Vice chancellors, Pro Chancellors, Distinguished guests, Graduates and family members, Ladies and gentlemen.
I want to thank you all for honoring me here today and to the people of Bradford for your ongoing support and continued inspiration.
First a question...
How many of you here today, actually, truly believe in MAGIC?
Please raise your hands. Put your hands up don't be shy. OK, a few of you.
Now this may sound like a stupid question to ask a room filled with some of the smartest people in Bradford, but if there’s one thing I’d like to convince you all of today, one idea I’d like to leave you with, it’s that magic is absolutely, inexplicably REAL and is one of the most powerful forces in the world.
My story starts right here in Bradford, just a few miles away at the Bradford Royal infirmary. Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, Bradford had some of the worst levels of deprivation in the country and the statistics painted a pretty grim picture - infant mortality rates double the national average, over 25% unemployment and for men living in the worst areas, up to 8 years less life expectancy than those living in other parts of the UK.
If the statistics were to be believed I was fortunate to be alive, lucky to have a job - and having beaten the odds to achieve both life AND employment I probably wouldn’t be around for very long.
To top this off, at 15 years old I was diagnosed with Crones disease and by 19, I was hospitalized for 6 months after the doctors found a huge abscess on my bowel.
To fully recover from the operation I spent a further 2 months in physiotherapy - where I had to literally learn to walk again - which is a long, painful and frustrating process, as anyone who has been through it will agree.
Things were looking pretty bad… but I had a game-changer up my sleeve!
‘pure ignorance!’ I had no idea about infant mortality rates, unemployment or life expectancy. I had no idea that Bradford was one of the most deprived areas or that I may be destined for a life of misery and despair. The stats meant nothing to me and there didn’t seem to be any risk in doing things my own way.
A bit like a child learning to walk I simply didn’t care about falling over.
Imagine if, as young children, we believed that we were destined to crawl the earth for the rest of our existence like a nation of oversized lizards. Imagine if we knew the risks involved in falling over, twisted ankles, torn ligaments, bruised egos - we would never even attempt such a seemingly impossible task. I mean four legs must be safer than 2, right??
Learning to walk is an extremely complex discipline, which is both physically and mentally exhausting (as I found out all those years ago at the Bradford Royal Infirmary) but it is partly a toddler’s absolute ignorance combined with their instinctive drive to succeed that makes it seem like the most natural thing in the world.
It’s fair to say that I lived much of my early life in a dream world, unaware of the harsh realities surrounding me. I knew that I came from a poor area and the burnt out cars and broken windows of Delph Hill were certainly a stark contrast to other areas I had visited, but it never really bothered me. Instead I spent most of my time reading magic books and watching superhero movies – learning my future trade and imagining the infinite possibilities that lay ahead of me.
I practiced magic on my friends, enemies and anyone who’d give me the time of day. I dreamed about all the incredible things I’d do in the future and ignored anyone who told me otherwise: “One step at a time Steven, you can’t run before you can walk lad.”
The conventional wisdom was clear. Jobs were thin on the ground, unemployment was on the rise and wasting time focusing on distant dreams wasn’t seen as a particularly smart move. But the fact that I could leave the biggest cynic in the room speechless with a single card trick, made ME the smartest guy in the room. Call it arrogance, call it self-belief, call it conviction – I KNEW that anything was possible provided I worked hard and focused my energy on the task at hand.
Some of you may know the story of middle distance runner Roger Bannister.
60 years ago, he was preparing to run the race of his life.
Since records had begun, no one had been able to run a mile in under 4 minutes and it was believed by many experts to be physically impossible and even dangerous to attempt.
For nearly 100 years between 1855 and 1954 the 4-minute mile had seemed completely unobtainable and despite numerous athletes competing against each other for the fastest time, no one could seem to break this invisible barrier.
Until that is, on the 6th May 1954 the British athlete Rodger Bannister broke the world record with a time of 3 minutes 59 point 4 seconds and stunned the athletic community and the public alike.
But what happened next was even more amazing.
Between 1954 and 1964 the four-minute mile was broken 5 more times and continued to be broken up until the present day. Something that seemed impossible for well over a 100 years suddenly became relatively commonplace!
Now I’m not saying that self-belief is EVERYTHING. If you jump off a wall believing you can fly I have a pretty good idea where you will end up.
Roger Bannister was an incredible athlete and also a medical student so his natural ability, understanding of human physiology and intense training regime had a major part to play. He approached the race scientifically pacing himself for the first 300 yards before sprinting to the finish.
But psychologically, breaking the 4-minute mile had an effect on every runner that came after him… the impossible had suddenly become very possible.
Part of a performers job is to make things look easy but it’s rarely the whole story. It took me over 10 years to get my TV show Magician Impossible. 10 years of being told the show concept wouldn’t work or it was too ambitious or people wouldn’t understand me because of my thick Bradford accent.
Even after we had landed the show the amount of things that went wrong seemed like unbelievably bad luck.
On series 1 we got stuck on top of a mountain while filming in Austria and one of our crew members where held up at gunpoint in Miami. On series 3 we were caught up in one of the worst hurricanes to hit the east coast of America and filmed a piece of magic in South Africa with former para-olympic champion Oscar Pistorious.
There were so many obstacles along the way that would cause many people to run a mile in the opposite direction – but somehow our team, many of whom are here filming this speech today, not only managed to get past the challenges but created an incredible show that has touched millions of people in the process.
Somehow – we were able to take an idea and make it real.
Every single thing we see before us started with an idea, from the chairs you’re sitting on to the subjects you have studied so diligently. Once upon a time they simply didn’t exist outside of someone’s imagination.
MAGIC is so much more than tricks!
MAGIC is being able to take an idea that doesn’t yet exist and make it real.
MAGIC is defying conventional wisdom, confounding skeptics and creating progression through amazement in a cynical world.
MAGIC is a baby’s first steps and Roger Bannister’s 4-minute mile. It’s the University of Bradford’s breakthroughs in facial recognition, Michael Jackson’s moonwalk and Floyd Mayweathers unbeaten record.
MAGIC is every single one of you graduating here today.
Look – I didn’t go to university and I’m not as smart as most of the people in this room. I didn’t graduate in Nursing, Computing, Creative Technology or Media Studies.
But what I do know is that we are all in a privileged position.
We are able to make our dreams a reality, and bring real magic to the world.
So as you graduate – please ignore the cynics.
You all have a unique opportunity to use your intelligence to redefine the boundaries of what’s possible, question conventional wisdom and create positive change in the world.