WHAT I WANT TO BE WHEN I GROW UP

UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO CONVOCATION ADDRESS 13 NOVEMBER 2012

Good Afternoon

Chancellor Wilson, a special greeting to our our newly minted 133rd Chancellor, we are indeed honoured, President David Naylor, whose seminal vision is transforming our collegial community, Principal deep Saini, of my beloved UTM, the illuminati from the Academy duly robed and assembled, fellow Governors, and most especially “graduands of the class of 2012, your families   and significant others.

As a proud resident of Mississauga, I am happy to be with you and to bring special greetings and congratulations from our venerable, but feisty, Mayor. Ours is wonderfully diverse and multicultural mosaic in the City by the Credit, and in the spirit of the inclusiveness we live by, and also as a man of faith, allow me to greet all of you: “Na Mes te”, Salam aliqui, Shalom, Pax Christi, Gruss Gott, Sat Sri Akaal, Peace and Greetings to everyone. Congratulations and well done UTM 2012. Give yourselves a round of applause.

I have anguished over what to share with you today. I am now one of the grey beards, and I do not want to drown you in clichés and platitudes, or burden you with an old man`s egocentric reflections. My desire is to share something truly personal and authentic about my own sometimes tortured, but exciting pilgrimage through life in the hope that in my mistakes and struggles you may find both encouragement and solace.

I read many commencement speeches in preparation for today, and some were truly inspiring.  Speaking in anticipation of his own death, Steve Jobs noted, “Our time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” Oprah`s lecture, God love her, was a tsunami of positive thinking, platitudes and clichés. On the opposite end of the spectrum was a Professor Wheelan from Chicago and he would want to remind you that “The world is not your oyster, and you likely will not change the universe, but you can persist and there is honour in that.”

My own theme is as simple as it is challenging. It is ok to be worried about your future, about what’s next for you; It’s ok not to know, especially at this stage.   You do well to expect the unexpected from life, and know in advance that most of the successes you will enjoy will be grounded in multiple false starts and failures. Just never ever, ever,ever give up

I have sat out there with you many times, so often in fact that my father once labelled me a slow learner.   My compulsion, read obsession, both then and even now has been – where do I go from here,  `what’s next in my life.  Please don’t look to me as someone who knows how to pause and live in the moment, I never have and likely never will.  Neither have I ever lived a balanced life, so I dare not lecture you on that classical Greek ideal. The truth is that more often than not I missed much of the present while focusing on the future. Will I get into this or that Graduate school, will I get scholarship money, then what professional school will admit me, and who is going to hire me, can I even get a job, is it what I want and will I like it? I was also forever plagued by the nagging questing – what is it that you really want to do. I know I am easily very bored; I was born and will surely die a restless spirit.

For those of you who have you lives mathematically charted, be ready for a lot of surprises; and for those of you who like me are still bewildered, take some consolation from the fact that it was not until I was in my late forties that I was ever very clear about what I wanted to do with my life, and not even then. So don’t worry too much if you have little clarity today. Life will find you.

Over the years, I chased  different career squirrels up multiple trees. I survived, not always well, but I did keep searching, and I always did it with great but sometimes blind passion. I began my university career – all 15 years of it – thinking I wanted to be a lawyer, then in a moment of passionate idealism, decided to become RC Jesuit priest, and during that I also decided to become an academic. I then spent multiple years in Graduate schools here and all over the world in many different disciplines. In the early 1980s and after much soul searching I decided that I might not want to be a priest after all, and so I moved on. I had originally been mandated to return here to teach, but with my leaving, that door was closed. Luckily I had the good fortune to be offered a teaching job at Concordia in Montreal, but no, such a path would be too rationale for my restless soul.  I wanted to spread my wings and break with my past entirely. I was determined to march to the beat of my own drum, and so I decided instead to return to Toronto and go to law school.

I entered law school as a mature student, albeit the only mature student who had really never been anything but a student. My first year in Law School was horrific, and I was plagued with the sense that this time I had really made a big mistake. My transition was a tough one, and I was scared to death about failing. However I did persist, and I did finish, but it was a slog and it took me two years to begin to like what I was doing. I did get called to the bar, but then my job interviews with several of the larger Toronto law firms left me cold and bewildered.

Two firms rejected me right away, something I was not used to at all, hell I always saw myself as this really smart guy, and here I am being told, sorry we have no place for you; it was a first, but a first of many such rejections and latterly failures. At the end of the process, I had yet another identity crisis, and to the great dismay of all my family and friends, I decided to take a year off, work at something part time, and write. Inside in my heart, I worried that I would make nothing of myself, and would fulfill the prophecy of my new father-in-law, who at one low point confided to my wife, “He has never had a real job in his life and likely never will.”

It was about this same time that my own father took me aside and over lunch very gentle felled me with the following question: “Do you know yet what you want to be when you grow up?”  It was a low moment and one I will never forget.

At the end of that very depressing year, a job opportunity arose with an entrepreneur lawyer businessman, and perhaps a little out of desperation, my wife being pregnant with our first child, I decided I better just begin something. Thereafter, slowly but surely I reignited my passion and creativity. In the next year, I struck out on my own and purchased a 100 year old small west end Toronto law firm for 10k payable, installments over two years. I was off and running. I had found a potential niche.

I also unearthed a new challenge and, yes, mission. Law is riddled with outdated and inefficient nineteenth century processes and mores, and it is sometimes easier to herd cats than it is to coral lawyers. I was determined to try.

Now it is 25 years later. If you had told me back then   that I would end up becoming a change agent, that I would end up crating new work forms and processes for simple legal services, if you had told me I would spend my life working for financial institutions and becoming CEO of a title insurance company, if you had told me I would become enthralled with technology driven work flow processes, data mining and analytics and risk theories — I would either have laughed nervously or seriously considered suicide at the mention of a career in insurance. If you had told me I would end up building a national corporate entity and selling it to a Fortune 500 company, I would have told you that you had lost your mind. If you had told the long haired idealist who took a vow of poverty that he would end up in the corporate world and buy a Rolls Royce, it would not have been conceivable.  But all of that unfolded and through that heuristic process I learned to be surprised by life. Be prepared for your own surprises, and know your success will not be a matter of fortune or good luck, but rather a marriage of arduous preparation linked to opportunity and just a modicum of risk.

Through this pilgrimage, when I was not depressed and confused, my message to myself has always been a simple one — and it is not novel.  Be more patient with yourself,[I never was.] Pick yourself up when you fail, don’t believe them when they tell you how bad you are and how terrible your ideas are, but also, don’t believe them when they start telling you how wonderful you are and how great your ideas are. Just keep believing in yourself.

Over the years I have also learned to have a high threshold for frustration. Remember I worked for 2 years creating a new template  for the simple task of  centrally processing residential mortgages in Canada, and then on the day of the proposed national launch, my client, one of our major Canadian banks, shut it and me  down out of fear of a backlash from the legal community.

But by that time I was really stubborn and not easily deterred, and so I persisted, and thankfully the program launched 12 months later.  Today, two data companies do all that mortgage work, which used to be the purview of 20,000 lawyers across the country.  The lesson, to quote another,  “You must knock on doors until your knuckles bleed. Those same doors will slam in your face. But you must pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and knock again. It’s the only way.”  And by the by, I have just begun a new venture in another area that invites transformation, once again all the doors are slamming in my face,  my knuckles are bleeding , and the legal community is again up in arms protesting changes that are inevitable.

I have tried to share a little of my journey, and I hope I have not bored you. Yours will be your own path. Be patient with yourself as you try to find it or as it finds you. Your road will also have many unexpected turns, don’t be surprised or deterred.  Look at President Naylor, do you think he had any idea when he entered medical school that he would end up as President of our University or that he will go on to lead a massive international entity?  I think not.

So go find your bliss. Always Make it one of your imperatives to help the less fortune. And do stay in touch with us, your university family. And for those who end up being as unbalanced as me, forgive yourself and take comfort, it will be a great ride.

About whispersfrombabylon

A father. A son. A priest. A scholar, a lawyer
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