In 2019 Spanish artist/photographer Pedro Correa gave a speech at the graduation ceremony for civil engineers at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, hosted by the Alumni Association of the University. The speech was posted on Facebook by Notre Dame d’Arlon (https://www.facebook.com/IndaOfficiel/videos/2720326091527941) where it went viral, receiving over 8.5 million views. It has also been shared on Correa’s Facebook page, where it has received more than half a million views, and where you can find the text of the speech in French (https://www.facebook.com/573820368/videos/10157048609750369/). It is also available on YouTube with English subtitles at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2j4YkGuIsSw.
A lightly corrected copy of the automatically translated text from Pedro’s Facebook page is as follows:
Thank you to UC Louvain for giving me carte blanche to express myself at this year’s graduation ceremony on topics that (I think) have never been discussed before by civil engineer (themes like death, joy, burnout, Philippe Bihouix’s low tech).
And thank you to the young graduates for their enthusiastic welcome and feedback. I’ve been pushing it for a long time and I have proof of it every passing day: younger generations have everything in them to clean up the world we’re leaving for them.
Feel free to share to the engineers who were there, who asked me and with whom I have no contact …
Below is the text of the speech (note that the delivered address differs somewhat from the text Pedro has given, in particular the part in italics seems to be missing, but I have included it because of the reference to Bihouix):
Good evening and congratulations to the freshly graduated engineers,
I also wanted to congratulate AILouvain for showing courage, not only by inviting me to this panel (which is already brave enough) but especially by putting at the center of these interventions and their conference programme terms like “meaning”, “happiness”, and “joy at work”, rather than those which were insisted on in speeches I heard at your age as engineer, such as “sacrifice”, “be serious”, “competitiveness” or “excellence”. So really thank you UCL for this refreshing opportunity.
I am all the more delighted to be here that I speak in the same place as one of my idols of the moment (some have idols filling stadiums, I have a French engineer): his name is Philippe Bihouix and during the lecture he gave here a few months ago he was already inviting you to leverage all your know-how not in high tech, but rather in low tech: those technologies that replace what’s happening today, but with simpler and more sober techniques. If what you’re looking for is meaningful and to use your engineering studies to reduce our ecological footprint to everyone, I really invite you to read his book: The Age of Low-Tech.
First of all, I assure you: I have not come to give you advice, let alone lessons. Doing a PhD in Applied Science only to finish up as a photographer/artist, I think this needs to be featured in the top 3 parent nightmares here …
But if I’m not going to give you advice, it’s mostly because I realize that we as the oldest have nothing to teach you, and on the contrary, we had better listen to you more. When I see the values of consumption, self-centeredness, competition and continuous growth, on which the previous two generations built the system we float in for now, and when I see the outpourings of solidarity, empathy, collaboration, and quest for meaning that shine deep in the eyes of young people today… I think you are the ones who can change direction towards a happier and more just society… and that you already have everything in you.
On the other hand, I’m going to start with a statistic I’m going to lay here, on purpose to scare you a little. This is very rarely heard, and in my eyes represents the canary in the mine that should alert us that something is going wrong: for five years now, Belgium has been spending more of the national budget on people with long-term sickness (essentially breakdowns and burnouts), than on unemployment benefits. So, this means that unlike being scared every day about unemployment, getting out of here you have a greater risk of getting sick or becoming depressed because of your job than of not finding any.
Passionate about personal development, I’ve looked at the causes of this data, and this result is finally not that that amazing. All scientific studies in neuroscience and happiness psychology are unanimous: placing anxiety terms like “serious”, “excellence”, “competitiveness”, or “sacrifice” at the centre of our lives, without placing any other essentials, like “joy”, “meaning” or “collaboration”, has been shown can only lead to sadness, fatigue, and in the end, sickness … burnout.
Some will lure you with contracts and big cars, and they will assure you that’s the ultimate proof of success. On my side, I can only talk to you with the guarantee of my own happiness when I wake up every morning to do my work, stay absorbed for hours without seeing time spent capturing moments of ephemeral beauty, and the happiness of my children with whom I spend long afternoons.
So, I can only share my experience, which was first to realize that happiness is working. Happiness doesn’t fall us from the sky by watching our lives flow on tracks built by others, rails that go on-ne-know-where, rather than practicing our own cravings.
My path started with this condition, I think, to listen to my own cravings, to listen to my inner voice. That inner voice is nothing mystical, it’s just everyone’s own voice, that authentic voice that has no account to anyone, that one that takes you to the guts. It’s very difficult to hear because since we were young we have piled up other voices over it: the voice of parents, teachers, advertisers …
When you look at children, you realize they still have that voice, their fair voice, and that’s exactly why they know just what makes them happy every moment.
We all have in us the voice that knows what’s better for us. It just takes work on yourself to hear and recognize it.
For me, it was faster: I took a shortcut and was able to avoid years of listening attentive to hear it. It’s a shortcut, of course, but I don’t wish it on anyone: it was to see my father die suddenly. He was 56, I was 29. He was strong as a rock one day, and gone the next day. We all know we are mortal, but it’s one thing to know that we are mortal and another to know we are going to die, and that it can happen from one day to the next.
At that moment my inner voice took a megaphone and pierced every other voice, to ask me every day very clearly: “Now that you know you could die tomorrow, would you have changed anything on that last day that you have just had?”
And it’s impossible to live like before when you ask yourself that at the end of each day. This awareness was painful at first. From there were first small changes, compromises, then bigger ones, and then little by little, that voice became a guide on the way to happiness.
To be happy, I also had to find sense. I think we need to make sense to all of us (and therefore our profession, where we spend 8 hours a day). Because our inner voice knows that we are all on the same boat, so happiness can only be achieved if our actions have a real impact on this boat.
And to finish, we also need courage, because in addition to hearing and recognizing your voice, you will also have to have the courage to listen to it, because it won’t always say obvious things to put in place, nor things that will please your surroundings.
I’ve often been told: “But what courage! It must not be easy to live as an artist!”. To which I would reply: “Because you believe it’s easy, for an artist, to live as a banker?”.
I will finish. And you understood it, I lied, I still gave you advice throughout this speech: not to listen to me. You are adults, you have your degree, life is yours. So, don’t listen to those from this expired world anymore, from this failure we live in. Don’t listen to me anymore, don’t listen to parents, don’t listen to teachers, don’t listen to ads or media anymore, and listen to yourself first.
The world no longer needs fighters, successful people, it needs dreamers, people able to rebuild and care… and most importantly, we all need today, more than ever, people to be happy.
Civil Engineer Graduation Speech 2019.
UCL. Louvain La Neuve
UCLouvain – Université catholique de Louvain
Alumni Ingénieurs Louvain
And thank you to Hilario Sp and Fabien Pinckaers for sharing these stressful moments with me, with their exciting speeches.