The worst advice I ever got . . .
Sometimes it’s a good idea to take the ‘wisdom’ of others with a pinch of salt, as these highly successful individuals found out the hard way
Tanya Kiang - Director, the Gallery of Photography
Worst advice: “Don’t waste your brains on the arts.”
Tanya Kiang’s father was an astrophysicist and, as she discovered in school, she had a head for the sciences too. “The trouble was that though I knew I could ‘do’ it, I also knew I didn’t absolutely love it,” she says.
In the hothouse atmosphere of Leaving Cert study and CAO forms, Kiang put science at the top of her choices. “The school were delighted, and it was difficult to change my mind when everyone was so positive.”
As the deadline for changing her mind approached, a new course caught her eye, Communications in the then NIHE in Ballymun.
“Part of its attraction was the forward looking, pioneering spirit at NIHE. In comparison, to go along to an established university felt like a dull, conservative path and I’d just be sleepwalking through life. The Communications course changed my world view of what I could do.”
Kiang went on to edit Irish art magazine Circa and is now director of the Gallery of Photography – her ideal job.
“Science married to art is at the heart of photography. We’ve recently begun workshops in wet plate collodion photography in our darkrooms. You get to do it just as it was done in the 1850s: mixing and pouring chemicals, sensitising plates and working on large-format cameras under a black cloth.
“When you develop your plate and see the intensely detailed image come to life in your hand – it is truly alchemical!”
Kiang’s advice: “If you’re doing what you love, don’t worry – your brains will be put to good use. You’ll be surprised at what ideas and challenges are hidden in different careers. Keep learning, keep your mind – and your eyes – wide open.”
Eleanor Walsh - Chef
Worst advice: “Don’t give up a ‘proper’ job to be a chef. It’s long hours, a precarious career, and too hard for women to get to the top.”
In 1991, at the age of 28 and against all advice, Eleanor Walsh gave up her full-time pensionable job as a teacher and enrolled in Ballymaloe. “When the course was over, I plagued Johnny Cooke for a job and started in Cookes on South William Street in April 1992.”
She started as a junior commis chef, “with a wage to match, I think £120 a week, much of which went to Grogan’s across the road.” Cooke had recently returned from San Diego and was introducing a new style of cooking to Ireland. “I learned so much from Johnny, and we’re still very good friends.”
Five years later, Eoin Foyle and Jay Bourke approached her to set up their new restaurant, Eden, which would celebrate brilliant Irish ingredients – music to her ears. “My Nana had a butcher shop in Dingle, and I had worked with her all through my teens, so I was passionate about using the best of Irish produce.”
The collaboration was a huge success; and with Foyle, Bourke and, later, John Reynolds, she created the Bodega, Café Bar Deli, Mackerel, the Market Bar, and Bellinter House. Walsh now runs Food Stuff, where she helps people to set up, sort out, or further develop food businesses, with clients in Ireland and the UK. “I love it, it’s long hours, but it’s very satisfying. I wouldn’t change my choice for the world.”
Walsh’s advice: “Listen to your gut: fear is temporary, regret is forever.”
Inventor, entrepreneur, musician, filmmaker and investor.
Worst advice: “You know, you are just going to be an average student here, why the rush? Take a year at an easier school and wait.”
“It was my own fault, I’d missed a deadline, and I didn’t have enough financial aid to attend Rensselaer, a tough and competitive US engineering university.”
So says Sean O’Sullivan, Cork-based inventor, social entrepreneur and one the Dragons in the Den. “For me, a year delay would be like a one-year derailment of my life, but worse were the words: ‘You are just going to be average’. They burned into my soul and challenged me in a way I’d not expected. I am not ‘average’ and, frankly, neither is anyone else.”
But funding was vital, as O’Sullivan grew up in poverty, and so he set out to prove the vice-president of admissions at Rensselaer wrong. “A little wrangling” got him in, and he determined to take full advantage of university. This included learning from peers, and one of the key lessons was not to be defined by the views of others. “I will do my level best, and if you call that average, or below average, I don’t care. As long as I’m doing my best, I’m doing well enough.”
Right out of college O’Sullivan founded MapInfo, which brought street address-level mapping, now used by billions of people, to computers. He also coined the term Cloud Computing, invests in over 50 technology companies annually via SOSventures, and runs Carma: a new form of carpooling service which, he hopes, will change the way we get to work. “I don’t expect average from anyone either,” he says. “I expect everyone to do the best work of their lives when we’re working together . . . Now I’m one of the trustees of Rensselaer; and that particular VP of admissions? Long gone.”
O’Sullivan’s advice: “When so much of the time we spend in life is the time we spend in work, why would we ever shoot for ‘average’? There is no such thing as average when it comes to the potential of a human life.”