At our class of 2019 High Achievers assembly, the girls were inspired by Danebank Old Girl, Dr Victoria Johnson (Class of 2004), to dream a big massive life for themselves, full of adventures, challenges, exploration and battles.
Dr Johnson reminded our young women that life demands that they be more than just a “smart girls” and that intelligence may get their foot in the door but it’s not enough to get them a seat at the table. Finally, she encouraged the girls to not see personal happiness as a check-list of acquisitions or achievements, but to go out there, work hard, be brave and to blaze their own trail.
Read her full speech below...
I was asked to talk to you about my time at Danebank, about my career and about what I’ve achieved. I could list it all for you, rattle off my CV, it sounds impressive...
- 5 degrees
- A PhD
- A medical degree
- International and national awards.
But it doesn’t really tell you anything about the journey I took to achieve each of those accomplishments.
On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure...
I remember sitting in Heslop Hall, celebrating our HSC results and wondering to myself about what life would have in store for me. And when I look back at the 18 year old me, knowing what I know now, what would I say to her?
You see, it was at about this time, whilst watching my friends celebrate their achievements as well as my own, that I was striking an uneasy balance between the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of me.
I was not the smartest in my year. I wasn’t Dux. I didn’t come first in my science subjects. I was gifted, I was intelligent, but I was not prodigious. People told me that I could achieve whatever I wanted to – except medicine. That apparently was a bridge too far. I was repeatedly told “you’re a smart girl. But, don’t get ahead of yourself”. That wasn’t very inspiring to hear.
The greatest gift that I have been given in this life is not my intelligence. It’s my perseverance. An innate stubbornness, if you will, that when I set myself a goal, I will achieve it.
However, talent and intelligence does not inoculate you against failure and what I feared most for myself at your age was failure. But what I really want you to hear is that failure is OK. In fact, it is necessary. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
I didn’t get the ATAR that I dreamt of. I didn’t become an Olympic athlete, which if you knew 18-year old me, that was all I ever wanted. I didn’t get into medical school on my first attempt. These small failures taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will. I was stubborn. I had more discipline than most people. I didn’t falter when things got tough. I refused to give up.
Life demands that you need to be more than just a 'smart girl'. Intelligence may get your foot in the door but it’s not enough to get you a seat at the table. In my industry, I’m surrounded by intelligent people. So being smart isn’t enough.
What makes me special? What makes me stand out? It’s simple – it’s in the knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks which means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to thrive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.
So if I could tell my 18-year-old self anything, and if I could impart any form of wisdom to all
of you, it would be that brilliance doesn’t always win the day. Intelligence means nothing if
you don’t work hard. I would also tell her to stop allowing other people to place a price on
The day I stopped listening to people saying "you can’t' and started accepting that small internal voice that was trying to scream 'Oh Yes You Can!' was liberating.
I stand here before you because I chose to accept that I am capable of more than anyone but me (and my Mum and Mrs Rootham), thought I was capable of!
To me medicine is many things. To practice it correctly is an art-form, an art that is only
learnt through experience, patience and an acceptance that this speciality will constantly
surprise and humble you.
I have a love-hate relationship with medicine. I hate the loneliness that comes from losing a patient, or the fact that people outside of this field don’t truly appreciate the pressure. I especially hate the very long, unrelenting hours. I hate the lack of support from a very rigid, unyielding health system. But if I had a couple of hours, and a pot of tea, I could tell you stories about my amazingly brave patients. Men and women who have come through true adversity. I could tell you about how I was privileged enough to bear witness to their struggles and their triumphs. How I got to know their families, their friends even their life stories.
They have taught me so much about life, about family, and what it truly means to have courage. Their stories have left a mark on me.
Why tell you this? Well, I want you to resist the urge to only look internally. One of the many things I have learned through a life in medicine is that textbooks do not hold the answer. In the words of Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality
It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we have an ability to touch other people’s lives through our own actions and words.
The most long-lasting memories I have of this school is of my former teachers and their passion for education. This love of learning and continual curiosity about the world we live in and the society we are a part of is something I take with me every day. Danebank will give you the best start in life anyone could ever ask for. It’s up to you to decide what to do with this privilege. But, if I may, offer you one piece of advice:
Dream big! Dream huge! Dream a big, massive life for yourself full of adventures, challenges, exploration and battles.
Don’t just think about what you want to study at university or college, look beyond that!
Look at your whole life. Think about the bigger picture.
Finally, if I had my time again, I would tell my 18-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its deviations.
So, to the class of 2019 , you’re all so lucky. You get to stand on the shoulders of trail-blazers. Powerful women who smashed that glass ceiling to allow you to be anything or anyone you want. All that’s left is to go out there, work hard, be brave and blaze your own trail.
Dr Victoria Johnson studied English, Modern History, Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics for the HSC and subsequently entered into a Bachelor of Applied Science / Bachelor of Science at Sydney University. After completing this combined degree with honours, Victoria embarked on another very challenging combined degree, Bachelor of Medicine / Bachelor of Surgery. Having achieved this goal, she then set her sights on a Phd and in 2017 she was awarded a Doctorate of Philosophy (Medicine) for her work focusing on knee osteoarthritis after anterior cruciate ligament injury.
She has worked as an intern and resident medical officer at St George Hospital, a physician at Concord Hospital and is now specialising in rheumatology at Concord and Prince of Wales Hospitals. Victoria has presented at international conferences, been published in multiple peer reviewed publications.