The other day, Iain Bruce gave the convocation address at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario – his alma mater. Westporters know him as a dedicated Family Y board member, and an avid bicyclist who has raised over $150,000 for breast cancer, AIDS vaccine research and multiple sclerosis. Professionally, he is a senior managing director in the risk group of Ambac Assurance in New York.
Iain started out like many graduation speakers: “33 years ago, I sat where you sit today: happy, proud, grateful, excited, anxious…and jobless.”
But after noting a few differences between his class and the current graduates (there are more women now, and everyone seems smarter), a few similarities (the wonderful experiences they all had in college), and a few bits of advice about taking responsibility for your life, being flexible, seeking balance and doing the right thing, Iain came to the heart of his speech. He said:
You are going to be tested in life. Some of those tests will be very hard indeed: much tougher than anything most of you have experienced so far. You may lose your job or become seriously ill. Death may take a friend, a lover, a spouse, a child. The thing to know is that while you can’t choose what happens to you, only you can choose how you respond.
In 2010 my employer was taken over by its regulator and put into rehabiliation, forbidden to write new business, and its existing business put into runoff. In the preceding 2 years we had let nearly half our staff go. Later that year, our parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
In September of that year, like you, I came to Kingston, and like your parents, my wife and I helped our son unpack his gear and move into residence. Ten days later, on a gloriously sunny morning, I knelt in the wet grass behind Victoria Hall identifying his body for the police.
Some of you knew Cameron. Some of you, I know, were tested by his death. One of you, I know, was his floormate and his friend.
In the wake of that annus horribilis, it would have been easy to curl up and hide, to retreat into the enervating solitude of lassitude. Nobody would have criticized it. Everybody would have understood.
But it would have been wrong. It would have been a failure: a failure of responsibility to family and colleagues; a failure of duty to myself and to Cameron’s memory; a failure to live.
Strength, and wisdom in a way, came in a form you will recognize. 2 bastardized Gaelic words: “Cha Gheill.” Loosely translated: “No surrender.”
And so I took the harder road, but the better one, the more fulfilling one, the right one. My professional position has grown and changed in ways I could not have foreseen, and I am more engaged in my work than I have ever been. In my local community and my larger non-professional world I have friends and colleagues whom I know in new and different ways, and with whom I share many important goals and much fulfilling work.
And at home I have the renewed love of my wife and daughter. To my surprise, really, I have a balanced life, one that is dramatically changed from what it was, but one that is still good and still full.
And that brings us to our last lesson. Remember this place. Hold it close to your hearts, because it is sacred.
I observed earlier that you have made friends here, some perhaps the best friends of your life.
On the worst day of my life, 33 years after our own frosh week, 4 of my classmates dropped everything they were doing and drove hundreds of miles from 4 different cities to be with me.
Beyond your family, your classmates are your support network, and you are theirs. Be there when your friends call on you, and call on them when you need them. And remember where it began.
Queen’s is, really, a state of mind. It has imbued in you a perspective, a strength, a body of knowledge and intuition that will help equip you for what lies ahead, whatever that may be.
You have it in you to succeed, not only in the obvious ways visible through your professional life, but in the ways that matter to your family, to your friends, to your soul. Your life is up to you. Only you can recognize opportunity when it presents itself. Only you can act on that opportunity. Only you can balance your own needs, obligations, and goals.
But in doing that, you can depend on your friends to be there for you, and they can depend on you to be there for them.
Congratulations to you all. Go forth now, and make your mark.
(Iain Bruce’s speech begins about 24 minutes into this video.)