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Honorary Fellows interview series

Honorary Fellows: Peter Florence

19 July 2013

Peter Florence is the founder and director of the Hay Festival. He has also founded many other similar festivals across the globe.  Peter studied for his degree in the University of Paris and has an MA in Modern and Medieval Literature.

Do you have any advice or tips for young people who may be considering less conventional routers because of the concerns around the current job market?

Stay flexible, keep reading beyond your comfort zone, keep finding out as much as you can you about anything that catches your eye. Read magazines, follow blogs, find out about what you care most about in the world. Work out how you want to engage with it, you may find that careers arise out of your own energy. Don’t necessarily rely on someone else to give you a job, you may have make your own.

That’s incredible, because a lot of the time you find you’re told to stick at one area and specialise…

You know, the people that should do that are dentists and doctors, vets maybe. You get through university and you’ve been quite narrowly educated for three years, and what you’re ready for is anything. Not just a career in what you graduated in, nobody graduates in shop keeping or car park attending, you have to have an open mind about the world. You will find that your speciality grows, hones and redefines itself over the next forty to fifty years of your working life so don’t rush it. Being at university, you have already trained yourself to a very high university standard in critical thinking, awareness of other people and a place in the world. It doesn’t have to be a fixed place, it no more has to be a fixed place than your geography has to be a fixed place. You really are ready for anything.

Do you think that a degree has helped you in building the festival and your success?

I was tremendously encouraged by teachers who taught me how to read, and how to read rigorously. More than the teaching it was the experience of being at university with other young people who have been the rock of my life. The university friends are the community you first choose entirely of your own accord. The friendships and the competitiveness and hanging out of being at university taught me more that I could ever have imagined. Looking back that’s the bit that defined the rest of my life.

What do you hope for the future?

I’m in the extraordinary position of being involved with lots of different things. All of them, when I turn on to them on a particular hour of a particular day can feel like a complete obsession. What you find is that everything is more interconnected than you ever dreamed, so any study, any enquiry you make will lead you into other ideas that you never dreamed of. But you will somehow learn to recognise it as just as vital as where you started.

Does it ever overwhelm you?

No, because what you’re constantly faced with is a sense of wonder at a kind of unfixable-ness of the world and life. I’m thrilled by it more than overwhelmed, sometimes dazzled, sometimes puzzled, but always inspired by it. More over excited.

How does it feel to be in Cardiff and part of graduation receiving an honorary fellowship?

Bizarre, it feels like the most extraordinary piece of fraudulence. Much of my life has been governed by chance. It’s very humbling to sit in a room with maybe three hundred people, who have worked their hearts out for three years, and I’ve turned up and had dinner. It feels a little daft.

You don’t do stuff for the gold you do stuff for the love of it, and if people give you stuff like this then you have to giddily whoop and throw your hat in the air!

Do you think that makes people more successful if they do something purely for the joy of it rather than the credit?

I’ve never met anybody who did anything for the credit at the end. You guys didn’t come to university in order to graduate, you came in order to learn and grow. The graduation, as much as it is a wonderful rite of passage and a formal marking of the incredible stuff you’ve done, its not what you’ve done, its just a certificate. The stuff that you do at university is what’s in you, and what conditions your curiosity about the world. The Americans have a much better word for today which is ‘commencement’. They say their graduation ceremony is a commencement of your life as a totally independent person. I like to think one of the few wonderful American traditions that I’m amazed hasn’t crossed the pond.