Sophia Al-Maria Speaks to the Class of 2013

May 07, 2013

Sophia Al-Maria, American-born Qatari and critically acclaimed author of The Girl Who Fell to Earth, gave the following keynote speech at NU-Q’s graduation ceremony on May 5, 2013. Read more about Al-Maria.


Qatar is a place of magical thinking. And this is that rarest of rare moments in time where big—yellow—words like “DREAM” and “INNOVATE” and “ACHIEVE” have tangible, practical outcomes in a real world of our design. They are words repeated so often that it is easy to forget their power. Remember them when things get tough. They came in handy when it came time to write this keynote.

Traditionally, the graduation speech is a very well composed list of very worthy advice from very wise and amazing humans who are veryexperienced at speaking to large groups of people. So my apologies dear graduating class of 2013, I’m afraid I have none of those credentials.

Full disclosure: I’m not much older than you. Therefore I think it stands to reason that I’m not much wiser either. I do however like to think about the future. A lot. So today I’m here to talk about yours. And to give you advice that I wish I had when I went blinking out into the bright, glaring light of post-graduate life.

It is tempting to encourage you in the typical way by conjuring images of you all as successful young CEOs in hard hats pointing into the rising sun over grand architectural plans but that image isn’t going to help you navigate that which is coming.

So to avoid sounding like an inspirational investment bank advertisement or a cheesy kitten hanging in there poster: the following notes are practical advice for daily life in the unexplored world of your potential. They won’t teach you how to treat a snake bite, or forage for edible plants (I recommend seeing a survival guide for that)—but you can think of them as a sort of travel guide. After all, you never know when your GPS might fail.

The first bit of advice is this: You have to know the past to understand the present just as you have to know the present to plan for the future. If you still can, spend time with your parents and elders. Learn about their lives. Our world is changing fast and their knowledge is precious. Anyway, they’ll be able to give you much better advice than I am about to.

The next thing to know is that the axis of this world is changing. And if you choose to stay in Doha you will find yourself increasingly at its center. See this as an advantage, but remember that it is also a responsibility. These shifts will make you the captains of tomorrow. However even the most weathered navigators cannot know when the wind might change so as you lead and steer, do so with intelligence and compassion.

Advice #3: Never allow yourself to get too comfortable. Especially here in Doha where the temptation is great. Watch out for a feeling called complacency. When you stop caring, it’s time for a change.

#4: Don’t torment yourself about mistakes. You will make them. Some of them will be embarrassing. Move along.

#5: Know that people will assume things about you based on where you are from. Prove them wrong.

#6: Consume with care. You know better than to subsist on nothing but Redbull and Chips Oman so why glut your brain on a haze of BBM and TMZ?

#7: Be open to chance and ready for change. In the words of my favorite pop scientist Carl Sagan, “Keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

#8: On that note, digest as much quality information as you are able. Make a syllabus for yourself out of Netflix and newspapers. Read everything from Darwish’s poetry to Majid comics. Search YouTube, watch Yojimbo. This is only the very beginning of your life’s education; your mind is going to need the energy so feed it with the richest knowledge resource humans have ever known: the Internet.

#9: Speaking of the Internet: Do not—I repeat—do not feed the trolls! They will always be lurking in the shadows of your success both online and in real life. Ignore them or risk turning into one. And another thing, avoid Googling yourself. Trust me. No good can come of it.

#10: You are steward of your surroundings so my next advice is simple: Be aware—environmentally aware, politically aware and culturally aware. It is your duty to keep your environment as healthy and balanced as you can. Whether something as small as the feng shui of your home to something as urgent as fighting to protect our local mangrove ecosystem. Take the time to observe and care. Notice details. Use your intuition.

#11: Question why you want to make or do what you want to do. If it’s for money, think twice. If you want to start a TK or become a kung fu instructor or up and move to Mumbai to become a Bollywood star because those things give you strength, then it’s important you take those urges seriously even if no one around you does.

#12: Do the work no one else wants to, even if it’s taking out the garbage. If it’s a new experience for you, no matter what your education might be, you aren’t above it.

#13: When things get too overwhelming and you feel like you can’t cope, just break it down into bits and deal with the problem one PIECE at a time.

As graduates of Northwestern University in Qatar, you will be big fish in a small pond here [in Qatar]. There is a dazzling array of possibilities before you, many of them depicted in all those soaring camera and soft-focus banking commercials for the future I mentioned before. And while I have to warn you that life after graduation probably won’t involve being served sparkling water with a twist while slow motion reclining in your business class seat to Hong Kong, conventional ideas of success are still far more within reach to you than most of the world’s population.

Consider this fact: By the time we are our parents’ age we will be nearing 10 billion humans on this planet with scant resources. If our generation doesn’t take those big yellow words like “INNOVATE” and “CHANGE” seriously, they will fade and disappear from our vocabulary in the not too distant future.

It’s a brave new world out there—for everyone. A good vantage point to pragmatically observe your reality cannot be underestimated. I mention this because it will be very easy to lose the perspective your education has given you. Protect it and honor it.

Like any transition, the coming months and possibly even years will be bumpy. There will be career decisions that need making and personal barriers that need breaking before you find your place on the planet. The turbulence will pass and ultimately it will make you stronger. Having traveled this way just a few light years before you, the one thing I do know for certain is that there is much to be learned and everything to be wondered at.