06/22/2012 05:32 EDT | Updated 08/22/2012 05:12 EDT

The Business of Happiness: A Convocation Address


Last week I was convocation speaker at the University of Toronto graduation ceremony where business students from the Mississauga campus received their BBA and BComm degrees. These are the remarks I made to the Class of 2012:

Graduands, I offer my most heartfelt congratulations to each of you for your accomplishments. I also offer my sincere apologies to those of you who took my investments class and hoped you had heard my voice for the last time.

Depending on the courses you took while pursuing your undergraduate degree, I expect you have learned how to maximize shareholder value in your finance classes, how to balance the books in your accounting classes, how to sell products and maybe ideas in your marketing classes, how to negotiate positive outcomes in your organizational behavior classes, and how best to manage technology in your communication, culture, and information technology classes. These are all important lessons for the worlds of commerce and technology, but today I will focus on some different life lessons that you may easily have overlooked in the hustle and bustle of the journey you took to end up sitting in front of me now.

When I was receiving my last university degree, sitting among a sea of fellow graduands and looking forward to the rest of my life as you are now, I was two and a half years into cancer treatment, working hard to recover from a bone marrow transplant. I was completely bald under my convocation cap. And I was caught a bit off guard when the master of ceremonies instructed the entire graduating class to remove their caps! (It's OK, I'm told I have a very nicely shaped head. Well, it's my mother who told me that, but I'm sure she was telling the truth.)

As I sat in my convocation regalia all those years ago, with my uncapped bald head, I contemplated the next chapter of my life with, perhaps, a slightly different perspective than many of you may have right now. I faced less-than-ideal prognosis -- at that time, my odds of living five years were estimated to be one in four. Fourteen years later, I can gratefully say I beat those odds, but looking down the barrel of that gun, right then, I faced much uncertainty.

As I thought about what I wanted to do, and what I needed to do, with my remaining time, I realized in my heart that I could never measure success in life in dollars, any more than I could put a dollar value on the love and support I received from family, friends, and even kind strangers, strangers who volunteered their time in cancer-patient support groups, helped with cold feet before medical procedures, or sometimes just offered a knowing glance or a simple hug. What dollar value could I put on the absence of worry that comes with free health care, blood transfusions whenever needed, and even homecare assistance? What salary could compensate the countless individuals who gave more than could ever be measured to someone like me, just because I was in need?

In all that receiving, I learned, for myself, the importance of giving. I heard from many people who make volunteer work a cornerstone of their lives that giving, in fact, yields more reward for the giver than the receiver.

And so I'm here today to ask you to ask yourself what you can do to give back for the abundance you've received in your own life: to make your community better, to make your family stronger, to help a stranger just because they need your help.

Giving can take different forms for different people. For some, giving means being generous to their alma mater, an institution that helped them get where they are today and where they are going in the future. You can give back to your university by becoming a donor once you're on your feet financially, or by coming back to volunteer for special events, or by eventually providing career guidance to students hoping to follow in your footsteps. For some giving means helping the most helpless members of our community, by adopting an animal from the pound, providing foster care for a needy child, or serving meals at a shelter for the homeless. You can give back (and even save lives!) by putting your name on the bone marrow donation registry, or by donating blood or platelets.

You can give back to your community by volunteering for a charity, or at an arts festival. You can give back by pursuing your passion to solve a difficult problem that plagues humankind, maybe even a problem we have no hope of having the technology to solve today, but one that your drive and perseverance will help unravel. Heck, you can give back by smiling at someone who is having a bad day, or by holding a door open a few seconds longer to aid someone who isn't very quick on her feet.

Small or big, there are many, many ways to make a difference. And I hope you'll find ways to make a difference every day. You and your world will be better and happier for it.

So, to the Class of 2012, as you leave Convocation Hall and take your first steps toward the rest of your life, I wish you good health, I wish you good fortune, and above all else, I wish you profound happiness, the kind of happiness that spills over and brightens the whole world.