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Wits Gold Medallist shares lessons on ladders of learning

- Wits University

Wits awarded a Gold Medal to John Teeger, President of the Board of Wits Fund Inc., an independent fundraising entity representing Wits in the USA.

Teeger (BComm Wits, 1968) delivered the keynote address at the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment and the Faculty of Science graduation ceremony held in the Great Hall on 11 December. 

“Why am I, an old Witsie from a different era, why am I here today speaking to you?”  he began. “I want to thank Wits for awarding me a Gold Medal for service to the University through the alumni association in the United States.

"This medal is really not for me alone. It belongs to the many Wits supporters worldwide – some who did not even attend Wits – and those alumni who also recognise the foundation and step up that Wits gave us when we were students."

We were then the privileged few, with access to a quality university education. Now, fortunately, this opportunity is offered to many in South Africa. It is no secret that many alumni believe that this is give back time for us. We want you, and many others in the future, to experience the benefits of a Wits education, as we have.” 

Teeger alluded to distinguished Wits alumni including Nobel Prize winners Nelson Mandela, Nadine Gordimer, Sydney Brenner, and Aaron Krug, as well as luminaries Archbishop Thabo Mokgaba and Justice Ismail Mahomed, and anti-apartheid activists Oliver Tambo and Ahmed Kathrada. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” said Teeger, quoting Mandela. “That is why, worldwide, we – alumni and non-alumni alike – support you and Wits.”

Lessons from ladders

Graduation is called commencement, because you’ve reached the top of one ladder and now you commence on another ladder, at the bottom rung, said Teeger.

“At the top of every ladder, guess what? There is a new ladder to climb … Having ladders to climb in life is a privilege that many people in the world do not have. Their limited education frequently limits their opportunity to climb. 

What distinguishes you is that you have proven that you can climb ladders, and you have what it takes to seek out and climb those ladders of learning and development.”

Learning is a process over time, and the achievement but a moment of time. “And the reward of the achievement is but another ladder. Be sure to enjoy the climb,” he said.

Teeger warned graduands not to believe everything they hear. It is not, for example, actually ‘darkest before dawn’, as the saying goes. “The level of darkness is dictated by the position of the moon. So, in the beginning of a lunar month, it is the darkest, but after the middle of the lunar month, the moon will be seen in the sky before sunrise, so it gets lighter. The correct answer is: it is always coldest before dawn,” explained Teeger, to laughter and applause.

Similarly, the old adage to 'keep your friends close but your enemies closer’ is "Wrong. You will be happier if you keep your friends close,” said Teeger.

He advised graduands to learn to live not linearly but exponentially, and to expect disruption – in this regard, they would not be disappointed, he said.

Graduands should also get used to failing – “It makes success sweeter” – counselled Teeger, and pointed out that the Springboks - 2019 rugby World Cup champions - were ranked seventh in the world in 2018. They had lost more games than they won in the runup to the World Cup, yet they ultimately prevailed. “The only people who don’t make mistakes are those who don’t do anything. That is their biggest mistake.”

John Teeger Wits Fund Inc. Gold Medal keynote address

Teeger shared a personal anecdote of his employment experience after graduation: “My best and toughest experience was looking for a job for six months. I had a wife, a child of four years, and another one on the way – and nice that they’re all here. The pressure to start earning was intense. But I failed numerous job interviews until I acknowledged I was a lousy interview candidate and needed to do something about it.”

He did, and finally landed a job – the first rung on that ladder. Invoking Madiba, Teeger said, “Do not judge me by my successes. Judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again”.

Teeger emphasised the importance of family, support, and mentors for success. “There is no ‘I’ in team. It is impossible to succeed alone. We all need help and support from others. I strongly encourage you to find one or more mentors or coaches.”

Another saying, ‘keep your wits about you’, usually means to focus, think and react quickly to unexpected situations.

“Now as graduates of ‘wits’ University, you have many more meanings to add,” quipped Teeger. He encouraged graduands to keep and retain what they had learned at Wits, and to retain the networks and friendships forged during their university years.

John Teeger Wits Fund Inc Gold Medal 600x300

Teeger concluded with his golden rule: Treat others and you would like to be treated. And when the time comes to makes decisions, apply W.I.T.S - an acronym for Write It To Solve. “List on paper all your thoughts - positives, negatives - and go with your gut."

He summarised his lessons from ladders: 

  • Enjoy the climb
  • Don’t believe everything you hear
  • Think exponentially
  • Embrace disruption
  • Success after failure is sweeter
  • Treat others as you would like to be treated
  • Keep your many WITS about you and, at decision time, Write It To Solve (WITS).

About John Teeger

John Teeger has made an invaluable contribution to the welfare of Wits University and strengthened its capacity to benefit from philanthropy. He is a long-serving President of the Board of the University of the Witwatersrand Fund Incorporated, an independent fundraising entity representing Wits in the United States. Teeger is a Wits champion and freely gives his time, talent and expertise to his alma mater.  Read the full citation.