Cool visitors in the workplace are always the cause of great excitement, especially when they are as well-known and well-loved as Dara O Briain (I won’t call him a celebrity because apparently he doesn’t like that). We’re very fortunate to have our own, in-house TV Star Jim Al-Khalili here at the University of Surrey. As well as being tops in his academic field, his media status means that his series of “Jim Meets…” interviews attracts interesting and entertaining conversationalists like David Attenborough and Brian Cox as well as Dara onto campus. This gives us all a great evening out and there’s always a scramble for the tickets.
A common misconception about famous people such as our esteemed visitors is that they’re just lucky. When people are really good at what they do, they can make it look really easy to the rest of us. Perhaps this is why we don’t tend to give them full credit for the amount of work that goes into it. In Dara’s case, he probably was born funny (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course), which would be a natural advantage for his chosen vocation. Nevertheless, he didn’t get where he is today without making any effort. My favourite career theory, Planned Happenstance, seems a good fit here too. We put ourselves into advantageous positions with the choices we make and the actions we take and then only a sprinkling of luck is required to make things happen. Actually, I’ll correct myself and suggest a better and more accurate way to describe it is ‘opportunity’ rather than luck. Luck is something that just happens, whereas opportunities are things you actively have to take if you want the benefits.
When Dara was a student at University College Dublin, he took advantage of the extra-curricular activities on offer. He did mention the lure of beer and girls during his undergraduate years, but it was another activity he talked about that provided a great foundation for his future career in stand-up comedy: debating. In fact, he was so successful in competitions that he won a trip to the USA where he honed his skills further on a debating tour. He pointed out that his technique improved during the tour – a great illustration of how practice makes perfect. Taking up opportunities to practise speaking in public, thinking on his feet, formulating coherent and articulate arguments will surely have built his confidence as well as his skill and could be considered almost the perfect preparation for the years that followed on the comedy circuit, building his reputation. Performing to small and probably not always welcoming or accommodating audiences, seeing what worked and what didn’t in order to perfect his act must have taken a lot of persistence, determination and self-belief and I gather getting into broadcasting through the ranks of children’s TV was something of a battle too. Mind you, the debating could equally well have led him into politics or law. Not that I’m suggesting he should, as he seemed pretty happy with how things worked out.
Seemingly, debating is a more popular extra-curricular acitivity in Ireland than it is here in the UK, but of course it’s not the only student union society that nurtures talents and provides an outlets for students’ skills. Pretty much anything is fertile ground for development and, importantly, for proving to others what you can do. The only secret is that you have to get into it and stick with it.
At the end of my lecture in the same theatre the other day – when sadly the leather sofas, potted palms and minimalist backdrop had been cleared away – I spotted a stack of “Jim meets…” branded cards. They turned out to be the cue cards with questions Jim had prepared for himself. I’ve kept hold of them. I reckon I can probably sell them on Ebay. Maybe I should get them signed?