Advice to mining industry graduates

This article was adapted from this graduation address delivered on by Mark Burnett at University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Mark is a Wits alumnus, graduating from Wits University in 1992 with a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in geology. As part of his commitment to skills transfer and the development of young professionals, Mark participates as an active mentor through the South African Institute of Mining Management and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists. He recently became a mentor in the Bridge the Gap programme, a mentoring initiative specific to the School of Geosciences, based at Wits University.

It is scary to look back and find a quarter of a century has passed since I graduated. However, during that time, I have ridden a camel in the Sudan, worked on the deepest mine in the world, driven in a tank across the steppes of Russia, tracked gorillas in Uganda, travelled to more countries than I would have ever dreamed possible, and met and married my true love and life partner.

Those graduating from university often wonder how do I “succeed” in my job and life and what is “success”? You may try what I did and research the question. The problem is there are many answers and very few easy solutions. People will tell you:

  • Be yourself
  • Have a plan
  • Have a plan with targets and measurable goals
  • Do what you enjoy
  • Do what scares you
  • Or even, just do it and let life happen

None of which I have I found to be particularly helpful, even worse was when I tried to define “success”:

  • Being published in Nature (the front cover naturally).
  • Solving the remaining Millennium Prize Problems.
  • Winning the Nobel prize, and out-hawking Hawking.
  • Getting the promotion, BMW and highest salary in the company.
  • Or was it just finding peace and contentment and being me?

There are, I am afraid, no easy answers to these questions, as there is no one else like you, with your dreams, hopes, desires, aspirations, and fears, so only you can decide the path that you will take and how you will react when life throws you a curveball.

As Victor Frankel said, “the last of human freedoms is the ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances”. You can choose how you react and what you do when things go right or wrong. Good friends and mentors can assist you and guide you as you enter the workplace, for you will soon discover the rules have changed, no one tells you what they are, who marks you and what the pass mark is. The only guarantee you do have is that life will happen and that it can be tough.

Oprah, who has overcome massive failure in her life, said” It doesn’t matter how far you might rise. At some point, you are bound to stumble. If you’re constantly pushing yourself higher and higher, the law of averages predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do, I want you to remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction”.

New graduates today enter a world struggling to cope with the impact of forces never before seen: mass automation, the effects of the 4th Industrial Revolution, AI, the circular economy, green technology, anthropogenic climate change, and an ever-expanding population hungry for resources. All of these forces impact the way we work, the space we work in and the career choices that will be available to you. I have found that as my cheese moves and my icecap melts, the following basic principles win out in the long run:

  • Be curious about everything and keep learning.
  • Be disciplined, persevere and endure.
  • Be consistent.
  • Be honest with yourself and those around you.
  • Be compassionate.
  • Be humble.
  • Be kind.
  • Work hard, no one likes a freeloader.
  • Look after family and loved ones. They are more important than any title or achievement you may get. Cherish them, as they will still be there for you throughout the cycles of the industry.

But where to from here as a graduate?  Is it just all about you, or should you be considering your place in society as a whole? What you will do with the privilege that you have been given? Will you be the graduate that fights for the right to drive a BMW or will you be the one that will reach out and help your fellow man, wherever you may end up after graduation? You are the future and you will help shape and create someone else’s tomorrow. Be wise with the choices you make.

Mark Burnett

Principal Geologist