Convocation address by Iain Bruce, BCom’81, Senior Managing Director, Risk Group, AMBAC Assurance Corp., member of QSB’s Advisory Board

Posted on July 1, 2015

Mr. Bruce delivered the following address at the ARC (Athletics and Recreation Centre) on June 2, 2014, to the graduating classes of QSB’s Commerce, PhD & MSc in Management programs.

Chancellor Dodge, Principal Woolf, Rector Young, Dean Saunders, faculty, parents, and most important, new graduates, it is an honour and a pleasure to be with you today.

As a member of Commerce’81, it gives me great joy to see you here. Thirty three years ago, I sat where you sit today: happy, proud, grateful, excited, anxious...and jobless.

Our class graduated 154 members, only 37% women. Yours is more than twice that size, at 336, and 52% female. Four of us, less than 3%, were from outside Canada, from three countries. Nine percent of you come from outside Canada, representing 12 countries. Fortunately Queen’s has not kept records of the high school marks of my class, but trust me, you guys are smarter and did better in high school, and I am pretty sure you have learned more here than we did.

Your careers will begin more diversely than ours did too. Fifty-eight percent of my class went into chartered accounting, whereas only 27% of your class will do so. But here’s my favourite statistic: the mean starting salary of my class was $16,600 (pre-tax, folks), which is about what your tuition is today. Your average starting salary will better than triple ours.

So a lot has changed, yet much has not. Both our classes spent four years here being intellectually challenged by rigorous courses and first rate professors. Importantly for our careers and our lives, our learning took place as much outside the classroom as inside, through group work and Commerce Society committees and the myriad of extracurricular opportunities that Queen’s has always offered. And whether you know this yet or not, I can assure you that you have made some of the closest friends you will have in your life, and built a support network that will benefit you in ways you cannot foresee today.

The world you are graduating into is expanding and changing at a pace that seems faster than ever before. New companies, whole new industries, come into being, rise, mutate, and fall, in ever shorter timeframes, and this presents real challenges and real opportunities for you. At the risk of sounding like your parents, allow me to share a couple of stories with you, and with luck perhaps, a couple of lessons.

My wife is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in divinity at Yale. I’ll share a divinity school joke with you. A man is caught in a hurricane. As the floodwaters begin to rise around him, he prays, and says to himself, “God will provide.” He has faith, and is sure God will look out for him. The police come knocking on his door, to take him to safety, but he refuses, saying “God will provide.” As the waters fill his living room, he flees upstairs, and a boat comes to his window with two National Guardsmen, there to take him to safety. Again, he declines, saying “God will provide.” The rain goes on and the river keeps rising, and as he clings to his chimney on the roof of his house, a Coast Guard helicopter comes for him, and again, he declines the help, saying “God will provide.”

Perhaps not surprisingly to you or to me, he is swept away and drowns. When he reaches the Pearly Gates, God asks him “What are you doing here?” He says “Lord, I am so disappointed, I was sure you would take care of me in my hour of need!” And God replies, “I sent the police. I sent the National Guard. I sent the Coast Guard. What did you expect me to do?”

There are lots of lessons here, but let’s identify just two. First, the thing you want may not come to you in in the form you expect, nor even in an obvious form. So you have to be alert enough to see it. Second, taking advantage of opportunity is up to you. Your own actions will determine outcomes. Maybe these are the same lesson: you have agency in your own life. Your life and your career are your own responsibility.

How does that work in the real world of rapid change and unpredictable events? The industry I work in did not exist when I graduated, and, for all intents and purposes, it no longer exists today. More, the industry which my part of our company served also did not exist in any meaningful way when I graduated, and does not exist in any recognizable way today. Thousands of people in these industries lost their jobs, and many had a great deal of difficulty finding new ones. None of us today is doing a job that looks anything like the job he or she was doing a few short years ago.

The people who remained employed were those who were nimble enough to see opportunity in disguise. They are the ones who changed their own jobs to stay relevant, who found something constructive to do and who did it. Those who could not adapt were unable to stay, and this was true at every tier on the org. chart: from CEO to accounts payable clerk. This might be more obvious in a business under stress, but it is true in any business or any industry: new or old, growing or dying. Those who remain in control of themselves and their faculties are the ones who make a difference, the ones who move businesses and relationships forward, the ones who thrive. Those who cannot change when change is needed will be very much at risk.

And so we come to another lesson. Make your life govern your career; don’t let your career govern your life, even under stress. And, the same point, really: be true to yourself. Your life and your career are intertwined, very much conjoined. And at times they will probably struggle to dominate each other. Ideally, your career will be interesting, intellectually stimulating, financially rewarding, and psychologically fulfilling. It will cover a large swath of Maslow’s hierarchy. But your career is not your life, and your life ought not be your career.

In today’s business world, it is very easy, easier than ever, I think, to become caught up in one’s career, to be consumed by it. You should pursue your goals and the opportunities that attract you, and if they work out for you, you will be in great shape. But trust me, if your spouse finds you night after night, curled up in a ball under the bathroom sink, sweating profusely and mumbling about the shape of the yield curve, you are in the wrong job. (That’s a true story of a good friend, by the way.) Get out, and find something that is compatible with who you really are.

Strive for some balance in your life. A life crowded with business and devoid of all else is a life full of business, but it is not a full life. Find your friends, your loved ones. Know them and let them know you. Treat them with respect and dignity. Do right by them. And they will do right by you.

That brings us to our third lesson. You are going to be tested in life. And some of those tests will be very hard indeed: much tougher than anything most of you have experienced so far. You may lose your job or become seriously ill. Death may take a friend, a lover, a spouse, a child. The thing to know is that while you can’t choose what happens to you, only you can choose how you respond. It’s agency again.

In 2010, my employer was taken over by its regulator and put into rehabilitation, forbidden to write new business, and its existing business put into runoff. In the preceding two years, we had let nearly half our staff go. Later that year, our parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In September of that year, like you, I came to Kingston, and like your parents, my wife and I helped our son unpack his gear and move into residence. Ten days later, on a gloriously sunny morning, I knelt in the wet grass behind Victoria Hall identifying his body for the police. Some of you knew Cameron. Some of you, I know, were tested by his death. One of you, I know, was his floor-mate and his friend.

In the wake of that annus horribilis, it would have been easy to curl up and hide, to retreat into the enervating solitude of lassitude. Nobody would have criticized it. Everybody would have understood.

But it would have been wrong. It would have been a failure: a failure of responsibility to family and colleagues; a failure of duty to myself and to Cameron’s memory; a failure to live.

Strength, and wisdom in a way, came in a form you will recognize: two bastardized Gaelic words: Cha Gheill, Cha Gheill, Cha Gheill. Loosely translated as, “No surrender.”

And so I took the harder road, but the better one, the more fulfilling one, the right one. My professional position has grown and changed in ways I could not have foreseen, and I am more engaged in my work than I have ever been. In my local community and my larger non-professional world, I have friends and colleagues whom I know in new and different ways, and with whom I share many important goals and much fulfilling work. And at home I have the renewed love of my wife and daughter. To my surprise, really, I have a balanced life, one that is dramatically changed from what it was, but one that is still good and still full.

And that brings us to our last lesson. Remember this place. Hold it close to your hearts, because it is sacred.

I observed earlier that you have made friends here, some perhaps the best friends of your life. On the worst day of my life, 33 years after our own frosh week, four of my classmates dropped everything they were doing and drove hundreds of miles from four different cities to be with me. Beyond your family, your classmates are your support network, and you are theirs. Be there when your friends call on you, and call on them when you need them. And remember where it began.

If you are like me and my classmates, and I suspect you are, Queen’s has shaped you in ways that are not yet fully discernable. You will come in time to realize that this place is not really a physical location, a building, or a campus, though all of that infrastructure is crucial to its mission and to your memory. Queen’s is, really, a state of mind. It has imbued in you a perspective, a strength, a body of knowledge and intuition that will help equip you for what lies ahead, whatever that may be.

You have it in you to succeed, not only in the obvious ways visible through your professional life, but in the ways that matter to your family, to your friends, to your soul. Your life is up to you. Only you can recognize opportunity when it presents itself. Only you can act on that opportunity. Only you can balance your own needs, obligations, and goals. But in doing that, you can depend on your friends to be there for you, and they can depend on you to be there for them.

Congratulations to you all. Go forth now, and make your mark.