McMaster Engineering Convocation Address – June 2015

I gave this address at the McMaster University Engineering Convocation, on June 12, 2015.

Thank you Chancellor  Large. President Deane. Provost Wilkinson. Dean Puri. Honoured guests. Distinguished faculty. Fellow graduates and honorees. And, most importantly, parents.

I wanted to start with a very exciting personal announcement. An accomplishment that I think you can all relate to. Here it is: This month, this very month, I will have paid off all of my student loans.

So that’s something you can look forward to. 16 or 18 or 20 years from now. You too might have finished paying for your University education. Really, student loans are a monthly reminder of the great value of your education.

What else can you look forward to? And what does that mean for you now? As I was thinking about this day, I racked my brain, thinking about the past 16 years, thinking about my 22 year old self, and what would have resonated with him.

One thing came to mind. Rogaine.

What I realized is that I certainly have a distorted, imperfect memory of my 22 year old self. I don’t know what I was thinking about. What I was dreaming about. What I was feeling as I sat where you sit now.

I also realized that I almost certainly have a distorted view of the past 16 years, the choices I made and the what I wished I would have known. I see the past through either rose tinted glasses or a darkened lens, depending on how I’m feeling about myself and my ambitions, how I’m feeling about others and the world.

And everyone’s path through life is different.

But life has a funny way of collecting wisdom, little souvenirs that you pick up on the side of the meandering road of life. Now — to kill the metaphor for a moment — some of these souvenirs turn out to be cheap plastic trinkets — that ridiculous fridge magnet I bought in Prague with a built-in thermometer.

On the other hand, some of those souvenirs of wisdom turn out to be pure gold. There are two pieces of wisdom, which I consider pure gold, that I will offer you today.

First, beware accepted truths. Beware the hidden pressures of society. Beware the status quo.

It’s all around you. You’ll experience it in the most overt ways. When your first manager tells you that “we don’t do it that way in this company,” and you realize for the first time that the cubicle you were assigned is not just a physical space, but also a metaphor for how your ideas will be confined.

I certainly experienced this when we were starting Engineers Without Borders. We were welcomed to work on issues of poverty and inequality, but only if we sat our cubicle of technical expertise.

Thankfully, we didn’t listen. And now this organization is amongst the world’s most impactful organizations working to address the most pressing challenges in food and water and small business development. Amongst the most powerful advocacy organizations in Canada. Engineers. Standing up and speaking. Articulately. Imagine that.

Well, thousands around Canada and in Africa did and do. But only because we ignored the naysayers. Disobeyed accepted truths. Refused to submit to the status quo.

I won’t pretend that it doesn’t take courage to behave in this way. It does take courage. You may run off in another direction, arms waving excitedly, yelling follow me, follow me. And turn around a year later to find yourself alone in the wilderness. Failure is most certainly one outcome.

But just remember, you could take the most secure job you can imagine, optimizing the production line at Dofasco for example. And in 3 years you might have a pink slip waiting at your desk, as ArcelorMittal has decided to downsize the Hamilton operation.

If failure is always a possibility, why not follow your heart and your passion? Why not challenge the status quo?

Of course, you can only challenge these accepted truths if you know they are there. The subtle pressures are much more insidious. These are hidden forces that erode possibility and guide our behaviour without us even realizing.

The ads that surround us with supermodels, reminding us all of our physical inadequacy. The separate girl and boy sections of Toy R Us. The hundreds of times in the past weeks that you’ve been asked “what job are you heading to?”, implicitly delivering the message that perhaps taking the next few years off to roam the world or volunteer with a charity would be deviant.

Or at a macro level. Issues are framed as poverty reduction strategies, or climate change mitigation plans.

Climate change mitigation. Why are we satisfied with accepting the inevitability of forever shifting the weather patterns of our earth? Of placing billions of people’s livelihoods at risk? It’s like going to a friends house, picking up an expensive antique vase and saying “sorry, I’m about to smash this to smithereens by throwing it on the ground. But have a really great broom that can pick up at least 70% of the pieces.” No. I want my antique vase. I want my daughter to have a livable earth when she grows up.

But these hidden pressures change the frame — mitigation and reduction — and it’s cozier to just accept them as truths.

This is the point when I appeal to your engineering training and engineering instincts. While each one of us brings a different set of skills and personalities to this profession called engineering, there are at least two common traits between us.

Curiosity. And creativity.

It’s not coincidental that these are the two most powerful antidotes to the status quo. Engineers have a long and proud tradition of heresy. Of asking piercing questions. Of calling out doctrine as outdated or irresponsible.

And, most importantly, of offering a creative and different way forward.

I implore you to lean into this tradition of being curious and creative in the face of accepted truths and the status quo.

My second nugget of wisdom: Your values will drive your choices, and your choices define your life.

Let’s dig into this a little more. Certainly there’s a scientific approach to making great decisions — considering multiple options, getting different perspectives, performing data driven analysis. Our training as engineers prepares us extraordinarily well for most choices you will face.

However, there’s an entire class of decision that, I would argue, your engineering education did a terrible job of preparing you for. These are things like: Where should I work? Should I report this questionable practice in my company even though doing so is risky for my career? Should I be a vegetarian? Where should I buy groceries from? Boxers or briefs? Or maybe commando?

These decisions operate on a different plane than logic. And we make most of them unconsciously, our default settings taking hold.

This is why bringing your values to the fore are so critical.

Practically, it’s about, first, choosing to decide more often about things that seem “settled” — like where you buy groceries. Then, when faced with a choice, just close your eyes and picture yourself a week or two after the choice is made. Picture yourself standing in front of a group of Kindergartners and explaining that choice with passion. Picture how you would feel.

That’s your intuition. And your intuition reflects your values.

What I can say is this: The only decisions I truly regret from the past 16 years are decisions when I went against my intuition; decisions that did not ultimately align with my values.

Those are my two nuggets of gold: Beware the status quo. And make values-based choices.

Let me leave you with a couple of parting thoughts.

First, life has a way of picking up the momentum of an 18-wheeler hurtling downhill without brakes. Today you’re graduating, and tomorrow you’re 57 years old with teenage kids and a house in Dundas. Those nuggets of wisdom and other souvenirs that you pick up along the way get lost in the noise of living.

My advice: Set yourself a tripwire. Many tripwires. They might be a yearly letter to yourself. A camping trip each summer. A friend who will ask you tough questions. A sabbatical every 5 years. For me, all of my computer passwords are names of people in Ghana and Zambia and Malawi who remind me daily of my life’s purpose.

Find your tripwires, set them, protect them. If you do, you’ll wake up at 57 years old with no regrets and a life that you will make you proud.

Fellow graduates. We are at a key moment in human history. We are among the most privilged and fortunate people in the world, living in the greatest, most humane and most diverse country in the world. Graduating from a tremendous University.

Fellow graduates, let us have the finger of history point to our generation, on the engineers of our generation, as the ones who stepped up. Who made values-based choices. Who worked on problems that matter to our world.

I know you have it in you. I wish you luck and skill and courage.

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