Top Ten Secrets of Life

Numerous people have asked for a copy of my speech last month on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from The University of Western Ontario. Here it is, minus a few minutes of introductory remarks:

Convocation may seem like an ending, but it isn’t. It’s what you learn next that counts, and then what you learn after that. So here’s what you can learn today – here are my top ten secrets of life.

  • Secret #1: Choose well. I’m talking about picking your spouse, partner, significant other, whatever description fits best in your case. This is absolutely the most important decision you will make in your young life. I lucked out; may you do the same and may you both enjoy good health and good humour all your days. Laughter really is the best medicine.
  • Secret #2: Always take the most difficult road. If someone asks: do you want to do A or do you want to do B, where A is dead solid simple and B looks insurmountable, pick B, because A will almost certainly be boring. You’ll soon find that B wasn’t as difficult as you feared and you’ll fly higher than you ever thought was possible.
  • Secret #3: Take risks, which is different from taking the most difficult road. Taking a risk is when you do something off-the-wall that’s combusted in your own brain. When Alison went off to university, Sandy and I had our middle-aged crazies together. Sandy walked away from a lucrative real estate career; we rented our house in Toronto and moved to London, England where we lived for 1987-88. In 2004, we did it again. By then, Sandy had gone back to school at the Ontario College of Art and Design. OCAD has a program where a small number of students take their third year of studies at the school’s studios in Florence. Sandy applied for and won a position. I had some portable writing projects so I was able to tag along for those nine wonderful months in Italy. We looked at this time when we stepped outside our ordinary lives as “the now or never plan.” So unique was that experience that we collaborated on a book called, “Fantasy in Florence: Leaving Home and Loving It,” that’s just been published. I wrote the words, Sandy did the illustrations. We’re back living in Toronto – but during those desperately cold days last winter, we could still feel that Mediterranean sun in our bones.
  • Secret #4: Enjoy the moment; you’re a long time dead. Another way of looking at this is to say, revel in the journey, don’t rush to get to some destination. Just remember this: “The past is history, the future is mystery, the present is a gift.”
  • Secret #5: Woody Allen once said, “Eighty per cent of success is just showing up.” You’ll be surprised how often that turns out to be true. Even better, if you show up with an idea that solves somebody else’s problem, you’ll be in the top one per cent. If you haven’t got an idea or need help finding your way, ask the most important person you think might know. People love questions for which they know the answers and you might even uncover a mentor to accelerate your career.
  • Secret #6: Be an optimist. Nobody wants to work with duds. You don’t just find a happy life, you make one. In the same way, you don’t just stumble upon success, you make it. Nor do you learn from success; you only learn from failure. Looking back at the thousands of interviews I’ve conducted over the years with business leaders, the characteristics of the most successful include a capacity to pick yourself up after a fall and push yourself to get going again, a high energy level, excellent communications skills, and a capacity to analyze information that’s available to everyone and then come up with a new thought. Vision is the ability to see the invisible.
  • Secret #7: Trust your instincts. I’m not nearly as good at this as I should be but your first “blink” -?to use Malcolm Gladwell’s term for “gut feel” -?is often all you need. Similarly, in the case of a potential conflict of interest, here’s my definition: If you have to think about it, you’ve probably got a conflict. The same applies to decision-making. There may be occasions when you’ll want to do a careful assessment, by writing down all the pluses and minuses and then weigh both sides, but most times I suggest you follow the method used by the late Peter Gzowski, CBC Radio’s revered morning man. Gzowski would flip a coin. If he looked at the outcome and was filled with disappointment, he took the other course.
  • Secret #8: Do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do. Everybody will tell you the same thing and you’ll pay no attention, but it’s true. Without a passion for something – you’ll achieve nothing. I happen to be passionate about writing. If you asked me, ‘If you could do anything you want tomorrow, what would it be?’ I’d reply, ‘I’d like to spend the day writing.’ I try to write 500 words a day; do that for a year and you’ll have more than enough for a book. I wholeheartedly endorse what novelist Graham Greene once said: “I have no talent. It’s just a question of working, being willing to put in the time.”
  • Secret #9: Seize the moment. Life’s what happens to you while you’re making plans. Most life-changing events are serendipitous. They come as a surprise, like the first frost of fall. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a goal, you should. Sandy wrote two words on a Post-it a while back. I have kept those words in sight and in mind ever since. The words are: “Limitless possibilities.” If you can dream it, you can do it.
  • Secret #10 comes from a lecture delivered in 1922 by J.M. Barrie, the British author best known for Peter Pan. In the lecture, published in a slender volume entitled Courage, Barrie had this to say about what matters in life. “God gave us a memory so that we might have roses in December. The people I have cared for most and who have seemed most worth caring for – my December roses – have been very simple folk.” As for the most important personal characteristic, Barrie said, “Courage is the thing. All goes if courage goes.”

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