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John Carroll's commencement speech 2009

John CarrollIt’s a privilege to be here with you, the Class of 2009, on this happy and luminous day. Because you now have Transylvania educations you’re aware, I’m sure, that a commencement is, literally speaking, a beginning. As of this hour, your college years end. As of this hour, the rest of your lives commence.

Today we put the spotlight on the few who most distinguished themselves in the classroom. This is appropriate, but others must not be overlooked. I myself was never an honor student. Far from it. So for those of you who are closer to the bottom of the Class of 2009 than to the top, I bring good news: In the forty-six years since my graduation, no one has ever asked for my transcript. You, my friends, are home free!

I was asked to speak today by Dr. Shearer, and because I’ve admired Dr. Shearer for many years, it never occurred to me to say no. After I said yes, he took me aside and counseled me on what to say, and what not to say.

He was diplomatic, as always, but the message I took away was fairly pointed: Don’t rattle on and on about the newspaper business. Talk about something they actually care about. Talk about life in the working world.

So I will. I’ll try to tell you a thing or two you don’t already know, but I make no promises on that score. Thinking about this challenge, I couldn’t help but recall the words of an old book review. “The contents of this book,” the critic wrote, “are both original and interesting. Unfortunately, the original parts are not interesting, and the interesting parts are not original.”

Risking such rebuke from the Class of ‘09, I’ll start with a true story about a friend of mine, Billy Reed, who happens to be a Transy grad. Billy, as you may know, is a sportswriter with a national reputation, and not long ago he was invited by Henry Clay High School, his other alma mater here in Lexington, to join its hall of fame. Before the banquet, he happened to catch a TV documentary about seven black students who integrated Little Rock High School in Arkansas back in 1957, and he realized that his own high school class, the class of 1961, was the first at Henry Clay’s first to have African-American graduates.

There were three black graduates that year, and Billy set out to find them.

The first, a man he recalled as a football player, had died.

The second, a woman he remembered only slightly, was living here in Lexington. She was cordial enough when he called on the phone but had no desire to see her classmates again. Her memories of high school were not fond. “I just felt like a piece of furniture,” she said.

He found the third classmate, a woman named Nanine Neal Watson, living in California. Billy remembered her as being attractive and well dressed.

“Hello,” he said on the phone, “I’m Billy Reed. We went to high school together. Do you remember me?”

“No,” she said.

But she warmed up to him, and she consented to come to Lexington to be his guest at the banquet.

When Billy got his moment at the podium that night, he surprised the audience by talking about his black classmates. When he told about the woman who felt like a piece of furniture, there was a hush in the room. Then he talked about Nanine.

“I wish I could have gotten to know her forty-eight years ago,” he said. Then, turning to her, he said: “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better classmate to you.”

***

Today, as the Class of 2009 scatters to the four winds, I’d like to talk about the bond among you and your classmates. Later in life, many of you will feel the magnet-pull of old relationships. In some cases, you, like Billy Reed, may feel a sense of discomfort. In other cases, you may come to realize that the friends with whom you shared these intense years are unlike any others in your life.

Those feelings are likely to deepen as the years pass. Before describing that, though, I want to raise a more immediate concern: your career.

Specifically, I’d like to tell you five lessons I learned in the workplace – lessons I never learned in college.

Lesson number 1: You will make big, mortifying mistakes. And that’s a good thing.

When I was a young reporter at the Baltimore Sun, with few skills and even less self-confidence, I was told to write a story about the deputy police commissioner. Oddly enough, it was his obituary – and I knew for a fact he wasn’t dead yet. My editor explained that newspapers do this all the time, so that when the person does die they won’t have to slap together his whole life’s story on deadline.

How do I do this? I asked.

Call him up and interview him, the editor said.

I protested, saying, “I can’t just call up and say, ‘I’m writing your obituary.’”

“You don’t tell him you’re writing his obituary,” the editor said, getting annoyed. “Instead, just say, “We’re updating our files.”

Well, I was nervous, figuring the old cop would see right through me, but I drew up a long list of questions, called him up and announced in an uncertain voice, “We’re updating our files.” And, to my amazement, he agreed to help.

As I went through my list of questions, and as he answered them, my self-confidence began to rise. And it by the time I neared the end of the list, it was soaring. I was on the way to becoming a great reporter, I was sure.

Then I asked the final, fateful question.

“Well, Colonel,” I said jauntily, “I’ve got the spelling of your wife’s name and I’ve got her maiden name. Now all I need are the names of the other survivors.”

I still cringe when I think back on that moment. It was by no means the only mistake I made in those days, nor the worst. Years later, when I became editor of the Los Angeles Times, however, I could say to myself: If there are a ten thousand mistakes a journalist can make, I’ve already made nine thousand of them. Largely because of that painfully earned education, things went well.

You will make mistakes, too. They will be bad for you in the short run, and discouraging, but good in the long run. Be resilient. It’s for the best.

Lesson number 2: Master the art of candor.

Today, if I were assigned to write the old colonel’s obituary, I wouldn’t follow the editor’s advice. I wouldn’t call up and say, “We’re updating our files.” Instead, I’d tell him I’ve been assigned to write his obituary. I’d explain why, and why it’s important to his family and to the community that it be done well. And I’d tell him face to face, not over the phone.

It’s hard sometimes to deliver an unwelcome message. It gets easier, though, if you do it with tact. Tact is an acquired skill. If you tell the truth both directly and tactfully, you will almost never cause offense. People appreciate straight talk, especially when it’s delivered in a way that acknowledges their feelings and their point of view. Instead of damaging a relationship, candor, tempered by tact, can actually deepen it.

Being habitually candid will also help you sleep better, knowing that you’ve laid the cards on the table.

Lesson number 3: Choose your boss even more carefully than your boss chooses you.

All bosses are not created equal. Some are indifferent to their employees. Some are tyrants. Some are crooked. Some are emotionally unfit to oversee others. Some simply aren’t very good at what they do. You will encounter such bosses -- it’s inevitable.

It may seem convenient just to ride it out, to stay on the job, to show up every day in a morose and unhappy workplace. Don’t do it. A bad workplace is more likely to change you than you are to change it. It can crush your morale and cause you to lower your sights. Treat a bad boss like fire. Get away as fast as you can.

In this economy, I’m aware, your choice of bosses will be limited. But that will change over time. Find a boss who’s known for doing things right. Visit the workplace and see with your own eyes whether it’s happy and open, or guarded and morose. Talk with employees. If they’re afraid to talk, don’t work there. If they will, ask if it’s a good place. Ask whether the boss takes an interest in young people. Make a judgment about whether he or she is the kind of person you’d like to be someday.

Lesson number 4: Don’t settle for a one-dimensional job.

I got lucky and found rewarding work on the first try. It was rewarding for many reasons, not just one.

I tend to be curious, and being a reporter gave me an excuse to go around asking questions. Writing a good story gave me the same sense of pride a skilled bricklayer or cabinetmaker feels at the end of a day’s work.

Occasionally I was lucky enough to get a story that served a higher social purpose. One story  I edited, for example, vindicated a mentally retarded man who was in prison for five murders he never committed. Thanks to that story, he was released and two other men were tried and convicted. That was a long time ago, but I feel gratified by it to this day.

And beyond all those rewards, there were the colleagues. Every day I went to the office with people who were excited about their work. That’s what we called it – work -- but actually it was a hobby we shared. Today, having left the newspaper business, the thing I miss most is the rich companionship of the office.

Last on the list of rewards – and least among them -- is salary. At first, the salary was pathetically small, but eventually it got better. It got better, I believe, because I loved the work, not a paycheck.

I hope all of you will find a career that provides a whole cornucopia of rewards, not just money.

Finally, lesson number 5: Be a lifelong learner.

Over the years I’ve noticed that there are people who are fast starters and people who aren’t: hares and tortoises. The hares I’ve known are quick to learn a few tricks of the trade. But then, at age thirty or so, they start to fade. And in their fifties they’re still using those same shopworn tricks, and they’re bored, stalled in their careers, and marking time till retirement.

In my first editing job I supervised a dozen reporters who were just out of college. If I’d predicted who among them would be most successful, I’d have been badly wrong. One of them, who didn’t stand out at the time, later proved to be a tortoise, surpassing all the others by winning two Pulitzer prizes and serving as the ranking editor of two large newspapers.

To this day he approaches his work with humility, seeing himself as a student of the business, not a master. He makes a point of learning something new every day. Be like him  Be a tortoise.
       
***

And now, as we come to a close, a final word on you and the people around you.

Many of you, I hope, will come to realize that your classmates are among the treasures of your life. About eight of us from my college class are in constant touch, thanks to the Web, and a couple of months ago we got together for a weekend at a beach in Florida. Being with them is almost like sophomore year again – the same jokes, the same pointed insults, and, beneath the surface, a deep and abiding affection, based on the fact that long ago we shared a passage in our lives that was like none other.

Since college, our little group has hit its share of bumps in the road – job failures, financial reversals, family troubles, divorce. We’ve also had much in the way of success and happiness. Together we can talk about it all, the good and the bad. And that open, affectionate relationship is rewarding to us in a deep way. It brings our lives into harmony. It helps us think clearly. It makes us whole.

So may this Class of 2009 go into the larger world and succeed by finding the right kind of work and the right people to work with. And may the class also remain intact, a group that treasures the once-in-a-lifetime shared journey that ends with this day.

Now, it’s time to commence. Go your separate ways, and may your paths converge again someday.

Please accept my warmest congratulations. And congratulations, too, to the parents and grandparents and friends and professors who made this happy day possible. Thank you so much for allowing me to be part of it.

Back to Commencement 2009

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