Courage, emotion, intuition and love … and engineering!

University of Calgary Commencement Address – June 9, 2014

By George Roter on receipt of a Honorary Doctor of Laws

Thank you President Cannon, Chancellor Dinning, Dean Rosehart for this tremendous honour. Thank you fellow graduates. And thank you to the incredible supporters of these graduates who are here today—this day is as much yours as anyone else’s.

Since Chancellor Dinning has already set the stage by increasing my likeability, let me begin with a caveat and a thinly veiled attempt at applause! The caveat: I wrote this speech on the plane from Toronto this morning. Why? Well, exactly 59 hours and 29 minutes ago, as the dawn broke the darkness over Toronto, my amazing wife Sari and I welcomed our daughter Aliyah into this world.


As you can imagine, I’ve had about 8 hours of interrupted sleep, in total, in the past 4 days. That makes me about as sharp as most of you were while writing the final lines of your 4th year, Master’s, or PhD theses. I’m convinced that the chronically underslept engineer is why someone came up with the brilliant design idea called “factor of safety”.

Now that I’ve set expectations appropriately, I’d like to tell you an old East African parable.

“It begins with a great, powerful typhoon, with a torrential driving rain that flooded the land. After the storm had subsided, an unforunately monkey found himself stranded on an island. In a secure, protected place on the shore, while waiting for the raging waters to recede, he spotted a fish swimming against the current. It seemed obvious to the monkey that the fish was struggling, thrashing about in the water, in need of assistance. With love in his heart for all living creatures, the monkey resolved to help the fish.

A tree precariously dangled over the spot where the fish seemed to be struggling. At considerable risk to himself, the monkey inched bit by bit, far out on one of the tree limbs. He reached down and snatched the fish from the threatening waters. Quickly, the monkey scurried back to the safety of his shelter and he, ever so carefully, laid the fish on dry ground. For a few moments the fish showed excitement. Soon, the fish settled into a peaceful rest.

Joy and satisfaction swelled inside the monkey. He had successfully helped another creature.”

When I first encountered this parable, I thought the lesson was an obvious one: The world is full of armies of monkeys, travelling down roads paved with good intentions.

But I’ve come to understand this parable differently, especially in the past few days.

In the parable, the monkey’s intentions weren’t empty. These intentions were supposedly driven by love, for all living creatures. That begs the question, “what is love?”

I think I understand it now. Love was the uncontrollable surge of tears I felt when I first saw my daughter in her mother’s arms 60 hours ago, the automatic and repeated “I love you, I love you, I love you, I’m so proud of you” that I spewed forth as a blubbering mess through those tears.

Love was the deep, insatiable curiosity that ran through my mind as I watched young Aliyah sleep and dream on that first day, her breath changing and eyelids flickering, deeply aware of when her sleep was moving between shallow, REM cycles and deep sleep. What could she possibly be dreaming about less than 12 hours out of the womb?

Love was the deeply intuitive sense that I developed even by last night: One type of crying to let us know she was hungry. Another, nearly undetectably different cry to let us know her diaper was full of poo.

And speaking of poo, love was the running commentary at about 1am last night at what was filling her diaper. I honestly would have never guessed at the intense interest I would have of colour, texture, density and volume of her shit. Nor would I have guessed at that pure joy this would bring me.

Right now, love is standing up here on stage delivering a speech to 600 deserving fellow graduates and yet the overwhelming emotion is missing my new daughter and not being able to imagine my life without Aliyah.

The fabulous author Jonathan Franzen once wrote that love is “a bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.”

So back to the monkey’s love for all living creatures. I doubt it. Just as I now doubt that I myself love all of humanity, or that I love nature. Or that I just love my Android phone, or that I love House of Cards, or this suit that I’m wearing.

Loving any of these things, or even ideas, doesn’t require me to give up anything of myself. Contrast that with loving Aliyah. When she falls and hurts herself—as she inevitably will—that will hurt me at a constitutional level. When she behaves in a way that I would disapprove of, or makes choices I find distasteful—as she likely will—that will tear a little hole in my heart.

And so back to our monkey.

Did he love that fish as the parable claimed? I doubt it. Otherwise, his intentions would not have been so devoid of empathy and context. And while his actions of literally going out on a limb to save the fish were physically dangerous, his choices did not in any way threaten his sense of self.

That leads me to the monkey’s choices and how they were made. Now, perhaps this was because he was only a monkey, but that monkey’s choices surrounding the rescue struck me as lacking any decent technical analysis.

He didn’t sit back to calculate the moment arm of his venturing onto that limb, and whether it was structurally sound enough to avoid catastrophic failure. He certainly didn’t build a partial differential equation that would solve for the variability in the water’s surge, to allow him to take probabilistic approach to assessing the risk of the branch being enveloped in water. Based on this parable, it’s clear this monkey wouldn’t be graduating with a degree in engineering here today.

But the question is this: Was the lack of technical analysis inherently bad? Isolating this for the moment from the broader context of the fish, should the monkey have been more technically minded.

If you take the cue from how all of us were trained as engineers, the answer is obvious: The monkey’s approach was distinctly lacking rigour. In engineering, we worship at the altar of careful calculation, of breaking down problems into their constituent parts, of coming up with multiple alternatives that we can judge against specific criteria. Every course I took in University, and every purely engineering analysis I have come across since has had the same fundamental approach.

What I’ve learned over the past 15 years in my work with Engineers Without Borders is that this approach—which I interpret as an attempt to remove intuition and emotion from decision-making—is both severely limiting and a dramatic practice of self-deception.

In fact, my experience is that the most powerful contributions we make as engineers are when we fully embrace the intuitive and emotional side, in combination with our technical prowess. My own example is telling.

15 years ago, like you are today, I was graduating with a Bachelor’s in Engineering. Also like many of you, I was considering what would come next. Along with my classmate Parker Mitchell, there was this idea of creating an organization called Engineers Without Borders. What was the idea born out of? A deep technical analysis of global poverty, the various organizations and entities working on that problem and it’s root causes? A clear set of options about how to structure an international organization? A well-developed set of policies and project management processes?

None of the above. In fact, I believe to this day that if we stopped to really think through what we were going to do, we never would have started. Let me try to capture how outrageous this was:

Two privileged 22 year-olds, who had never been to Africa, Asia or anywhere else where poverty was endemic, who had precisely 8 work terms between them of experience, and no resources except a few credit cards. These two people were setting out to tackle one of the world’s most complex challenges, not satisfied with helping a few people get out of poverty, but with a mission to change how the world tackles poverty. They were going to start a movement of thousands of engineers and engineering students across Canada, with a goal of changing how engineers approach their role and contributions to society.

And yet, Parker and I sparked a match that grew into a burning flame of social change, stoked by the incredible contributions of hundreds and thousands of amazing leaders and EWBers. While none of this would have been possible without our engineering training, it also would not have been possible without the emotion and intuition and passion of the thousands of people on whose shoulders I stand today.

In fact, I strongly believe it was emotion and intuition that carried the day through the most important moments. Responding to my leadership failures—the disappointment they represented and the hurt they caused others—with a renewed energy to try again or to try differently. That was driven by emotion and intuition. Constantly revising a vision, coming up with new ideas, never settling—emotion and intuition. Thousands of mind-wrenching, ambiguous decisions on what to do and how to do it—emotion and intuition.

I’ve witnessed the same in so many others, especially around choices about where they should apply their energies in life. My friend and UofC grad—now fellow UofC grad—Dave who is applying his mechanical engineering degree to working for a solar energy company in Kenya. Jason and Eli, UofC grads who work on environmental policy. Dena, a UofC grad who is working to spark a revolution in how engineering is taught. And my fellow graduate today and good friend, Patrick Miller, who is dedicating his immense talent to shaping our urban landscapes. All of these powerful choices were based on a foundation of technical competency, and driven by emotion and intuition.

But sometimes those choices don’t work out, which brings us back to our monkey again. What we realize when hearing this parable is that the monkey is not someone else, an “other”. We are all the monkey.

We can’t hate him any more than we can hate ourselves. We can’t deride his naivete any more than we can deride our own. We can’t make him our enemy without realizing that enemy is within each of us.

And that takes me to a view of the world we live in. A world that has been badly stewarded by generations who came before us. A world that needs us.

I believe humanity is at a turning point. We are faced with a multitude of complex challenges. A changing climate, concentrating wealth and increasing inequality, dwindling natural resources, changing global power structures, among others. Among others.

These challenges are different. The 70th anniversary D-Day commemoration last week reminded me just how different these challenges are. Defeating the Nazis was the defining challenge of our parents’ and grandparents’ time. Storming Juno Beach required bravery and courage. The enemy was clear, the existential threat was palpably urgent, and we knew what we needed to do.

The challenges that our generation are facing are a silent D-Day. Instead of a clear enemy, we are all the enemy. Instead of palpable urgency, the threat is diffuse and hard to see. And instead of clear actions, it is tremendously ambiguous as to how we should act or what is needed.

Faced with this, we have options: We can stand down, choose willful ignorance, engage in self-interested defensiveness, or wait. This is largely how the world is responding today.

And it’s understandable. It’s relatively easy to react to my own privilege—in comparison with my friend Sahada in rural Ghana, or the hundreds on the Siksika First Nation struggling to recover from last year’s flooding— it’s relatively easy to respond with acts of charity. It’s much harder to even ask the question: Does my privilege require their deprivation? What is just and what is right? And that’s before even approaching solutions that will address the fundamental problem.

So let me bring this back to you, fellow graduates. All of you will be on the front lines of these challenges, especially those of you who choose to work in the oil and gas industry. Our climate is changing, it’s urgent that we do something, and this industry is clearly important in any solution.

Faced with this reality, I urge you to be as brave and courageous as those who stormed Juno Beach. Please, don’t ignore there’s a problem. Please, don’t be defensive in justifying your career choices and the quality of life this industry avails you. Please, worst of all, don’t declare that the enemy is either the oil companies themselves or the activists who oppose them.

Instead, as an engineering graduate, recognize that you—every single one of you in this room—has more power than you might think. Great power. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in the past 15 years with Engineers Without Borders, it is this: That young people, young engineers like all of you absolutely have the power to change the world. That’s not a slogan, it’s a fact. You absolutely have the power to change the world around you.

But only if you choose to. Only if you remember the parable of the monkey and the fish. You must have the courage to see yourself as the monkey. Embrace your emotion and intuition even if they increase the risk of failure. And, most importantly, you must find and embrace love, the kind of love born out of a revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are.

On my graduation day today, my daughter Aliyah has redoubled my own efforts and choices. My wish and hope is that she will inspire yours. Congratulations, and good luck.

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