just be yourself’ is ‘keep it real’ or ‘be authentic’.  This is always most difficult to do when the pressure’s on and the stakes are high.  One of the times when I found it most diffcult to relax and ‘just be myself’ was when I was waiting at the arrivals lounge in BelfastCityAirport to welcome Meryl Streep to Belfast to launch the MAC’s capital fundraising campaign.

Ok so now that we’re in the final stretch and you’re feeling comfortable we come to the scary part.

Please be warned the next 2 minutes may include some audience participation as well as a test on how hard you’ve been listening and how prepared you are to follow my third piece of advice which was: Don’t feel the need to pretend you know more than you do and always be ready to stick your hand up.  Ok so here goes.  Are you ready?  If anyone here doesn’t know who Meryl Streep is please stick your hand up NOW.

Loads of pupils stuck up their hands.

Ok.  Great.  Meryl Streep is the most successful most award-winning actress in the world.  She is a universally acclaimed cinematic legend and she came to Belfast because I had asked her to come to support the MAC.

People behave very strangely around cultural icons.  They choke.  One person I introduced Meryl to actually fell over.  I am not exaggerating.  It’s just so weird to see in front of you, in person, someone you have grown up watching and admiring in movies.  People of the stature of Meryl Streep change the atmosphere in rooms.  Unless you’re really focussed it can very disorienting.

So anyway, the point is, my goal for the 36 hours I was looking after Meryl was to keep it real and to be authentic – to ‘just be myself’.  And I had to do this for one good reason: I wanted Meryl to have a good time so that she would continue to support the MAC.   In my experience terribly important people are exactly like the rest of us in one important respect – they hate to be bored and there is nothing more boring than being around someone who is so nervous, so on edge that they can’t relax and ……. just be themselves.  So I drew on my deepest strengths, took a deep breath and acted as if I wasn’t nervous beyond all words.  In other words I faked it.  And so it may be time to round things off with a quotation from Aristotle: Authenticity is everything, and once you learn how to fake that, you’re on the pig’s back.

Thank you so much for listening so gracefully to my ramblings.  Given the fact that we have about 100 awards to distribute because you’re all so talented I’m going to stop now and give you all my genuine and heartfelt best wishes for the fun and challenges you have ahead.

It’s going to be a blast!

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