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Dear 16-year-old me: advice from Dr Sue Keay

UQ people
Published 30 Jun, 2020  ·  6-minute read

“If you had the opportunity to write a letter to your 16-year-old self, what would you tell her?”

This is the question we posed to Dr Sue Keay.

Discover what she shares - and what secrets she doesn't want to spoil.


Dr Sue Keay is a consultant, speaker and board director specialising in emerging technologies such as robotics, AI and automation.

Dear Sue

Buy shares in Apple. People will tell you you’re crazy but hang on to those shares, even when Apple releases Newton. 

There are lots of similarities in the tale of Apple and your own life story.

There are the early signs of promise, in the form of a university medal and a prestigious Jaeger scholarship to do a PhD in Earth Sciences.

There’s the hard work and sleepless nights on the path to success – gaining a rare Australian Research Council early career fellowship.

Then there’s the spectacular downfall – being forced out of your chosen career as a research scientist.

There’s the slow experimental path to recovery – adjusting to a new identity separate but still linked to science, first in communication, then management, then commercialisation.

Finally, there’s redemption – where you become a multi-billion dollar enterprise and household name. No, wait, that’s Apple. Where you gain some recognition and have a rewarding and somewhat successful career.

So, what advice do I give to you, my 16-year-old self?

1. Pay attention to Star Wars 

Self-driving cars are a real thing in the future. 

Ditch the earth sciences career now and enrol in mechatronics or computer science: there are fortunes to be made and women shouldn’t miss out on such opportunities simply because tech is a male-dominated industry. 

Indeed, start regularly applying the ‘If I were a bloke’ test to all life choices. 

Whenever you are about to say no, or to pass up an opportunity, or feel that you are not ready, step back and ask yourself, “Would I do this if I were a bloke?”, or “Would I let this hold me back if I were a bloke?” 

If the answer is different to your own, then go with the ‘If I were a bloke’ answer. Don't let societal expectations of women hold you back.

2. Make a temporary move to Silicon Valley 

Launch a startup. You won’t get any venture capital investment because, d’uh, you’re a woman, but that hardly matters. 

You can move back to Australia after a year as the all-conquering Silicon Valley hero entrepreneur and spend the next few years on the speaking circuit lecturing us all on the failings of the Australian innovation ecosystem – fun times.

3. Save time

A friend of mine took an instant dislike to his PhD supervisor. At the time I thought this was a bit presumptuous of him and even counselled him to perhaps give the relationship a bit more time. But my friend just shrugged his shoulders and when asked why he disliked his supervisor he replied, “saves time”.

Saves time. Think about that for a while. 

Saves time. It took me years to appreciate the sheer genius of my friend’s approach. 

How much of our lives do we waste giving other people the benefit of the doubt, doing their work, forgiving their weaknesses? Why not choose to surround yourself with people who are also striving to achieve the same goals you are? Of course, we should be tolerant and forgiving of the people around us, but you must balance this with whatever you are trying to achieve.

4. Manage your work time using the 80:10:10 rule

You’ll hate it, but try to do it anyway.

The 80:10:10 rule means you spend 80 per cent of your time being awesome at what you do, allow 10 per cent of your time towards professional and personal development so you can continue to grow, and spend the remaining 10 per cent of your time telling people about your achievements and convincing them how awesome you are. 

You cannot expect others to appreciate your natural brilliance; it is the single biggest career weakness you have.

5. Don’t listen to advice 

Especially don’t listen to advice about parenthood. I’m going to let you in on a secret known by all parents – there is no good time to have children. Did you get that? There is no good time to have children.

If you decide to have children, then don’t waste your time fussing and planning and working out the ideal time to have children to fit in with your career trajectory. Just have them. You can make it work, no matter what the timing. And there can be consequences of delaying having children, that is, you may find you cannot have them if you delay, and that’s a very tough path to tread. 

If you decide to have children, then again, don’t listen to advice. Those other parents who tell you that their child slept through from the age of six weeks are lying, or they have redefined sleeping through to mean sleeping for three hours straight. 

And remember: children are robust. They will not need to spend years in therapy if you didn’t cook them a birthday cake shaped like a train, or if you served them rusks that you didn’t make from scratch from grains that you grew in your own garden and ground up by hand. We can all wallow in maternal guilt, but it is a waste of time and, in the end, it really doesn’t matter.

6. Be kind 

Particularly to yourself. You will never truly know enough about anybody else's life to be in a position to judge them. Be accepting, but don’t let people waste your time; you don't have to solve everyone else’s troubles, and you don’t have to be liked by everyone. Focus on being healthy yourself, and if you have energy left over, then be generous with it. 
There’s a great quote you will try to live up to. It goes, "I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” 

And finally

Remember that ‘a harbour is a safe place for a boat, but that's not what boats are built for’.  

Use your experiences to launch yourself off into uncharted waters.

Don't let discomfort hold you back: embrace it. 

You'll never know what you can achieve unless you try, and your mind can be a powerful force to either hold you back or launch you forward.

Use your mind and use it wisely.

Your future is bright. Embrace it.

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About Sue

Dr Sue Keay FTSE GAICD is the Chair of Robotics Australia Group

Sue is a UQ MBA graduate, speaker, consultant, board director and advisor, currently on the Advisory Committee for the National Robotics Strategy. An expert in emerging technologies, she led the development of Australia’s robotics roadmaps, outlining how robotics and automation will impact on every sector of the Australian economy. She is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, a member of Chief Executive Women, a member of the Kingston AI Group, a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and an adjunct Professor at QUT.

Sue is recognised by SME on their global list of 20 women making their mark in robotics and automation in 2021, as an outstanding contributor to the drone and robotics industry (2020) and as a Superstar of STEM by Science & Technology Australia.

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