Be Great. Talk Yourself Into It.

Hamza Khan’s 2019 UTSC Convocation Address

Good afternoon, UTSC Graduating Class of 2019. I’m thrilled to be here with you, celebrating this milestone alongside your friends and family. The opportunity to address you is a tremendous honour. I want to give a shoutout to Michelle Fong, Regan Tigno, and the numerous faculty, staff, students, and volunteers who made today possible. I want to recognize Professor Wisdom Tettey, Professor William A. Gough, and the rest of my esteemed colleagues on this stage. And I would like to thank my mentors Liza Arnason, Allan Grant, Drew Dudley, as well as the numerous people who supported me throughout my formative years as an undergraduate student, and beyond.

Also, please give it up for my mom who is sitting in the front. We just got back from London, England, and she’s pushing through some serious jet-lag to be here. I love you, mom. Try not to cry (because…I’m going to cry as well).

Now, I had an entirely different speech prepared for this ceremony. But then something special happened recently: The Toronto Raptors became NBA Champions. And their victory inspired me to rewrite my entire talk.

Over the next 8 minutes, I’d like to share with you a handful of reflections on the intertwined values of confidence and resilience.

The Finals, The Parade, This Convocation — in light of these back-to-back celebrations, I’ve been unpacking something I’ve struggled with for a very long time. Something I suspect that many of you in this hall have also dealt with to varying degrees:

Imposter Syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent, internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.”

Imposter syndrome bores itself into the feeling that we aren’t good enough.

Like many, I was in a state of disbelief through our entire Playoffs run. Though I cheered each victory, I hesitated to accept that we were a top team — perhaps a reflection of my insecurities.

I’m a person of colour, a first-generation student, raised in Scarborough by a lower middle-class Muslim family. My grades were average, and I had no distinct talent. I gave into deficit thinking early, prematurely foreclosing myself from opportunities of which I didn’t feel worthy.

The remnants of that mentality are perhaps why this feels like a dream state.

I didn’t truly believe that we could be this great.

I have to ask: am I even at the right event? I mean, y’ all checked my credentials, right? I’m an English Literature graduate! What am I doing up here? It would be both hilarious and embarrassing if someone got this wrong.

With that said, my undergraduate studies gifted me with a nuanced understanding of metaphors. Metaphors are figures of speech. They’re units of human understanding.

With time, I’ve come to appreciate journey metaphors, especially.

We encounter these all the time. For example: crossroads, ups & downs, obstacles, new heights, rock bottom, smooth sailing, bumpy roads, etc. These literary devices are designed to communicate the process of change — to help us understand where we came from, and where we’re going.

The journey metaphor is at the heart of a framework known as the “Monomyth,” commonly referred to as “The Hero’s Journey.”

The Hero’s Journey is the structure shared by almost every story. Seriously — Harry Potter, The Lord of The Rings, Moana, Avengers, you name it — they all have nearly identical storylines: the protagonist and their companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location. They face temptations and other obstacles along the way.

It’s more-or-less a 12-chapter act, the first 4 of which are as follows:

After accepting the call to adventure, the hero crosses over into a special world — a world of chaos. A world in which they face challenges and roadblocks, meet allies and enemies, attempt significant change and fail, only to finally achieve mastery of the problem and return to the ordinary world with a renewed perspective.

The recurrence of The Hero’s Journey in fiction speaks to something deep within the human condition:

Change.

To change is to go from order to chaos back to renewed order.

The word chaos derives from the 14th Century Greek word, “Khaos” (with a K), which translates to: “abyss, that which gapes wide open, that which is vast and empty.”

Sounds scary, right? Journeys through chaos are stressful. And we’re hardwired as humans to resist stress.

Ten years ago, I sat in this exact Convocation Hall, plagued by the question of “What’s next?”, overwhelmed by the unknown.

My imposter syndrome took hold, and I nearly talked myself out of the journey which brought me to you.

Here’s a quick story that I hope will help you avoid getting derailed from your journey to success:

At 17 — the tender young age at which you’re supposed to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life — I was clueless.

My father wanted me to pursue a prescribed path from the career trinity of doctor/lawyer/engineer. After a heated argument, I puffed out my skinny chest, vehemently refused, and instead swore to join the Canadian Armed Forces.

And just like that, I did. Talk about 0–100, real quick.

The final exercise of my Basic Military Qualification, a prelude to becoming a full-fledged soldier, was a literal descent into chaos. Fireteams of five were to be dropped into a dense and disorienting forest, with only 12 hours to navigate their way out.

Sleep deprived, and armed with nothing but flashlights, scarce rations, a map, and a compass — this was a comprehensive test of all the skills we spent months developing.

Remember how I said we’re hardwired as humans to resist stress? Well, my fireteam was immediately overwhelmed by the task at hand and began to procrastinate. We disagreed, we argued, and we let adversity get the best of us. Mentally defeated, we lingered for hours in the chaos.

That day, I learned an invaluable lesson: problems left alone tend to get worse.

As the sun set, the forest became frighteningly darker, and colder.

Our supplies diminished. We grew parched and famished.

What finally set us in motion were distant howls. These piercing, haunting noises could’ve been from wolves, coyotes, or Baba Yaga herself — it didn’t matter; we weren’t going to stick around and wait to find out.

We hurriedly marched in the darkness. My most vivid recollection of this adventure was hearing the rhythmic crunch of twigs and leaves beneath my boots, interrupted by erratic scampering and scurrying behind me. Every few feet, when the sounds of multiple footsteps grew louder, I would whip my flashlight around. And I would catch in the dim shadows the unmistakable glints of eyes, tails, teeth, and claws, slinking back into the darkness.

With a clear goal ahead and monsters in pursuit, something finally clicked: not only did we have a purpose, but we unlocked a dormant peak performance. Our foundations — months of classes, drills, training, and resilience-building — were activated by a sufficient amount of challenge.

Ask yourselves if you haven’t already:

“What’s next? What’s the next goal you’ll chase once you cross this stage?”

If you’re unsure, I get it. You’re staring out into the vast, empty abyss.

The easy thing to do in this situation would be, well, nothing. It would be to remain precisely where you are, to stay the same.

But staying the same didn’t get you here.

To advance towards a goal is to apply resistance against the universe. It is to endure stress. To successfully navigate the future, therefore, requires a considerable amount of resilience — the ability to adapt to, and withstand stress.

The Raptors’ recent championship win was 24 years in the making. Each trial, each tribulation, each failure, strengthened the organization’s resolve.

Each change made them more durable, more resilient.

They built a foundation for success, in much of the same way that you did.

It’s why The Raptors riveted you during The Playoffs. It’s why you flooded the streets in celebration on Thursday night. It’s why you paraded on Monday. The Raptors’ victory bolstered your faith in your Hero’s Journey.

Watching them, you realized that you too could be great. Sports, like works of fiction, are microcosms. They are simulations. And by mapping our experiences onto them, we rehearse scenarios of change that we can then act out in our own lives with confidence.

I didn’t realize it when I sat right here a decade ago, but my time at UTSC prepared me in ways that are still unravelling. I’m grateful for everything that happened during my undergrad, both inside and especially outside the classroom — the people I met, the lessons I learned, the scenarios I practiced. They all contributed to a foundation for success.

They made me more durable, more resilient.

Looking back, my fireteam’s process of navigating our way out of the forest was identical to the process of completing my undergrad. It was identical to the process of accomplishing any goal outside of my comfort zone.

Each time, it looked like this:

  1. I made my destination matter.
  2. I unlocked peak performance.
  3. I faced my fears head-on.

Challenge, stress, failure — these aren’t reasons to decline a call to adventure or abandon a journey. If anything, they are markers that you are making progress.

As UTSC Alumni, as Torontonians, as Ontarians, as Canadians — the time has come to stop talking ourselves out of things, and instead, start talking ourselves into them.

What if The Raptors talked themselves out of winning a Championship this year just because they lost the last 24? The negative self-talk would’ve been as easy as this: on paper, we’re not good enough. Leonard was a 15th round draft pick. Lowry & Ibaka, 24th. Siakam, 27th. Green, 46th. Gasol, 48th. Heck, VanVleet was undrafted.

Go back and check what the so-called “experts” said about us. We were written off.

And yet, here we are. To quote Drake’s impassioned speech from Thursday night: “You see what my hat says: not Finals, not Eastern Conference, not ‘nice try’ or ‘see you next year’ — champions.”

Talk yourself into it.

Journeys are inevitable if you want to get somewhere worth going. Never forget: at UTSC, you built a resilient foundation for success. A reason to silence your inner imposter and talk yourself into greatness.

You’re intelligent. Talk yourself into it.

You’re capable. Talk yourself into it.

You’re connected. Talk yourself into it.

You deserve all of the good things coming your way. Talk yourself into it.

The forward and upward progression in my life didn’t come from talking myself out of things. The Championship didn’t come home by The Raptors talking themselves out of things. You didn’t end up right here, right now, by talking yourself out of things.

After all, stories, by design, don’t get going until the hero embraces the call to adventure.

Here’s your next call to adventure:

Be great. Talk yourself into it.

You are officially about to become graduates of the University of Toronto Scarborough.

You are part of a community of exceptional people who continue to work hard, be kind, and dream with their eyes open.

When you’re ready to accept this call to adventure, remember to silence your inner imposter.

Yes, the abyss is unknown.

Yes, it will get darker.

Yes, it will get colder.

But in your moments of doubt, when you hear the howls, don’t give in to fear.

Instead: face everything, and rise.

Congratulations, UTSC Graduating Class of 2019.

You got this. Talk yourself into it.

Managing Director @StudentLifeNet. Author of #TheBurnoutGamble. TED & Keynote Speaker. Multi-Award Winning Marketer & Entrepreneur. hamzakhan.ca