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Speech

Gifted Children Conference

Issue date: 
Saturday, 17 March 2012
Speaker: 
Lt Gen The Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae, GNZM, QSO

Rau rangatira mā, e hine ma, e tama ma, e huihui nei, tēnei aku mihi māhana ki a koutou.  Kia ora tātou katoa.  Distinguished guests, young women and young men, warm greetings to you all.

I specifically acknowledge: Professor Roger Moltzen and Rose Blackett, Patron and President respectively of the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children—tēnā korua; Don Hastie and Elizabeth McKnight, Associate Principal and Deputy Principal respectively of Rangitoto College—tēnā korua; Lena Kemp, Eve Downing, Dan Downing and Reuben Yates, Head Girls and Head Boys of Rangitoto College—kia ora koutou.

Thank you for inviting me to open the conference of the New Zealand Association of Gifted Children here at Rangitoto College today.  I’ll admit being here in front of you is with some trepidation.  In the recent past, I’ve been asked several times what has been my greatest challenge since becoming Governor-General almost seven months ago.  My response has been to say coming here to talk to you all!  What am I going to be able to talk about that will keep your interest, sate your strong curiosity, suit your quirky sense of humour or have sufficient intellectual significance?

Even though I’ve spoken to young people before, I’ve not had to speak to a collective group that has been identified, branded or pigeon-holed as “gifted”.  Moreover, it has been a long time since I was a teenager, and although I’ve had many opportunities come my way and I’ve made my “luck”, I would not describe myself as being gifted.  However, as a father of five children, two of whom are still teenagers and with one still at secondary school, I like to think I’ve still got a reasonable grasp of some of the issues teenagers and their parents face.  Well, that’s what I think - I’m sure our boys would disagree!

When I was a teenager in Whanganui in the 1960s and early 1970s, my parents, teachers and elders provided much of the information and knowledge about the world around me.  While I could read books in a library, listen to the radio and watch television; that was about the extent of my options to source information.  Invariably my generation were expected to model our behaviour on that of our parents.  That doesn’t mean that teenagers then didn’t challenge, even rebel against what our parents told us to do; we did and I certainly did.  But there was a certain continuity in life’s routines.  So I thought I’d speak from the point of view of having some skin in the game and share some observations – as a once was teenager and as a parent.

My first observation is that young are growing up in a world that is vastly different to the one I grew up in.  The impact of technological change on societal change and norms has been outrageous, more precisely extreme.  When I was growing up it was reasonable for an older person to see themselves as a “role model” and expect me to follow their example asserting “do as I do because you are too young to understand”.  The paradigm has shifted.  The speed of technological change is such that in some cases it is reasonable for a younger person to claim that older people are “too old to know”!  That technological change with an unprecedented level of access to information matched with the prevalence of social media and group sites is changing social norms.  Where once my wife Janine would pull our teenagers up for texting at the dinner table, sometimes the boys are having to remind her to join our conversations!

For you young gifted people, imagine the impact that is having on my generation!  Growing up and being told you’re too young to understand, and hardly over the middle-age hump and being told we’re already too old to know.  Incidentally, it’s not going to be any better for you young ones.  I read recently that the first person to live to one thousand may have already been born!  Insight number one: learn how to stay ahead of the curve.

A certain tension has always existed between generations.  The concept of young people rejecting prevailing wisdoms is nothing new.  A good example is in the following quote where one man expresses dismay at the behaviour of young people of his day.  He said:  “My confidence in the youth of this generation is waning rapidly.  They are defiant of authority, either civic or parental, they have little respect for law, order and decency and they deride as out-dated the moral principle on which our society is based.  Their mode of dress is unbecoming to either sex and they are too preoccupied with themselves and their pleasures to observe even the simplest moralities.  I fear there is no hope for them.”

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  These comments, however, aren’t recent.  They’re not even vaguely new as they were expressed almost 1000 years ago by a Frenchman, Peter the Monk, also known, not surprisingly, as the Peter the Hermit. 

Yet there is another constant.  Talent, or having a gift, alone does not ensure success, it’s been said that the world is full of talented failures.  And as the American businessman Robert Half said: “Hard work without talent is a shame, but talent without hard work is a tragedy”.

Talent and natural ability –a gift - whether it is for sport, art, music, mathematics or science, is a wonderful thing.  Talent and ability, however, will only get you so far and alone they rarely guarantee success in life.  To quote another American, the author and motivational speaker Dr Leo Buscaglia: “Your talent is God’s gift to you; what you do with it is your gift to God”.

What gives real meaning to talent and being gifted are hard work - persistence purposeful practice and determination.  The 19th Century Spanish composer and violinist Pablo Saraste, for example, rejected suggestions that he was a genius by saying: “A genius!  For 37 years I’ve practiced 14 hours a day and now they call me a genius!” 

In my view, aptitude and application require attitude or adherence to a set of fundamental values.  Both professionally and personally, I’ve found the values of the New Zealand Defence Force — courage, comradeship, commitment and integrity — have acted as an anchor for me because they reflect a set of behaviours required in the most challenging of circumstances.

It seems to me that the challenge and opportunity for parents and their gifted offspring is one of mutual respect.  Parents simply have to accept that we have been supplanted as the font of all knowledge.  Being ahead of the curve, it is more fruitful to demonstrate and instil fundamental and enduring values than attempt to argue moot points - the 1000th place of pi.  Gifted teenagers on the other hand need to accept that while you may know more than your parents, parents do have life experiences which may help you shape your responses to challenges of today’s world.  Information on the internet may appear conclusive.  However, real life is full of ambiguities, contradictions and varying shades of grey.  It is well summarised in the saying that “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

I don’t claim to have been a gifted youngster.  However, when I joined the Army, I wanted to be the best I could be.  Joining the New Zealand Special Air Service was something else that I chose to do because they are the best at what they do, and I wanted to serve with the best.

If I’ve learnt one thing, it is that regardless of your talents, you’ve got to constantly set new goals and you’ve got to accept that regardless of your abilities, there may be times when you fail and need to rethink your plans and try again.  Everyone wants to succeed, and everyone wants to succeed on their first attempt.  For those who have been repeatedly told throughout their life that they are gifted, occasional failures and stumbles can sometimes be evidence to counter the assertions of giftedness and lead to not trying things (and it’s easy to find convenient reasons if you are at or above the 95th percentile) or to underachieving. 

Two things come to mind.  First, if you give things your best, and I mean your real best shot, then you may not achieve the result you want, but will probably have some success.  Consider what the world would be like if Ed Hillary or Nelson Mandela had just given up?  Also though, it is by making mistakes that we learn and grow.  And, if I can come back to my earlier point, it is by turning to someone with a bit of life experience - your parents, who will be the first to admit they’ve made mistakes, probably lots of them in their life—and overcome them—that you will find welcome advice, support and knowledge.

While your parents and grandparents can never hope to compete with you in terms of access to information, they do a have a wealth of life experience that cannot, and should not, be discounted.  Friends and the internet can provide information, but they may not be able to provide the analysis and objective and critical thinking, or knowledge to assess one set of information against another.  For that, you need a wide “database” that includes older folk!

My next insight is that you shouldn’t expect your career or life to be firmly mapped out when you’re 18—life just doesn’t work like that.  When I enlisted as a soldier in 1972, I had no idea that I would end up as the Governor-General, let alone Chief of the Army or Chief of the Defence Force.  Like many young men I wanted adventure and paraphrasing the song by the rock group Queen “I wanted it all and I wanted it now!”  I certainly wanted more adventure than what I thought life as an accountant offered!

I think it’s unfair to expect that someone will know what they’ll be doing at 30, let alone at 40 or 50, when you’re a teenager.  Put another way, what I was good at as a 27 year-old and joining the New Zealand SAS, I cannot do as a 57 year-old!  As teenagers, you have your lives ahead of you.  It is a time for exploring and a time for learning about life. 

As teenagers, with a gift, many of you have potential to be leaders in whatever you choose to do.  I recognise also that the expectation that because you’re gifted, you will be a leader and that can be a heavy burden.  It’s an especially heavy burden when you’re dealing with everything else a teenager has to deal with in life.

It is, in my opinion, important that wherever life takes you, that you seek to do your best, to take opportunities when they come along, keep your options open, enjoy life and the choices you make along the way.  I’ve been blessed with opportunities to command and lead New Zealanders in places such as Bougainville, southern Lebanon, Timor Leste and Afghanistan.  From these opportunities have come options around courses in Britain, Singapore and Australia and military postings overseas.  Some may characterise my career options as luck – I believe you make your luck, it doesn’t just happen.

In conclusion, you may still be wondering why I was keen to be here.  Sharing experiences and insights hardly seems a sufficient reason if I was as apprehensive as I indicated at the start of my presentation.  Well, I am passionate about learning how we can support our young people.  These seminars for– parents of and gifted young people – are a great programme, resource and opportunity.  Also though, we, my wife Janine and I have some skin in your game. 

We have a son who challenged us as he was growing up.  After we sought professional assistance we understood better the challenges ahead.  To give you an insight – at age 6 or 7 he assembled a working model car with steering rack and pinion joints using connex from a picture.  Academic work that his teacher thought would require a week or two to revise before a re-examination for NCEA level 3 he covered in less than a day.  Another of our children taught himself to read at age 4 so that he could join his brother at speech and drama classes.  We have been blessed with five children, but would have appreciated having the opportunity you are sharing today.

To close, I would like to quote a Māori proverb.  It speaks of goals set and goals met, and of perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  It also reflects how, as parents, Janine and I have tried to support our children.  It goes:  “He nui maunga e kore e taea te whakaneke, he nui ngaru moana mā te ihu o te waka e wāhi—A great mountain cannot be moved, but a giant wave can be broken by the prow of a canoe.”

And on that note, it gives me great pleasure to declare this conference open. Kia ora huihui tātou katoa.  

Last updated: 
Saturday, 17 March 2012

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