Reflections On “Pivotal” Life-Altering Events

Convocation Address
Chief Justice Warren K. Winkler
May 9, 2013, University of Calgary, Faculties of Law, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and Graduate Studies

 

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
. . .
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.

Rudyard Kipling

 

Some of you will recognize these words from the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. I will come back to them, and suggest what we might learn from them today on this very special and happy occasion.

Let me begin, however, by congratulating all of you who are graduating today, and also your families. This is a very important, life-altering, pivotal event in your lives. To have come this far in your studies, to have succeeded in earning your degree in a difficult and challenging program, each of you and your families has had to make great sacrifices. That is why today is one of joy and celebration. Today makes all those sacrifices worthwhile.

Today also marks a defining moment, a pivotal event, in each of your lives.

What makes it pivotal is that going forward now, from this very moment, many choices will inevitably confront you. Some will strike you as more important than others; all of them will ultimately define who you are or ought to be. When the next big choice presents itself, first have the courage to make it. Don’t be fearful. Fear has the capacity to paralyze us, to make choice-making impossible. Second, since you are always in a context or situation, be aware that every choice you make is also in a context or situation. It proceeds out of a set of values and beliefs which all of you have, many of which have been imparted to you by your parents, teachers and others. There is no substitute for sound advice and good information. I urge you to be decisive. Make the choice, make it boldly, and say of it: “I now believe that this is the correct one, but I also believe that I may change.”

In this way, and by virtue of these decisions -- these choices -- your career and in fact your whole life is shaped inexorably. It is also shaped deliberately, and intelligently.

That said, there can be no doubt in your relatively young lives that you have already experienced pivotal events and made important choices in relation to them. Those events, and those choices, have brought you here. Many of them are by now irreversible.  Others may not be, and may still be corrected, if they are wrong, or modified to meet the new context or situation you are now in.

Some pivotal points are easily identified as such when you decide them. You will agonize over them perhaps. But in certain cases at least, the choices you have made will only strike you as pivotal in hindsight, when the passage of time allows their impact to become more obvious. By then, it may well be too late for reconsideration.

Still, the fact that you are here participating in this wonderful ceremony means that, overall, the choices you have made thus far in response to the pivotal events in your lives have been good ones. With your graduation, you will necessarily join an elite category of future societal leaders. These days, we refer to you as “change agents”. Human change agents are, or are counted on to be, leaders. And leaders usually possess a particular cluster of qualities, they are: decisive, competent, confident and ambitious. I have little doubt that many, if not all, of you have these attributes. You wouldn’t be here otherwise.

I owe it to you to apply some of these notions about pivotal moments and choice-making to my own life in the hope that you will one day do the same. We cannot help but learn from occasional moments of meaningful self-reflection.

In the time remaining, I want to reflect briefly on two pivotal events in my life that have had a powerful effect on my career.

From the age of six weeks I grew up in Pincher Creek, a hundred or so miles south of here.  Pincher Creek was a small, rural community then. It was a wonderful place to grow up. It was also, however, insular in many respects. Modern communication of the type we all take for granted didn’t exist mid-way through the last century.

The summer following my graduation with my undergraduate degree I had no career plans. This is indicative of my callow and feckless youth. On a day off from my oilfield construction job, I sat high on a mountain side looking out over a hundred miles of distant prairie. I found myself preoccupied with a much overdue concern: what should I do next in my life? I considered a career as a professor and rejected it. I couldn’t get out of my mind’s eye those disturbing images of tweed jackets and of dust mites gleaming in the sun. (No offence to the fine professors who have honoured you and me by their presence here today.) Then I thought of biology. No, that wouldn’t do: biology was always and only going to be my hobby, not my life’s work. Finally, my mind turned to law. I didn’t know any lawyers, judges or anyone involved with the law. I had seen a movie with a glamorous lawyer as the main character. I’ve told you that in my youth I was callow and feckless; well, I was shallow too. So law it was.  I hand-wrote letters to all of the law schools in Ontario, because I wanted to go east, and was accepted at all four. I chose Osgoode Hall Law School because it had the glossiest calendar.

After graduation, I was articling at a prominent Toronto law firm. I was helping on a major labour case involving the St. Lawrence Seaway. One morning the senior partner picked up the phone and told the switchboard lady to “get me the Prime Minister.” In seconds he was demanding of “Lester”, Prime Minister Lester Pearson, to establish a public inquiry. He did so. A couple of days later I walked up to Osgoode and into Professor Harry Arthurs’ office and asked if I could do an LL. M. with him in Labour Law. A few hours later I quit my articling job. In a flash, I had made a choice to pursue a career in the field of labour law as a specialty. All of this happened without any real thought or reflection and with no advice from anyone. As I think back upon it now, it was an impetuous choice. As it turns out, it was also life altering.

Studying with Harry had many benefits, one of which was being invited to lunch with one or the other of his several thousand friends. One day he invited me to join him, and his acquaintance this time was a man from Alberta by the name of Peter Lougheed. Peter became interested in me as soon as he found out that I came from Pincher Creek. He asked me to visit him at Christmas time at his new law firm Lougheed, Ballem and McDill, here in Calgary.  I seized the opportunity, and when I came for the visit, the conversation was positive and moved along at electric speed. To my joy and surprise, Peter invited me to join the firm as an associate. Then he asked what kind of work I wanted to do. “Labour Law,” I replied. His face fell, as though he was suddenly stricken with the palsy. “There isn’t any labour law in Alberta,” he said, because there were no unions. Then there was a kind of deathly silence. When it finally lifted, he said: “My advice to you is to stay in Ontario.” I was shocked, and very disappointed. In the moment, I thought I was a failure. I felt rejected. It was not the choice I had hoped for or expected. But I took his advice.

Fast forward almost fifty years. I was now in my current role as Chief Justice of Ontario. One evening I had completed a speaking engagement in a downtown hotel and was waiting in the lobby to be picked up. I noticed an airline limousine pull up and out got Peter Lougheed. He entered the lobby and was standing a few feet from me getting his bearings when our eyes met. We hadn’t seen each other since that fateful lunch in 1963 in Calgary. He thrust out his hand, smiled at me and said: “Best advice I gave you was to stay in Ontario.”  “You are right, Premier,” I replied. Little had I known that he had been following my career all those many years and recognized me in an instant. No wonder he was the most successful Premier in the history of this country.

To return to the sage advice of Kipling with which I began, if you can dream and think, but also do more than that -- if you can act and deliver on those dreams and thoughts -- you will surely have success in your life. The world cannot do without geniuses or visionaries, but as Thomas Edison remarked, “a vision without execution is hallucination.” And if, as Kipling also says, you should happen to meet with Triumph and Disaster, you will have developed the good sense to regard both the triumph and the disaster as just the same: pivotal points along your journey, from which to learn and grow. You will dwell upon them for a moment or two, if you like, but then you will move on in full knowledge of the fact that complete success is somehow always elusive, and cannot in any event ever be attained without occasional setback or failure. In my own case, for better or for worse, by narrowing my field to labour law, I had specialized my way right out of Alberta. However, in doing so I had also opened myself up to a whole fund of opportunities, including the possibility of becoming Chief Justice of Ontario.

Honour and cherish the pivotal, defining moments as they arise in your life. Learn from them. Build upon them. Today, as I say, is one such moment. It should also be a proud moment. It calls for celebration, and excitement, and relief.  It signifies that one part of your journey is soon to be over. I paraphrase Churchill when I say to you:  This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But for you it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. For, tomorrow you must start again.  I wish you nothing but the best.

Thank you most sincerely for inviting me back to this beautiful province, and to this hallowed institution. I will always cherish the honour and distinction you have bestowed upon me today. Home is where the heart is. I am very glad to be home.

Thank you so very much.

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