My journey to the role of chief executive officer and steward of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra — a 71-year-old Tasmanian icon — started as a subscriber to the TSO with my Mum, and as a graduating student of the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music.

To all of you, thank you for choosing the creative arts, humanities and social sciences.  The work force of now, and of tomorrow needs you. This month, the World Economic Forum preferenced creativity, empathy and emotional intelligence as the most valuable skills in a rapidly evolving work landscape. The world needs your insight, and everything you have learnt about connecting humans with each other through shared experience — and shared understanding.

This morning, I thought I would share with you five things I’ve learnt and know now which I wish I knew when I was setting out on my journey.

The first is particularly true of the creative arts and I’m sure humanities and social sciences as well: That there is a distinct lack of separation between personal and professional identity.

And the greatest challenge lies in learning to deal with the paradox where what you do is not who you are … when of course, for you, it is everything.

If you know this frankly inconvenient truth – you can name it and manage it. Always take time to step back and to cultivate other interests. Spend time with people who don’t do what you do and be very careful to take care of yourself and of each other.

Second, and intimately related … Receiving criticism – which I’ve been coaching myself to think of as ‘unsolicited free advice’ – is part and parcel of professional life. But when you’ve been like I have been – and there is low separation of personal and professional identity – this can be challenging. In the wrong hands – criticism can be punitive and deeply bruising and in good hands, it can be life changing.

So when you’re on the receiving end of some bungled unsolicited free advice, please know that it says nothing of your value as a human and what you have to offer the world. Dust yourself off, own any titbits of truth, and think about how you would have delivered the message so much more constructively.

I’ve learned you need to be able to talk about what you do in language people understand. For creative artists – you need to provide a doorway into your creative practices by simplifying complex ideas and making abstract concepts tangible.

I now know you stand for what you’re prepared to put up with. In all organisations – for profit, for purpose and in creative practice – creativity and ideas generation are correlated with a civil environment underpinned by kindness. 

Two Harvard academics who studied this over 14 years with 14,000 employees found workplaces that allow incivility to take hold are 30 per cent less creative and have 25 per cent fewer ideas. If one won’t stand for kindness for kindness sake – then they must be persuaded by statistics: No CEO or team leader should tolerate a work environment that makes an organisation 25 per cent less competitive.

Those that do are further penalised by spending seven weeks per annum on average managing the fall out of the behaviour they tolerate. It was my first boss who said to me … Caroline, you stand for what you’re prepared to put up with. She was so right.

Be kind, pay attention to small details and create the environment that allows everybody to flourish and thrive. 

I know that perfection is the enemy of good – jump before you think you’re ready. Perfection is a critical part of being an artist and a scholar, but make sure you contain it to your practice and your profession. Don’t overthink it. Trust your ability. Jump. Build it on the way down. It will be OK.

Overall, my Dad said it best: Do your best and be yourself. No one holds you to account more than you do yourself. I’d only add … be kind to others and most importantly … to yourself. Go forth and be magnificent. We can’t wait to hear your stories as your careers unfold.

This is an edited extract of TSO CEO Caroline Sharpen’s speech to the Winter 2019 graduating students of the University of Tasmania Schools of humanities, social sciences and creative arts.

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