Chancellor Mercier, President MacLatchy, and members of the Wilfred Laurier University community:
First, let me thank you for the honour you have bestowed on me today and for the privilege to speak to you. I’m both grateful for the recognition and deeply relieved that it clearly didn’t depend on my academic achievements when I was at university.
Congratulations to all of today’s graduates. While the world you are entering is troubled and often dark, you provide hope that our country can be more successful, more peaceful, more just, more ambitious, and more full of promise than ever.
My goal today isn’t to tell you how to read a balance sheet or construct a business plan. Your professors have already done that job very well. Nor is today the day for me to lecture on trade or competitiveness or tax reform.
I want, instead, to ask you to think about one question: now that you have been equipped with the basic tools to build your careers, how do you intend to use them, because our success depends less on the tools themselves, than on the skill with which they are used.
When I became Minister of National Defence in 1986, I asked the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Paul Manson, what he looked for when predicting who would be an outstanding officer. General Manson, who was inducted this year into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame, had graduated as the top cadet from both Royal Roads and the Royal Military College and he rose through the ranks from being a fighter pilot to leading the Canadian Forces.
I thought he would stress academic achievements, success at sports or perhaps a family history with the military. Instead, he said that he looked for someone with a good intellect and a wide-ranging curiosity. He told me that you can teach someone gunnery or how to fly an aircraft, but a truly successful military officer needed both the desire to learn constantly and the capacity to adapt to change.
If General Manson’s perception was correct when he shared it with me thirty years ago, it is even truer today, given the dramatic changes in technology, the shifting alliances and the rise of new threats. And I believe his formula applies equally to business, to politics and to a wide range of our social institutions.
Statistics show that you can expect to hold many different jobs, often with different employers, over your career. The job site, Workopolis, reported in 2014 on what they saw when they analysed millions of resumé employment histories. They found that the number of people who held the same job for longer than four years had dropped dramatically over the previous two decades. By 2014, just 30 per cent of people held any one job for over four years.
We know that this trend is accelerating and that the technological and economic revolution now underway is eliminating or redefining jobs that we once considered safe for a lifetime. And it is no longer just unskilled work being replaced by machines. As artificial intelligence proliferates, it is increasingly professional jobs that are at risk. As Stephen Shultz, an author and editor, has written, “[A]lgorithms are to the ‘white-collar’ labor force what automation is to the ‘blue-collar’ labor force.”
It’s easy to dismiss predictions of a technological “jobaggedon” as alarmist and unrealistic. After all, we have heard similar warnings in the past, including in 1964, when a distinguished group of thinkers who dubbed themselves The Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution, wrote President Lyndon Johnson that a “cybernation revolution,” “brought about by the computer and the self-regulating machine,” was set to destroy the jobs of vast numbers of Americans and create a permanent unemployable underclass with no means of supporting itself. Fifty-four years later, however, the U.S. job participation rate has grown but unemployment levels are lower than when the famous letter was sent.
So, does this mean we are sending you out into a world where your toughest challenge will simply be to decide where to apply all the knowledge and skills you have acquired at Laurier from among a host of competing, attractive opportunities? Perhaps. However, I think that the world you are entering is considerably more challenging and complex than that. And I believe you should set your sights much higher.
The issue today’s graduates need to confront is not whether there is work to be done — there is and always will be — but what your unique contribution will be. You should ask how the world will be different as a result of your participation, and whether you will feel satisfied with how you have used your talents and opportunities once your career comes to a close. You don’t get a do-over at seventy-five.
As you consider these questions, let me offer my perspective.
First, your aspiration should not be to get by, but to lead and to leave a legacy that touches people’s lives and makes them better. I was struck by the number of times following his recent death that people referred to the late Senator John McCain’s statement that “[n]othing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.” The people we admire and remember are the ones who live their lives with a sense of purpose.
Second, while your C.V. may get you the interview, it can’t guarantee how you will perform in the job. With the exception of a handful of professionals with specific skills like economics or accounting, I can’t tell you what degrees the people who work with me at the Canadian Chamber possess. What I can describe, however, is their human skills: their work ethic, the talent and intelligence they bring to the job, whether they perform well on a team, and whether they are driven by a passion for what they do.
Your hard work and learning to this point are essential to your future success, but they do not guarantee it. It’s your human skills that go well beyond simply knowing facts that will determine your future.
Third, character counts. Whatever line of work you choose, you must fiercely guard your integrity. By that, I don’t mean simply living within the rules, but having a well-defined sense of what is right and what is wrong. I have watched with dismay over my years in Ottawa the bureaucratisation of morality, where the issue is now whether an official authorised your actions, instead of whether what you did is right or wrong. I believe that replacing morality with compliance as the benchmark for our behaviour has severely undermined public confidence in both politics and business.
You will serve future employers best if you insist that the institution and its leaders be guided not by whether a particular behaviour is permitted, but by whether it is right. If your inner compass tells you that something is wrong and someone explains to you that “everyone is doing it” or that “sometimes you have to cut corners to get ahead,” you’re in the wrong place.
Fourth, whether developing new business strategies or resolving tough public policy issues, your unique competitive advantage is the perspective you can bring to solving problems. I believe the most important gift your professors can have given you during your time here is a lifelong passion for learning and an unshakeable determination to think for yourselves. We all know teachers who have that special capacity to light a spark that burns brightly throughout the lives of anyone who passes through their classrooms. These are the educators whose students are best-prepared for success in the larger world.
The people we admire most are the ones who don’t simply accept the conventional wisdom, but who see the world in a different way. The genius of people like Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein, Sir John A. Macdonald or Winston Churchill, or, to use a celebrated local example, Mike Lazaridis, after whom this school is named, was their ability to imagine a different future and to make it happen. They could never have done that if they had simply followed the pack.
Fifth, if, as I believe is true, the half-life of knowledge is continuously shortening and much of what we think we know soon becomes obsolete, then we need to recognise that education is not a canning process that starts in kindergarten and ends with graduation from a post-secondary institution. Instead, we must see our education as a combination of formal and informal learning that continues from before we enter school until the day we die.
Finally, I believe the role of education is not to teach us what to think, but how to think – to not only be able to listen to competing ideas and assess them critically, but to also welcome them as essential to the search for truth.
We live in a period when we are exposed to more data than ever before. Some experts claim that human knowledge doubles at least every year. However, it’s not the existence of data, but how we assess it and put it to work that counts. And the great irony of today’s information explosion is that, instead of exposing us to facts and thoughts that challenge our preconceived beliefs, it may actually make it easier to withdraw into cocoons constructed from prejudices that block exposure to outside ideas. As the rise of hate radio and the proliferation of false news on social media demonstrate, it’s much too easy to immerse ourselves in information that simply reinforces our preconceived notions about ourselves and the world.
You need only look at what the political discourse has become in many western countries – and most notably in the republic to our south – to see how many people have morphed from acting as citizens engaged in a respectful dialogue into warring tribes of ideologues led by opportunists who foster and exploit division. Their actions undermine the foundations of democracy itself.
We don’t often talk about respect and kindness as career skills, but they need to be part of your toolkit, both as leaders and as citizens. We need to rediscover the basic civility that comes from understanding that there is a difference between an opponent and an enemy, and that it is possible for someone who disagrees with you to be wrong without being evil. Principled leaders, whether in business or in government, create a shared purpose among their followers by combining a clear vision of where they want to go with a commitment to ensuring that everyone gets there together. Our country’s founders, many of whom had been fierce political opponents, understood that fact. They knew what they wanted to build, just as knew that compromise was the only glue that could hold the structure together. That combination of vision and respect for the views of others is equally valid a century and a half later.
As you start on this next phase of your life journey, you should know that the road will not always be easy. It will be full of challenges and marked by constant change. But your professors have equipped you well and you start in a country that, for all its problems, remains the most fortunate in the world. If you use your talents well, the trip will be full of adventure and achievement and you will repay many times over the investment Canadians have made to prepare you for this important moment.
I wish you well as you begin that journey.