Adversity is a key part of a purpose-filled life

I received a medical degree from McGill University many years ago. I chose McGill for my medical education because its Faculty of Medicine excels in teaching, research and clinical training.

The training of physicians is unique and demanding. During the first years of medical school, students absorb a massive amount of basic science knowledge – akin to drinking from a firehose! In later years, we hone hands-on skills and personal traits like empathy and critical thinking – skills that are pertinent on hospital wards, aboard spacecraft and in other professional settings.

On November 25, McGill University held its first in-person convocation ceremony in two years. For public health considerations, most of McGill’s 2020 and 2021 convocations were converted to virtual ceremonies. Understandably, there was palpable joy amongst the graduands at Place des Arts in Montréal last month when they received their degrees in the presence of family and friends and amidst pomp and circumstance.

I also participated in this fall convocation and was delighted to receive an honorary degree from my alma mater. In reality, it should’ve been me honoring McGill since the training I received launched me on an amazing career trajectory. And it was while I was studying at McGill that I met the love of my life, Brenda. We later married at the campus chapel and have now been together for 38 years.

President Suzanne Fortier kindly invited me to address convocation. What a privilege! These are the words that I passed on to the bicentennial graduates (McGill was founded in 1821) of the Faculties of Dentistry, Medicine & Health Sciences, and Science:

    ⭐    ⭐

To our graduates – congratulations! You’ve done it! You are the McGill University bicentennial graduating class – a special distinction that you can proudly claim.

I know that academic life was hectic for you during the previous semesters. Overlaid on all this have been the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

Besides exacting a tragic toll on the health and lives of millions, COVID-19 also turned post-secondary education upside down. I am full of admiration for the McGill faculty and staff who implemented the necessary measures to safeguard the health of students. I applaud our graduates who adapted to these changes and successfully completed their degree programs under arduous circumstances.

Thirty-nine years ago, I sat in this same theatre at my own convocation ceremony. I could not foresee then the wonderful opportunities that my career would present to me in the following years.

Robert Thirsk – McGill University Medicine Class of 1982

If time travel was possible, I would like to go back 39 years and pass on some of the valuable life lessons I would eventually learn as an astronaut. The first piece of advice I would give to young physician Robert Thirsk would be to embrace the highs and lows of his ensuing career. There will be lessons to learn from both.

I must state that the astronaut job is downright fun. For someone with my interests and abilities, I cannot imagine a profession that is more enjoyable. For example,

  • working with amazing organizations and people who boldly go where no one has gone before, and
  • viewing our beautiful, marbled-blue planet from above.

In fact, for much of my career, I wore a big goofy grin on my face – a grin indicating personal satisfaction and joy!

Having way too much fun aboard the International Space Station!

From the uplifting career experiences, I learned valuable lessons about:

  • cross-disciplinary teams,
  • international collaboration, and
  • stewardship of our planet.

But human spaceflight is also no-kidding difficult. It can be characterized as 95% routine work, and 5% high drama. The risk of injury or death is ever-present. Accordingly, my training was intense and regularly took me to the limits of my physical, emotional and mental being.

I would advise young graduate Robert Thirsk that, paradoxically, the most rewarding moments of his upcoming career will be those instances when he will struggle.

Reflecting on my career, my best learning occurred when I was uncomfortable.

The best decisions that I made in life were made when I was feeling uncertain.

The achievements of which I am most proud happened when I was thrust into a position of leadership before I thought I was ready.

Yes, the astronaut profession is about discovery; about expanding the frontiers of the cosmos. That’s true. But it’s also about enlarging one’s own scope of abilities. Adversity presents rich and rare opportunities to hone traits like:

  • mental flexibility,
  • situational awareness,
  • critical thinking, and
  • empathy.
Astronaut training is intense, preparing us for good and bad days in space (image from winter survival training in Russia).

These are the personal skills we will need to push back the frontiers of deep space – to push back the frontiers of dentistry, healthcare and science. These are the traits associated with enhanced performance, confidence and success.

Your university education has already exposed you to the kind of struggles of which I speak:

  • Many of our grad students here today stayed up late for weeks on end to prepare for the defense of your doctoral theses.
  • Many undergrads worked part-time jobs to support your university studies.
  • Many others ventured, for the sake of your education, to a new country with an unfamiliar language, culture and values.

Having gained new and many skills through your post-secondary education, do not shy away from similar future struggles. Adversity is a key element of a purpose-filled life.

Be aware that by continually venturing outside of our comfort zones, we will be prone to making mistakes.

The lowest point of my career occurred during a training simulation many years ago. I had been asked by NASA Mission Control to shut down a faulty thermal cooling loop on the International Space Station and to switch over the most essential Station equipment from the bad loop to the good one.

However, I inadvertently shut down the good loop instead of the bad. The Station equipment overheated. If that had been a real day in space and not a training simulation, we would have lost the entire Station. I would have become infamous.

But beyond the embarrassment, I learned lessons that day that I never forgot and that served me well later during spaceflight:

  • listen carefully to instructions,
  • ask for help when unsure, and
  • insist on backup when performing critical operations.

That incident and many other training mistakes were formative in forging my abilities as a successful astronaut.

As you leave McGill University, I pass on the same advice to you. Embrace both the highs and the lows of life – the good times and the bad. They will both contribute to your professional growth.

Seek out leaders who do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Seek out co-workers who are drawn to grand, audacious challenges.

Seek out mentors who will help you develop the necessary skills to handle whatever is thrown at you.

I trained and flew with exceptional people who inspired me to perform at my highest level.

To the 2021 graduates, I wish you opportunities and challenges that will build on your time at McGill University.

Félicitations pour un travail bien fait. I’ll watch with pride as you make your mark in the world and will be inspired by your accomplishments.

To family and friends celebrating here today, thank you for the sacrifices you have made, and for standing by your graduate over the course of their degree program.

Let’s be bold.

Let’s embrace adversity.

Let’s pursue the impossible.

And let’s have fun!

It was a privilege to receive an honorary degree from McGill University and to address the bicentennial grads.

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