The Hon. David Peterson grew up in London, Ontario. He did his undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Western Ontario before going on to study law at the University of Toronto. Since then, he has worked in business, been called to the bar, and served as premier of Ontario. He is currently the chancellor of U of T.
Peterson was very involved in university life; his extracurricular activities included debating, chess, and boxing. “I really had a lot of fun,” he recalled.
Peterson stressed the spontaneity of his life. “Nothing in my life has been planned,” he said. Even entering politics was not a planned move on Peterson’s part. When asked how he decided to enter public life, he simply answered: “I didn’t. It just kinda happened to me.”
At the time, Peterson had been working in business. However, he had always been interested in politics, and had grown up in a very politically engaged family. A major motivator was his sense of obligation to the public welfare. “Everybody has the responsibility to make the world a better place,” he said.
As a young man, Peterson tried not to close doors. “I didn’t take the view that I had to be totally directed [or] focused on anything,” he said. His mindset worked out for the best. “I don’t have any regrets,” he said, “Not one.”
Peterson advises today’s young people to experience the world as much as they can. “Engage with other cultures and other situations,” he suggested. He acknowledged the unavoidable financial pressures that some face, but says that “if you have the luxury of choice, […] widen your experience.”
Peterson suggests working abroad if given the opportunity. “You can round out your life with different experiences, different places, [and] different people,” he said.
He also emphasized the importance of having a variety of experiences, especially given the long summer break that university students enjoy, and sees any type of work as valuable. “Learning how to be a waiter is one of the greatest trainings you’ll get in your life,” he said, recalling the days that he, himself, worked in a restaurant. “You learn to work your tail off.”
As a young person, Peterson always worked during the summers, and preferred to do physical labour. “I was tough,” he said, “You wouldn’t have messed around with me,” he joked.
Once he worked on a railroad in Saskatchewan with Frontier College’s literacy programme. The programme, which still exists today, hired university students to work to do labour in the mining, forestry, and railroad industries. During the evenings, the students would teach English to the immigrant workers. “It was a wonderful summer,” said Peterson.
In his opinion, life lessons can be learned from the most gruelling jobs. “I’m a great believer in learning how to do things physically,” he said. “I was never going to work with a spike hammer for the rest of my life,” he noted, “but it added enormously to my tool kit as I grew up.”
“I don’t consider these […] wasted experiences,” he stressed. “I consider them […] building ones.”
Peterson also worked construction and hitchhiked around Europe. Although not directly applicable to his career, the experiences taught him lessons that he still applies today. “You learn what your own personal resources are,” he said. Even boxing gave him life lessons. “You […] learn your instinctive reaction when you’re punching somebody else in the face.”
Peterson emphasized the importance of relationships, whether they are with a co-worker, a partner, or a parent. “You […] learn the joy of connecting your life with other people’s happiness,” he said. He thinks that having a variety of experiences and meeting a wide array of people increases one’s compassion. “You’re going to be happiest when you’re making a contribution to other people’s welfare,” he continued.
Peterson sees greatest lessons in life as the one’s that foster independence. “Every kid has baggage,” he continued, “Rich people have baggage; poor people have baggage.” To Peterson, what is important is that at a certain point, people get over their baggage and realize that they’re responsible for they’re own outcome. “Make sure you control your own destiny,” he stressed.
According to Peterson, U of T is more rigorous than it was forty years ago. “Everything is a little tougher,” he said, explaining how the university is more serious and competitive. “[Students] are better, on average, than when I was here,” he noted, “and they have to be because it is, at the end of the day, a brutally competitive world.”
At the same time, he advises university students to avoid growing up too fast. “There is a lot of pressure to get serious about life earlier,” he observed, “but the longer you can avoid that, the happier you’ll be.”
To Peterson, technology has a huge role to play in the changing nature of the world. “The pressures [of] a highly technological world are very different from the pressures I faced.” He says that because of this, younger generations will continue to surpass the older ones, and described how his three-year-old grandson is an iPhone whiz-kid. “The little guy is smarter than I am,” he laughed.
Peterson is optimistic about the future of today’s undergraduates. “You’ve got a tumultuous world to deal with,” he said, “It’s exciting.”
U of T’s students should be confident that they are on the right path. “If I were nineteen again, I’d do […] a variation of what I did,” smiled Peterson,” I’d just do more.”