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Address to convocation by Dr. Christopher House

Tuesday, May 25, 3 p.m.

I am very grateful to the Senate for this honour, and delighted to see contemporary dance being added to the list of artistic disciplines that have been recognized in this way by Memorial University.

This is a special day for you the graduates and I offer you my congratulations. I know that you are feeling a range of emotions: pride, relief, camaraderie with your friends and family, excitement and trepidation about the future. I hope that you will be able to take a moment today to reflect on some of the best memories of your time at Memorial, and perhaps remember some of the individual professors or fellow students who have inspired or encouraged you with particular generosity.

It is a great pleasure for me to be sharing the stage today with my father, the Hon. Dr. Arthur Maxwell House. I would like to take this opportunity thank him and my mother and my sister, who are here today, for their love, support and inspiration throughout my career.

My parents are passionate, driven individuals who have never believed in half measures – their curiosity about the world and their respect for new ideas taught us to ask questions and seek answers, and inspired us, through their example, with an appetite for travel and new experiences.

At the age of 50, my father took a significant risk in his professional life, moving from his successful practice as Newfoundland’s first neurologist and inventing a new career in Continuing Medical Education. His willingness to take this risk in order to follow a new passion resulted in his award-winning achievements in the field of Telemedicine.

Around this time, I was a student in political science at Memorial. Four years later, as I finishing my degree at the University of Ottawa, I decided – much to the surprise of my family – that I was going to become a dancer. This decision came quickly, in response to a rapid sequence of chance encounters and events that changed my view of the world and my sense of who I was in the world.

I knew I was taking a chance, abandoning a hoped-for future in the foreign service and entering a field that, to say the least, is not famous for its stability, financial rewards or social standing. But I knew instinctively that I was one of the lucky ones: I had found my path. And in retrospect, I realize that I may not have had the courage or insight to follow this path if my parents had not inspired me by their own example.

Becoming a dancer was the defining decision of my life. I remember clearly the exhilaration of cutting loose from all of my comfort zones and diving into this new experience. The risk that I took has provided me with great joy and huge challenges, inspiring me simultaneously as a physical, emotional and intellectual being. It has provided me with a community of like-minded individuals and allowed me to travel the world. I consider myself to be a very fortunate person.

Now at this point you may be thinking – or your parent may be thinking – that I am suggesting you abandon your hard-earned degrees and run away to become dancers. This is not the case. But I’m an artist, and the artist’s job is to provoke and to ask questions – to continue twisting the object so that it can be seen from unexpected angles.

There is much discussion these days about applying the principles of the creative process to all aspects of lives. It is in this spirit, and from my own experience of the creative process, that I am going to suggest some options for your consideration on you’re your Convocation Day.

The first is to encourage you to seek your métier, find a vocation that nourishes you, thrills you, and makes you want to rush to work in the morning. If your job is boring, change the way you approach it or change the job itself. Examine the impulses that led you to take this job in the first place. Then look closely at your life, at the things you enjoy doing, and ask yourself whether there might be a way to create a career from doing those things. The best way to stay alive is to keep learning, finding new challenges and new passions.

Bob Dylan sums this up in his famous lyric. “He not busy being born is busy dying”

Approach every task with Beginner’s Mind, with an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. Be playful. Francis Crick and James Watson had a rule in their lab: every time one of them had a new thought, no matter how seemingly stupid, they had to say it. They voiced a lot of stupid thoughts, but with purpose: they discovered DNA.

Years later, Francis Crick said: “It's true that by blundering about we stumbled on gold, but the fact remains that we were looking for gold.”

The gods of Creativity test us constantly, to see if we’re paying attention. They want us to notice things. If we’re always lost in our thoughts, it’s easy for us to miss what the Fates propose: the unlikely idea, the strange and wonderful idea–the idea, often of profound simplicity, that may be the key to a new discovery.

Talent is not aptitude alone but encompasses courage, stamina, and pleasure in working. Striking while the iron is hot. You have to love the daily work: to commit to developing technical skills, relationships with others and ways of subverting your weaknesses. If you’re doing something you love, this will never be boring. Developing your talent means paying attention, constantly re-calibrating your focal length on the world, zeroing in on the smallest detail, and zooming out to get the big picture.

A large part of talent is the way in which we choose our collaborators. Seek out kindred spirits. Seek out accomplices. Surround yourself with the smartest, the bravest, the funniest, and the most generous. Surround yourself with people you want to spend the day with. Scheme with them, learn from them, spar with them, go on adventures with them. Revel in the luxury of trust and complicity that can be born from this collaboration.

The gods want us to notice things. Our world is changing in unpredictable ways at breathtaking speeds. The ways in which we think, share information, do research or market our wares continue to evolve. We go from one exciting threshold to another. Why not participate on the front lines, noticing what’s happening and anticipating the future?

Be a good citizen. Be involved in shaping the world in which you live and that you wish to bequeath to your children. Know your history, the history of ideas, of religion, of politics, of society. Without history have no context in which to examine our lives, and are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Quoting Oscar Wilde, “A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”

Volunteer, be active, participate in politics. Don’t accept that the system you’ve inherited is hopeless. If there are things about our government that you do not like, speak up. You have a valuable perspective to bring to national and international dialogues and a responsibility to do so. It is important to remember that if you abstain from these discussions, the floor will go to those who are eager to speak– possibly from fear, from greed or from hatred. We live in a small blip in history where – in our part of the world at least– we are free to speak our minds, women have control over their bodies, gay people are free from persecution, and the rights of minorities are protected. Never take these rights for granted, as they can be lost much more easily than they were gained. Keep your eyes open. Notice things before it’s too late.

In all things, find mentors who will tell you the truth. Seek feedback that will inspire you to want to do better work and be a better person. Know the repercussions of your actions.

Speaking as a dancer, I encourage you to treat your body with love. Develop your body with the same care and attention that you bestow on your mind. Imagine a sensitive, sensual, intelligent, responsive body. There is as much pleasure to be had in a discipline of the body as there is in a discipline of the mind.

And finally, be willing to laugh at yourself. Return to beginner’s mind. Keep a sense of play.

This is my favourite quote, from the Buddha: “It is better to travel well than to arrive.”

I love the fact that we use the same word, inspiration, for taking a breath and for having a good idea. This is because the ancient Greeks believed that a collective Mind pervades the universe, in the form of a vapour called the pneuma or spirit. This suggests that ideas are floating in space all around us, and they pass through us in the same way as breath, and can nourish us with the same inevitability as does breath.

I would like to wish you all good things in your journey through life and the great good fortune of finding fulfillment, adventure, community and inspiration in your chosen pursuits.

Thank you.

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