On Jun 20th, 11306 Pierre Rivard received a Doctorate degree, Honoris Causa, from the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering of University of Toronto for his championship and leadership in the field of Clean Tech in Canada and internationally. The most frequent heard during that convocation was “This guy is way too young to be an honorary graduate”. During the ceremony, RMC was mentioned twice as the Alma mater of Pierre.
Following are the written notes for Pierre’s Address to the undergraduates and a picture (Dean Pr. Cristina Amon, Pierre Rivard, Chancellor The Honourable David Peterson). (Link at the end)
Chancellor Peterson, Professor Young, Dean Amon, Professor Ward and esteemed faculty, fellow graduates, ladies and gentlemen.
I am deeply honored and grateful to be among you today.
In the next 10 minutes, I am not going to tell you to dream big, to give back, nor will I give secrets to fulfillment. Many of you are worried about finding a job, starting or restarting a career, finding your path, or building a legacy that you can call your own, after a lifetime of having been told that you are great, that you can achieve anything that you set yourself to do.
So, I would like to tell a story of achieving in the present, of embracing the unexpected, a story of achieving manageable dreams rather than achieving global world-transforming schemes. It is a story of firing bullets on the side of a barn, and then drawing a bulls-eye around each hole to explain how well one can aim. It is a story of finding higher purpose and common thread one chapter at a time. It is a story of flexibility, adjustment and adaptation.
Look where I am today.
I was admitted to the University of Toronto when I was 31.
I registered at the height of a middle-age crisis, similar perhaps to the process that led some of you to be here today.
At the time, I was serving in the Canadian Military, which was undergoing significant downsizing following the fall of the Berlin wall and of Communism, with serving numbers rapidly falling from 78,000 to 56,000 within 2 years; my 21-year military career was going nowhere fast, and I felt an urge to reassess how I wanted to spend the rest of my life and the legacy that I wanted to leave for the second half of my professional life, especially after the Military had posted Catherine and I to Toronto by force against our will. I had left home at age 16 to join the Canadian Air Force and to become a fighter pilot and ultimately an astronaut, neither of which was to happen. Military College was one way to get an education that parents could not otherwise afford for their child, and to get me started on the journey that I had set for myself.
15 years later, by going back to school at age 31, I wanted to show my children that it is never too late to change tack and pursue dreams, and that no matter how far you are from achieving earlier dreams, it is never too late to write a new chapter, including going back to school to better equip you for the next pivot.
So, I quit my job and an appealing pension and security, and embraced the opportunity that the University of Toronto offered to me, which was to pursue a life-long dream of participating and advancing what in the 1970’s was coined the Hydrogen Age. The journey ended up being professionally and financially rewarding to me and my family, although on many occasions it certainly did not appear that it would turn out to be so. The critical steps were triggered by a string of unexpected events, and by making the most of the cards that one is dealt with.
Incidentally, my parents did not attended university, although my father attended chiropractor school in Chicago in the 1950’s, before chiropractice became university-taught. My parents valued education and hard work as a life-transforming opportunity. I suggest that everyone here today did, or will, at some point reach the same conclusion. I remain grateful to this day to my parents for having showed me by example the lessons of hard work, higher purpose, and values.
In a prior entrepreneurial pursuit, I recall another pivotal string of unexpected events. My mother and sister and I had started a courier business in Québec City in the 1980’s specializing in delivering medical samples, X-Rays photos, and the like. I recall once delivering courier to a specialist doctor who happened to have attended the same high school as I did 15 years prior; I recall the look in his eyes, of sympathy that I was now relegated to delivering courier by hand, while he was now a graduated medical specialist doctor. That same day, our only employee driver had tendered his resignation, after having wrecked the Company’s only car in an accident, leaving mountains of undelivered mail in his wake. That same evening, I proposed marriage to a fine young Belgian, who turned down my proposal. That was a proverbial “bottom of the barrel”, common to any entrepreneurial life.
On being looked down by a former classmate, my mother Carmen reminded me that day that no one should be ashamed of any work, as menial as it may be, for work is central to life, as it is service to other fellow men and women. What also kept me going at that time was that I sincerely believed in the higher purpose of what our fledgling Med-Express was doing. We were not just delivering courrier, we were saving lives, as I kept reminding everyone in and around Med-Express. An important message there, for me at least, is that you have to find the social utility, the higher purpose in what you choose to do, regardless of how insignificant the job may appear to others (or even to you at some times).
In Medieval times, the best stone cutters were not those who viewed themselves as stone cutters but rather they were the ones who viewed themselves as cathedral builders, who knew where the stone that they were cutting would fit in the broader scheme of things. Alfred de Vigny in 1835, recalling Napoleonic wars, wrote that any life and work carries its own “Grandeurs et Servitudes”, and it behooves us to define each in what we choose to do. Appearing ridiculed or futile in pursuing a worthwhile cause in a day-to-day job, is secondary to leading the right cause, or making things right. As one poster that appeared on the walls of Hydrogenics said: “You become successful the moment that you move towards a worthwhile cause.”
On being spurned by a girl that I proposed to, it reminded me later in life of a story that we call in our family “l’histoire du vieux chinois”, the story of the old chinese. This zen story teaches that an event which may appear as a curse one day may turn out to be a blessing in disguise at some point in the future, and similarly that what might appear as a blessing may one day turn out to be a curse in disguise. When you are young and most of your life is in front of you rather than behind you, it may not appear to be so, but it could help to remember that it may some day turn out to be true. In my case, being spurned on proposing to a young girl led to other events that allowed me to meet and marry my wife of 25 years, Catherine Paquet, whom I continue to love more every day ever since, and whose name should appear side by side with my name on the degree conferred to me today. Catherine: Je t’aime. I should also thank my two children, Laurence and Simon, for putting up with Dad and with Dad’s dreams over the years, and for not rolling up their eyes as they let me talk my 10 minutes today.
Upon graduating today, you will embark on a journey. Whether you had defined that this journey would be prior to attending University, or whether you have yet to define what that journey will be, the important point to keep in mind is that it is never too late to get going, and that you should not wait to find a perfect match in order to get going at serving a meaningful cause or at finding a higher purpose or dreams. Put aside the video games and the facebook, and, as they say in latin, go play in traffic.
Keep in mind that your calling or your career will change two or three times or more in your life, so it is more important to get going on serving some cause, something, anything, than it is to keep searching indefinitely for the perfect start. Then, work on better defining the social utility and higher purpose of the chapter that you are writing, as it is one of the foundation of a life well lived.
In the course of my life, I have been hired, have been fired, have founded companies and have closed companies, but the common thread was that I always and continue to strive to be an impeccable warrior in service of a worthy cause on a day-to-day basis.
In choosing a calling or a career, I would encourage you to consider CleanTech and entrepreneurship . The quality of the air we breathe, the water that we drink, affect all of us equally, whether we are rich or poor, healthy or sick. We are at the cusp of unprecedented transitions in energy systems, with opportunities and threats that dwarf the opportunities found in social media, information technologies, telecom and the internet combined. The top 10 firms by capitalization and revenues on the Dow Jones index over the past 100 years have consistently been related to energy in one form or another, invariably active in a carbon-intensive way. This may continue for the next 100 years, although the name of these companies will change over time. There are people sitting next to you in this room today who will be on the front line of necessary change, who will succeed by making the attempt at finding more sustainable ways to produce and deliver an energy that will be carbon-free.
The transition will be gradual, albeit massive, as it will not be about breaking through a wall of established global infrastructure of unparalleled scale and influence, but rather, as someone once said, it is about sand-blasting and chipping away at the wall, not knocking it down suddenly.
Lead the transition to low-carbon sources, because the latter are less strategically vulnerable and more sustainable. Also consider creating your own job, if finding one proves difficult. Entrepreneurship is not innate – it can be learnt, specially if you can associate yourself with good partners as I was fortunate to have over the years. Embrace the change and the unexpected.
In closing, I would like to say that I was fortunate to study under a superb cast of mentors and professors while at U of T, at the height of their calling as educators. I have kept touch with them over the years, as they graduated a significant number of the collaborators that made the Companies that I was involved in the companies that they are today. I thank all of them without naming them for fear of forgetting one, including professor Charles Ward who taught Joe Cargnelli and I our first rudiments in hydrogen fuel cells and in the science underlying such wonderful and promising quantum mechanic devices.
As such, the University and its faculty continue to be one of Society’s best engines to solve complex problems, to create wealth, and to build a 21st century economy.
To graduating students, remember to achieve manageable dreams one chapter at a time, and find your higher purpose in the present and in the unexpected. You have an exciting and wonderful and unexpected future ahead of you.
Remember the six L’s of Long Live, Love, Learn, Lead, Laugh.