It seems so long ago now. We had all just finished university and moved back in with our parents. Mere months since our first exposure to “the real world”, we were meeting one evening to lick each other’s early employment wounds.
Time magazine had recently labelled ours the “Twixter generation,” a cohort who refused to grow up, move out of parental basements and get down to the serious business of being respectable, child-rearing and middle class. The supposed “Quarter-Life Crisis” seemed more like clever PR-speak to the three of us, but it was impossible to deny our friends were more like Hamlet than Howard Hughes. Plagued with questions and devoid of answers, our twenties were not turning out to be the wonderland we’d been promised.
Paul and Alex wanted to be writers – or at least that’s what they told fashionable girls at parties. Their minds were a mess of scattered, hilariously contradictory “what ifs” and “I could nevers”. They wanted to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, bring something helpful and new into the world and make some money to boot. Should be easy, right? But where on earth do you start?
Andrew, meanwhile, had a better idea of where he was going. He wanted to be a financial planner. Unfortunately, despite his vision and initial success, he was lacking for good advice.
For that very reason, he had spent lunch with a major player in the finance industry. Encouraged by a friend, Andrew phoned the man’s office, explained he was a keen twenty-something and set up a lunch. He left the meeting galvanized. The man had shared his entire life story, a tale replete with honesty and marvellous advice. Is that all it took? Was it as simple as phoning? Why had he always assumed it was so difficult to get people’s attention? Perhaps successful people were more open to talking about their lives than he had assumed.
“We could write a book,” he later exclaimed to us. “We could interview successful Canadians, ask them how they got started, and then write a book full of profiles, looking at how each one made it big.”
If you know Andrew, you know his energy is obnoxiously infectious. While the idea seemed like a long shot – why, for example, would these people want to participate in a book written by a bunch of nobodies? – Paul and Alex agreed.
Four days later, we met in Alex’s parents’ basement to brainstorm who we should approach for an interview. It soon became clear that each of us had a wholly different idea of how to focus the book. In our initial discussion, Andrew had called it a “look at successful people in their twenties.” But what on earth did “successful” mean? Definitions depend entirely on one's personal values. None of us could agree. Was money our yard stick? International recognition? Or maybe positive social impact? That sounded good, but how could you decipher “positive” from “negative” without stumbling into the realm of value judgments yet again?
With the benefit of hindsight, we’ve been able to conclude that the word “success” applies to anyone who, by living according to their own personal dictates and desires, leaves a mark on the social fabric. Those who have agreed to participate in this book come from every corner of the country, myriad positions on the political spectrum and a wide variety of fields. Some are incredibly wealthy and others are less so. Some believe in the market; others distrust it. In the end, what unites them is that, whether initially unsure, clear-eyed, or beset by hardships, all have left a mark on the world.
“If you get people on the phone,” Andrew always contented, “they will talk with you.” His dictum has proven true. Whether it was the half-hour conversation we had with Brian Mulroney from a cell phone in a Brooklyn basement or the meeting we had between beeper emergencies with Toronto cardiologist Tirone David, the three of us have found our subjects remarkably accommodating.
Cartoonist Lynn Johnston invited us to her gorgeous lake-side studio outside of Corbeil, Ontario. After a five a.m. departure from Toronto, we embarked up the frozen 400 highway, spent two hours awaiting a salt truck on an impassable stretch of northern roadway and rescued two stranded locals, only to arrive in time for a fantastic lunch and a three-hour interview. Johnston even asked if we’d like to stay the night. We would have loved to. Unfortunately, we had to work the next morning.
The late June Callwood met us for an hour’s coffee in the lobby of Raymond Moriyama’s Toronto Reference Library. After cheekily insisting that we were all wasting our educations on such a ridiculous project, Callwood bristled at the notion that she was a feminist icon and then proceeded to mist up as she recalled her early days at Maclean’s magazine. Then, after regretfully meditating on the decline of “journalistic integrity” in her field, with a nod and a cheeky smile, she darted like a flash across Yonge Street and receded into the crowds of her beloved city.
She knew she was ill. She knew the value of her time. And she didn’t know us from Adam. We didn’t have a publisher. We were just a bunch of goofy guys with a strange penchant for pestering famous Canadians. But June Callwood agreed to sit with us and give a small piece of herself to the book.
We were unknowns, and we knew it. But so long as we didn’t stop annoying people with phone calls, everyone was willing to grant us time. Matthew Coon-Come agreed to an interview – provided we could catch him that is. We repeatedly scheduled interviews with Coon-Come, only to find a busy signal or pre-recorded message when we phoned him at the pre-arranged time.
Perhaps it’s because we’ve been convinced of the superior sheen of American success stories, or perhaps the Canadian sensibility makes us feel goofy about celebrating ourselves, but we live in a country where most people are flattered that anyone would want to ask questions of them. The few who refused to sit for our book did so because they felt they didn’t deserve to be included in such a work. We kept insisting that the book wasn’t a list of “Great Canadians”, but they humbly declined the opportunity nonetheless.
It sounds silly, but working on this book has helped instil a greater sense of what some in other countries might call “patriotism”. We prefer to think of it as simple appreciation. We appreciate that we live in a country that doesn’t crow about itself, pat itself compulsively on the back or grandstand on the international stage. Our self-effacing nature no doubt stems from living in a colonial shadow, living next to a colossus and living with some of the most sublime and raw natural landscapes the planet has to offer. Canadians can’t help but feel small in relation to the largest factors affecting our identity and culture.
In approaching participants, we wanted to ensure the book reflected not only a diversity of ages and backgrounds, but a diversity of approaches to the question of success as well. During the three years we worked on this project, we interviewed everyone from thirty-two-year old virtuoso conductor Yannik Nézet-Séguin to ninety-year old lemming expert Dennis Chitty, from Olympic wrestler Daniel Igali to children’s entertainer Raffi, from former B.C. Premier and federal Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh to award-winning filmmaker Patricia Rozema.
They say that the general reader is dead. They say that we all belong to microscopic niches rather than larger, national or international communities; that an accountant can’t learn from the story of a painter or vice versa; that someone in one region of the country has nothing to learn from someone in another. We don’t buy that argument for a second. And we hope, after you’ve read the incredible and diverse stories in this book, that you won’t either.
Since beginning the project, we have been asked countless times about what we’ve gained from the experience of talking to so many distinguished people. Many friends have suggested that the book needed an over-arching idea, a lesson or a self-help banner.
Yes, perhaps this would have sold better if we’d called it The Seven Easy Tips of Success or unearthed evidence that Canada’s most successful citizens all happen to be descendants of the same alien species that crash landed somewhere in the middle of Saskatchewan in the 1920s.
Each of us has taken completely different advice and inspiration from the stories contained here. We’re all remarkably different people, with remarkably different goals. As we knew when we began the book, success has little to do with building swimming pools or towers of money. It is a concept that only makes sense in relation to an individual’s values and aspirations. To write a book that clearly outlined and underscored a few specific “keys” to success would be ridiculous. As a result, we’ve opted to present the stories in as bare and pure a form as possible. We let the interviewees – well over fifty of them – speak for themselves. Though we split them into three groups (those who took their time, those who persevered and those who blazed a trail), there is nothing categorical about what they have to say. Sitting down with this book should feel – we hope – like sitting down for a coffee with one of our participants. Take from them what you will.
If there is one thing that connects the stories in this book, it’s nerve. This isn’t the typical quality we associate with Canadianness. Canadians always ask politely, always say “thank you” and follow even the most antiquated social protocols to a T. Right? Of course they do. Sometimes, though, they are pushy little buggers who take huge risks, refuse to fall into line and stand up in the face of adversity and inequality.
If you want to play on the big stage, whether it be by starting a business, or making the art you want to make, or taking on suffering in the developing world, or entering the political arena, you need the nerve to take risks, demand attention and ask for favours and advice.
For our generation – coddled from birth, largely unfamiliar with hardship and cynical to a fault in a society where everything can be bought – this lesson is especially important. For all those living in their parents’ basements, it is time to commit to something. When this project started, we too were crippled with questions. Though we’ve hardly found The Answer, we’ve learned that to move forward we must start taking ownership of our own lives.
Politeness and grace are fantastic qualities and we should be glad we’re associated with them. But just as you don’t make friends with salad, you can’t make a mark by waiting for your turn and avoiding confrontation. If Canadians are going to make a mark on the 21st century – and it would surely be a positive one – we’ll no doubt need a little more nerve.