I'm lucky enough to know a number of very successful people. What has made them successful? It’s not difficult to draw out key elements of what has served each of them so well. The three themes I found aren't complicated. But they are very much easier said than done. In one form or another, I think a lot of people struggle with exactly these aspects of success.

At this year’s spring graduation ceremony for the faculties of Applied Science and Technology and Continuing and Professional Studies at Sheridan College in Mississauga, Ont., I was asked to share my thoughts on how to be successful in today's economy. Here’s what I had to say:

Good evening members of the faculty, families and friends, and graduates. It’s an honour to be with you.

My preparations for this evening got me thinking about my own graduation ceremony in the spring of 1988. I earned a degree in journalism from Ryerson – it was a polytechnical institute in those days. I recall three things. First, my gown was stiff, unnecessarily heavy and electric blue. Plus, it was a gown. Second, somebody thought it would be a good idea to have us parade from the Ryerson campus to Massey Hall where the ceremony was to be held. Most embarrassing 15 minutes of my life. Third, almost immediately after receiving my degree I was struck with an overwhelming sense of anxiety: What do I do now?

It would not be the last time I was faced with that question.

I suspect many of you feel the same. The demands of today’s working world are not significantly greater than in the past. But they are unique in important ways, as I’m sure this year’s Continuing and Professional Studies graduates will agree. The financial crisis that hit in 2008 has had a stubborn, lingering effect on economic growth and the Canadian job market. Employers are under constant competitive pressure to do more with less. It is not uncommon for professionals to switch careers, often multiple times. I’m on my third. I began as a journalist, reinvented myself as a financial services marketer and now lead a team of researchers. Your career will be no different.

There are economic challenges, too. Debt levels — particularly among young Canadians — are higher than ever. And while low interest rates are making it easier to carry that debt, they’re also making it difficult to save for your future financial goals.

Furthermore, Canada’s beloved social safety net is wearing thin. Our aging population — about 1,000 Canadians retire every day — will put unparalleled pressure on government-funded healthcare and other programs. This will transform Canada. You will be responsible for your financial well-being in ways previous generations of Canadians were not.

But the question — what do I do now? — really can’t be answered until you know what success looks like. That’s what I want to talk to you about tonight. In a tough job market, in a slow-growth economy, in a country where governments expect you to take care of yourself more than ever before, what does it take to be successful?

When I think about the brightest people in my life, three observations come to mind.

Number one: Successful people have extraordinary energy. In my experience, people who perform at a high level set a torrid pace for themselves and those around them.

Number two: They have either achieved financial security or they have a plan to get there. I’m not talking about being a millionaire. Financial security comes with a set of personal decisions about what you need at each stage throughout your life. It’s about saving, investing, insuring and planning. And then it’s about the freedom that comes with financial security.

That goes a long way toward making number three possible: Successful people are passionate about what they do and the people they surround themselves with. It drives them to accomplish great things.

Let me give you an example.

Mary De Paoli is my boss’ boss. She is Executive Vice-President, Public and Corporate Affairs and Chief Marketing Officer of Sun Life Financial. She leads an organization of 300.

Mary was appointed to the corporate executive team two years ago. She is the first chief marketing officer to be named to that leadership team.

Mary made Caldwell Partners’ Top 40 Under 40 list before her 35th birthday. More recently, she was named Marketer of the Year by Strategy Magazine in 2012. A year later the Women’s Executive Network added her to the list of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women.

Mary also speaks proudly of her first role — as an assistant to the producer on CNN’s Larry King Live. One of her favourite stories from that time came the night after the Toronto Blue Jays won their first World Series championship. Larry King hosted the show wearing a red maple leaf tie pin — placed strategically on his lapel for all the world to see. Mary put it there.

What’s Mary’s energy like? Ask my colleague Vanessa, who once emailed her at four in the morning and got a response, minutes later. It’s not that Mary works around the clock. In fact, she manages her time remarkably well. Because our employer supports flexible work schedules, Mary is just as likely to be picking her daughters up from school at 3:30 as she is to be on a 9 p.m. conference call with Hong Kong.

Has she achieved financial security? Clearly, but not just because of her executive status. I first met Mary in 1997, when she was just beginning her financial services career. She has always impressed me with her practical, planful approach to money.

Is she passionate? Remarkably so. Mary’s enthusiasm for the important work she does and for the people around her is infectious. When Mary reports on her department’s progress, she shares credit with her team members freely, with the same gusto she shares stories about her husband and two daughters.

“At the end of the day, I'm a working mom,” she told me. “I see it with periods after the words: Working. Mom. And I'm really lucky to be surrounded by fantastic people.”

Mary has achieved great things — professionally and personally — and has somehow managed to remain the same kind and generous person I first met 17 years ago. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Let’s talk more about energy.

Dr. Kellie Leitch is a 43-year-old orthopedic pediatric surgeon at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and an associate professor at the University of Toronto. I met her a couple of years back when she presented a sponsorship opportunity to me for her Kids Health Foundation.

It was not uncommon for Kellie to come to meetings while she was on call. Once she asked politely — in her understated way — if our meeting could end 15 minutes early. She had to get back to Sick Kids to perform surgery.

Soon after we met, Kellie ran a successful campaign to represent Simcoe-Grey as a Member of Parliament. She has since been named Minister of Labour.

The lesson that Kellie illustrates is that we can always do more. And if we’re smart, part of what we take on in our lives contributes to the energy we have. Successful people understand the importance of these things and are committed to them: Exercise. A healthy diet. Rest. Equally important is a focus on intellectual energy — feed your brain with art, history, current affairs and whatever else inspires you.

Your capacity is not determined by the length of your day. It is determined by the level of your energy.

More about financial security.

Of all the factors that have an impact on our economic wellbeing, the one that’s least understood is longevity. You are going to live longer than your parents did, maybe a lot longer. And while this is clearly cause for celebration, it means we have to think differently about our family finances.

Do you know what the average life expectancy was when 65 was chosen as the retirement age for pension plan members? Sixty.

Today, the average Canadian male who makes it to 65 can expect to live another 22 years. The average 65-year-old female can expect to make it to 89. Does it make sense to spend two decades in retirement? Of course not.

And the truth is that we will not be able to rely on governments and employers to contribute to our lifetime financial security to the extent that they have in the past. This is the era of personal responsibility. It’s up to each of us to figure this out.

A bit of advice from me.

  • Work for a company that sponsors a benefit and pension plan. Take full advantage of those plans — they’re like free money.
  • Pay yourself first. Set aside a portion of each paycheque. Have that money automatically deposited into a registered retirement savings account. You won’t miss it.
  • Manage your debt wisely. Keep it to a minimum. And if you do have debt to pay off, pay off what you owe at the highest interest rate first.
  • Get a financial advisor.
  • Learn as much as you can about personal finance. A lot of people will tell you that when the economy turns sour, you should stop reading the business section. That’s rubbish. It is precisely then when you will learn the most from good business journalism.

I like Jonathan Chevreau’s work a lot. He published an excellent book called Findependence Day. And after a successful run as a personal finance columnist at the National Post, Jon achieved his own financial security. That made it possible for him to leave the Post and take over the editor’s desk at MoneySense magazine. He’s now editor-at-large, which allows him enough flexibility to pursue long-form writing projects and speaking engagements. Jon’s plan — not a dream, a plan — is coming true. Mr. Chevreau is both a font of knowledge and an example of how to achieve financial security.

Finally, let’s talk about passion.

Pablo Picasso said, “It is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction.” This is true primarily because work is the only seduction that doesn't get bored with us in our 40s.

The reality is that nobody loves their job every day. But if you don’t care about it — I mean believe deeply in what you’re doing — then you won’t succeed.

My wife Lisa has begun to achieve this for the first time in her life. And believe it or not, she’s done so as the result of an experience that — originally — felt like a tragedy to both of us.

In 2008, Lisa learned she has chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). We had a three-year old daughter and a one-year-old son at home waiting for us when we got back from the hospital that first night.

CML is a rare blood disorder that affects fewer than two in 100,000 people around the world. It accounts for less than 20% of leukemia cases. There are roughly 600 new patients diagnosed in Canada each year.

Remarkably, it’s treatable. (Something we didn’t know that first night.)

Lisa takes a pill called Gleevec that maintains her remission. It’s likely she will take that medicine for the rest of her life. But as her doctor reminds us, she is not going to die from leukemia.

As you can imagine, the experience sparked a storm of emotions for both of us. Lisa had to stop breastfeeding immediately, which was difficult for her and the kids. As time passed, her physical health improved even as she went on suffering emotionally.

It didn’t matter how many times a health professional told her she would be okay. Lisa continued to struggle with the psychological weight of her cancer diagnosis.

In time though, this became her passion. She organized a support group for CML patients in southern Ontario. Last month, I attended an event she put together for an audience of more than 40 patients and family members. It included one of the world’s leading CML oncologists, a nurse who specializes in the field, a dietician and more.

There was one moment in particular. A young woman — she was maybe 30 — asked the doctor about how her medicine could be managed so that she can become pregnant. She sat stiffly, her shoulders slumped, her jaw clenched. The doctor shared good, hopeful news, but this woman could barely manage a smile.

Like so many of the patients in the room, she has a long way to go before she will allow herself to believe she can have a normal, happy life.

That is why Lisa does what she does. Her CML Network is a hit. It is, in fact, turning into a full-time job that includes patient education, advocacy, consulting, writing and speaking. She has taken the skills she developed as a journalist early in her career and applied them to something that matters to her.

In the end, the thing we feared was a threat to Lisa’s life is becoming her life’s work. She has never been more successful.

When I was first asked to speak with you this evening, it occurred to me to write about living your dream. That is customary at commencement ceremonies. You’ve probably shared one or two of these speeches on your Facebook page.

I’m not fully comfortable with that message, though. I can count on one hand the number of people I know whose professional dreams came true.

What matters is happiness. A sense of accomplishment. Making a contribution that you can be proud of.

My goal tonight was to offer practical keys to success that work for people like you and me: Keep your energy level up; plan for an attainable level of financial security that suits you and your family; and believe in what you do.

I hope these ideas contribute to your continued success. Congratulations and thank you.