June is convocation month, a time when the parents of university students spend hours crammed into the nosebleed seats of auditoriums waiting for the fleeting moment when their child struts across the stage wearing a square hat to collect a hard-earned and expensive roll of paper.
It is also the time of year when notable and accomplished Canadians take the stage to deliver nuggets of wisdom in the form of convocation addresses. These addresses are often filled with familiar ideas – do good, make a difference, follow your heart, never stop learning, wear sunscreen. In one such address, a famous cartoonist once observed that commencement speeches "were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated."
After attending 16 graduation ceremonies and shaking 3,600 hands this season, rookie university president Richard Florizone, who has been on the job for one year at Dalhousie University, has had some time to reflect on what makes a good speech.
"The ones that are great are personal and authentic; they distill a story into some advice," he said.
And to really knock it out of the park?
"You have to have at least one joke."
Follow your passion:
Holly Cole, musician, at Queen's University:
[It] doesn't matter if your passion ends up being your profession. What does matter is that your passion is a part of your life in some way. And if you go on to have families … and of course you all have circles of friends … well, they can be part of it, or not … but something that is for you and something that is distinctly yours and that you love to do … make it some part of your life.
Ron Burnett, president and vice-chancellor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design:
You are risk takers. A piece of wood becomes a beautiful totem pole. Large swaths of fabric are turned into floating objects that respond to the movements of people as they stare in wonder at the simplicity and grandeur of an airborne sculpture. A large painting becomes a modern-day expression of Rubens, replete with cellphones and computers painted onto a background from many hundreds of years ago.
Maureen Sabia, chairwoman of the board for Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. and named one of Canada's 100 most powerful women by the Women's Executive Network, at Dalhousie:
I am a bossy woman and I do not apologize for that. In fact, I am proud of it. It means I am a leader. By the way, ladies, ignore the Ban Bossy campaign. Truly ambitious girls are too smart to let a single word stand in their way. And we should not make a victim of all girls by banning a word for their protection. We should encourage their aspirations and delight in their leadership goals. Let's all resolve to be bossy.
David Dodge, former governor of the Bank of Canada, at Queen's:
During the last quarter of the 20th century, my challenge and that of my generation of policy makers was to find employment for a rapidly expanding labour force of baby boomers. We largely succeeded. Baby boomers got jobs. Employment grew and total national income rose. But productivity – that is the output of goods, services or art generated on average by an employed person – did not rise.
But now the baby boomers are retiring and for the next 20 years the fraction of our total population that are in the active labour force will fall dramatically.
So if Canada is just to maintain today's average per capita standard of living, all of you will have to find ways to work smarter, not just harder and longer. You will have to be creative; to invent new ways to produce new and better art, literature, music, public services and goods. In short, whether you set up your own business, join a company, teach or go into the public sector, you are going to have to innovate.
Mark Wiseman, president and CEO of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, at Queen's:
It used to be that immigrants to this country were at a disadvantage. Today, those who aren't bicultural or multicultural need to get up the global curve and fast. At CPPIB we look to hire people who have global experience. If you grew up in north Toronto, went to York University, then worked at a downtown bank and think that the far east is Oshawa, you need not apply … A student in China can, just as easily as you, apply to a job posting for a company in your own backyard. Figure out how to get a job in their backyard.
Wade Davis, explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society, professor at the University of British Columbia, at York University:
The other peoples of the world are not failed attempts to be us, failed attempts to be modern. They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question. What does it mean to be human and alive? When asked that question they respond in 7,000 different voices, and these collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species even as we continue this never-ending journey. What this means for you is very simple. There are tens of thousands of teachers out there in every corner of the world that you did not even know you had.
And never ignore the advice of cab drivers
Wade Davis, at Vancouver Island University:
An elderly cab driver in New York may well have as much to teach you as a wandering saint in India, a madman in the Sahara, even a university professor at Trent … Nature loves courage. Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest, once told me that if you don't live on the edge, you're taking up too much space.
Or of Dr. Seuss
Sandra Woitas, one of 100 Edmontonians of the century, at University of Alberta:
Dr. Seuss wrote, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." I would like to begin by reading some words of wisdom from the well-known author, Dr. Seuss, from his book, Oh, the Places You'll Go!
Barbara Hagerman, musician and long-time advocate for music in PEI, at University of Prince Edward Island:
Congratulations! Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places! You're off and away! You have brains in your head; You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
Risk and failure are good:
Retired general John de Chastelain, at Mount Allison University:
At some point in your lives you will have to make difficult decisions. Some may be routine issues and some may be serious ones. Depending on what field you follow, some may even be matters affecting life or death, and you may wonder whether you are qualified to make those decisions. My experience and my advice to you is that you are … I would tell you that in my military career – and I was several years into it before I realized it was what I wanted to do with my life – I was always surprised each time I was promoted to the next rank. From second lieutenant through to general I always asked myself when a promotion came, "Do they really know what they are doing?" And my answer to myself was always: "They must, and if they're wrong they've only themselves to blame." And each time it gave me the confidence to face up to the greater responsibilities that higher rank entailed.
John Burrows, scholar in indigenous and aboriginal law, at Dalhousie:
When I graduated from law school I began articling in the small Ontario town in which I grew up. It was my dream. I lived by the lake. I could walk to the office, and I knew many clients from a lifetime of interaction. I could make a small contribution to a little corner of the world which I cared for deeply. There was nothing I wanted more. Life was unfolding exactly how I had planned.
And then I was fired. When I was in court, with my pen and paper, I wrote "too loudly" for the lawyer who was my principal. I found myself on the other side of my life's most treasured hopes.
My wife and I have often wanted to thank that lawyer for crushing our dreams, though it was very painful at the time.
Graduation is just the beginning:
Chris Hadfield, astronaut, at the University of Waterloo:
You did not get here by yourself. Even if you paid your way through and you live by yourself, even if you've been a significant progenitor of what's happening and got you here to today, you did not give birth to yourself. You didn't nurse yourself. You didn't build this building … But you are that recipient and now I challenge each of you to recognize that you have an absolute obligation to give that opportunity to somebody else at least once in your life.
Take the initiative to give at least one other person the opportunity that you have had, whether it's by teaching them directly or whether it's by giving them financial opportunity or whether contributing directly to an organization like this one. You're probably not in a position to do it yet, but if you keep that as one of the objectives in mind as a fundamental, life-long obligation and help perpetuate the opportunities that have existed for you and the opportunities that are coming as a result of them.