To the class of 2018…

My four-year term as Chancellor of the University of Calgary will end later this month. It was a privilege to serve my home university, to gain a deeper understanding of its dynamic role in the Calgary community, and to work with many of its impassioned supporters from our campus and elsewhere. A special highlight was the opportunity to meet our amazing students who wish to make the world a better place.

This week I presided over my last set of convocation ceremonies. I enjoy greeting our graduating students as they cross the stage to receive their degrees. The graduands’ accomplishments make me proud and their beaming smiles make me optimistic about the future of our nation.

I addressed the students during the ceremonies and passed on some of my perspectives about life. This is what I had to say:

University of Calgary – Spring 2018 convocation.

This morning, as you graduate and move on to your next adventure in life, I’d like to pass on to you one final thought. I wish to share with you one last valuable lesson that I learned during my career, and that is … to stay out of my comfort zone.

What does it mean to stay out of one’s comfort zone? I think you already know. For some of you, staying out of your comfort zone means staying up late for weeks-on-end to prepare for your thesis defense.

For others, it means:

  • working part-time jobs and volunteering in the community … all while studying at university, or
  • venturing, for the sake of your education, to a new country with an unfamiliar language, culture and values.

For me, staying out of my comfort zone means launching to space atop 4 million pounds of explosive propellant, knowing that it might be the last thing I ever do.

The secret to career success, in my experience, is boldness. Throughout my life, I worked with gifted colleagues who shared a sense of daring. It was when we functioned at the limits of our capabilities that we flourished, and our achievements were most meaningful.

My best learning occurred when I was uncomfortable – training overseas for weeks at a time in a foreign language, or in survival training situations when I was hungry, tired and edgy.

UCalgary students at the Spring 2018 convocation

The best decisions that I made in life often left me feeling uncertain and anxious.

This may sound sadistic, but I wish the same for you! As you leave the University of Calgary, I encourage you to stay out of your comfort zone. Take on life challenges that are bigger than yourselves. Seek out co-workers, employers and mentors who are drawn to grand, seemingly-impossible challenges. Those are the people who will energize you. Those are the people who will push you to be the best you can be.

The world leaders of my era were remarkable: Martin Luther King Jr., Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Georges Vanier, Sally Ride – inspirational leaders:

  • Who believed that we do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard
  • Who dreamed of things that never were, and asked why not?
  • Who boldly went where no one had gone before.

Canadian journalist Stephanie Nolen received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Calgary at the Spring 2018 convocation ceremony.

Our nation today does not need risk-averse leaders who are fearful of failing. Society will never advance under their leadership. Rather, we need your bold leadership. The challenges facing 21st century society are numerous and daunting:

  • Equitable health care for all Canadians
  • Earlier detection of cancer
  • Access to clean water for all world citizens
  • Exploration of deep space

These and many other challenges will only be solved by those rare, bold leaders who are not only experienced and competent, but also willing to take risks.

Be aware that by continually venturing out of our comfort zones, we will make mistakes. I have repeatedly failed in life. As a young astronaut, I amassed a rich catalogue of failures during training that I later drew upon for success in space.

Educator and science enthusiast Brian Jackson received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Calgary at the Spring 2018 ceremony.

Taking a bold approach means you will also be prone to making mistakes – more mistakes than those who pursue a safer, more conventional path in life. But failure is what has honed the skills of history’s greatest leaders.

If it ever becomes too much, call on us – your home university. Share your dilemmas with your former classmates or a respected professor who knows you well. Some of us have been there and done that – done something similar to what you will go through. Your university community and programs are lifelong resources.

Be bold.
Take on risk.
Embrace failure.
Pursue the impossible.
Avoid your comfort zone.

What happens next in your life matters to us. We’ll watch with pride as you make your mark in the world and, as alumni, you will always remain part of our University of Calgary family.

We wish you continued success and happiness.


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