Paul Alofs asks graduands a big question: what is your most valuable possession?

Noted for bringing excitement and enthusiasm to everything he does, Paul Alofs stayed the course for his speech to students graduating from York University’s Faculty of Health during the spring convocation ceremony held June 17.

Alofs, former president of HMV music and former CEO of the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, received an honorary doctor of laws degree from York University and delivered a speech to graduands.

Paul Alofs

His speech was presented in an interactive style, and began with a call to action for students and their guests to celebrate the Toronto Raptors by chanting, “We the North,” and following that with a second chant, “We the York.”

Alofs, a self-described “passion capitalist” who pivoted from a successful private sector career to become CEO of the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation following the death of his mother from the disease, shared his congratulations with graduands.

His speech centred around what he positioned as a “meaning-of-life question.” But before asking it, he shared some personal details about his own life.

He admitted to feeling conflicted about what to include in his speech – whether he should talk about his time in the music and entertainment industry, the first half of his career, or talk about the past 14 years working at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

“These are very different careers with very different experiences leading to very different life lessons,” he said.

While sharing stories about his music industry days would be entertaining – for example, the time he was almost arrested for hosting a live rooftop Alice Cooper concert at the Yonge and Dundas HMV, or having a day-long meeting with Steve Jobs – sharing lessons and life experiences from working at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre would have more value and impact.

“My health-care experience was the most rewarding of my career,” he said.

Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Paul Alofs and President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

He also reminded students to celebrate – not the finish line, but the starting line before them.

Alofs went on to reveal the big question, the most important lesson he learned working at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, he said.

“Here’s the question: what is your most valuable possession?

“As you go through life or face the end of your life, what is your most valuable possession? This is about what is important in our lives, what we truly value, what we carry until our last breath.

“What is your most valuable possession or asset is a universal question with a universal answer,” he said. “What is our most valuable possession? In one word, my answer is passion.”

Passion is what gives our life purpose, he said. It gives our life energy, courage and meaning, and is as personal and distinct as our DNA. We find our passion through our loving relationships – our family and friends. We also find our passion through education and particularly lifelong learning, he said.

Passion is also found through mentors and travel and communities and through service to others. It is found in adversity, through loss, through tough times and hardship.

It is often found through experiences that are transformational – like his career at Princess Margaret after being a caregiver for his mother, who passed away from cancer.

Alofs also spoke of the integrity for having a passion in health care, and helping people become healthier or easing their pain.

“For all of you embarking on a career in health or health care or health management, our gratitude and sincere thanks to you,” he said. “You have chosen a career that will be full of challenges, difficult times and, frankly, stress. You have also chosen the most important, gratifying and life-affirming career in the world.”

Find your passion, he offered students, and put it to work to make the world a healthier place.

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