Keynote Address at the Loran Scholars Foundation’s 27th Annual Dinner
Toronto, Ontario, Friday, February 5, 2016
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What a delight to be here with so many lovers of learning!
To borrow a line from President Kennedy: not since Thomas Jefferson dined alone at the White House has there been such an extraordinary gathering of knowledge and talent!
As participants and supporters of the Loran Scholars program, you’re all part of something very special. Your character, service and leadership potential have earned you a place in this room.
Bravo to you all!
The Loran Scholars Foundation does so much for the cause of learning in Canada. I want to thank and commend all of the volunteers, donors and supporters who are here this evening.
Without you, none of this would happen.
This is a forward-looking group, so I’ll focus my remarks on three themes. I know they’ve been consistent keys to success for me. They are:
an open mind;
the ability to synthesize information and ideas.
First, the critical importance of having an open mind.
As the saying goes: minds, like parachutes, work best when open!
When I was a student, I had an experience that allowed me to realize how profoundly an open mind enables our learning. It was as if a light bulb had switched on in my brain.
What happened? Well, I was enrolled at Harvard and taking a first-year course in American intellectual history taught by a Professor Fleming—a renowned and wonderful teacher.
When Professor Fleming gave us the course syllabus, I looked for the title of the textbook we would use on intellectual history.
I was an eager student, excited to get started. There was only one problem: there was no textbook.
Instead, the professor had assigned different readings from different sources, each taking a unique perspective on this history at hand.
Dutifully, I wrote summaries of each article or book, only to realize that each interpretation of the same history was different.
I asked Professor Fleming: which interpretation is the right one? Which one is the truth?
“Maybe none of them,” he said.
The light went on!
It’s by having an open mind, and carefully considering as many different perspectives and interpretations of a problem as we can, that we get closer to the truth. This was such a valuable lesson for me.
Now let me talk about my second theme: resilience, and how important it is to success.
It’s often said that only the strong survive, but in fact, this is untrue. Darwin knew that it’s the most resilient who survive and thrive. Merely being strong isn’t enough.
To hearken back to my schooling at Harvard again, I think one of the great aspects of my education there was the requirement that students enroll in courses outside of their respective areas of expertise. I know this is quite common nowadays, but back then it was a revelation.
I was studying law, but some of the most useful things I learned there came in totally unrelated fields.
One was a course in the science of life. Another, a study of the New Testament. And the third was an introduction to classical music, which I’ve been passionate about ever since.
Those three courses forced me out of my comfort zone, and I’ve tried to remember ever since that getting out of your comfort zone and embracing new challenges is essential for personal growth.
You all know this instinctively. That’s why you’re supporters and past and present participants in this program. You’ve taken meaningful risks and focused on results, and all of you have served your communities.
That takes guts and determination—and succeeding takes resilience.
Lastly, I want to talk about the ability to synthesize complex information and perspectives, and to achieve results.
Perhaps this, too, is best illustrated with a story.
I’m sure that many of you have heard of Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and a number of other insightful books.
Well, when I was serving as president of the University of Waterloo, Mr. Gladwell gave an address to students there, where he talked about the defining characteristics of the modern organization.
He told us about a visit he had made to CAE, a company that specializes in modelling, simulation and training for pilots.
During his visit, he saw a demonstration of a sophisticated flight simulator the company had developed. The particular scenario he observed was of a plane in an emergency situation facing engine failure.
There were two pilots-in-training undergoing the simulation, and Mr. Gladwell observed them closely to see how they handled the situation.
He noticed three things:
The pilots divided responsibility for the cockpit between them and rapidly shared relevant information. In doing so, they converted hard data into information into applicable knowledge.
This critical need to share information quickly and accurately required seamless communication between them.
There was a complete absence of hierarchy between them as they worked together under pressure to guide the plane to safety.
The lessons here are simple but profound: share tasks and responsibilities; communicate relentlessly; focus on working together rather than on where you stand in the hierarchy.
I think this is a pretty good formula for success in today’s world. We live in complex, rapidly-changing times, with a great deal of information coming in, problems to solve and opportunities to seize.
These skills and characteristics—open minds, resilience, an ability to synthesize and share complex information—will serve Loran scholars and indeed all of us well in the years to come.
Congratulations on being part of this remarkable program, on supporting it and encouraging and moulding the next generation of Canadian leaders. And thank you again for working so hard to support learning in this country.
Have a wonderful evening!