Prof. Brooke Kroeger, New York University College of Arts and Science Commencement Address
December 4, 2006
Graduates, my warm congratulations to you and your loved ones.
By now, we are both exacting appraisers of the universe from which you have just emerged in triumph. Its demands have been relentless and sometimes painful. Yet in terms of what comes next, Washington Square has been a safe zone, a place where you could push limits, occasionally behave badly, experiment, take risks, even really mess up, all with a measure of impunity.
The world you enter now will be a far less forgiving one. It’s a place where once-venerable institutions now split, conglomerate, un-conglomerate and die as fast as others replace them. Really, I am not ALL that old and yet my own c.v. has started to look like a work of invention: so many of the companies and publications I have proudly associated with are just gone. Expect life to buffet you for awhile, but soon you will find your place in this new order, I have no doubt.
Regardless of what you pursue – or how or where you find yourself pursuing it – the chance to do so still involves something that will NOT change – and that is, the journey from novice to master. So I’d like to spend a few minutes reflecting on the time just ahead for you – your age of apprenticeship.
I did mine, filled with a sense of vital mission, in the Chicago bureau of a major U.S.-based international wire service. Those four and a half years were both exhilarating and excruciating and an opportunity to learn many important lessons, six of which I’m going to pass along to you tonight.
One: Think and act as if you were under scrutiny every second — because you will be. Your new state will be one of perpetual audition. How others perceive you during this prolonged time of performance review will determine much of what will follow it. Attitude, style, work habits, effectiveness, cooperativeness, leadership ability, determination, flexibility, what I like to call “periferal awareness”, manners, grace, integrity, and yes, intelligence, creativity, and talent – all of these matter all of the time.
Two: Never forget that as you audition for your superiors, so do you audition for your peers as they will be auditioning for you. It won’t be long before you will have the chance to call upon one another in a professional capacity– or know exactly why you will not.
You may find yourself working ungodly hours to perform seemingly meaningless feats of monumental monotony. For me, it was four straight years of night, overnight and weekend shifts, a main feature of which was 1500 high school sports scores taken by telephone dictation four nights a week in season and then resent to eagerly waiting print and broadcast outlets, whose editors would call repeatedly to demand them night after night. Deep, deep ontological sigh: Definitely not what I had come to journalism to do.
So, Three: Understand that the task at hand never really matters as much as YOUR larger goals or the intrinsic value of the common enterprise, the Work with a capital W. If you can brand that thought on the inside of your eyelids, it will help sustain you in the dark hours. What might the equivalent of those endless prep basketball scores be for you? Being ordered to pick up your boss’s dry cleaning twice a week? Transferring dead computer files? Formatting and fact-checking hundreds of pages of someone else’s sloppily rendered footnotes? If the task assigned to you moves the universe forward, I suggest you do what’s needed with conviction. Sometimes, sweeping the stage may be the more strategic move than demanding to dance on it.
The point may come when the drudgery not only feels exploitative, but is, when the situation begins to take more out of you than you are getting from it. It requires maturity and discernment to know when that moment really has arrived. Then it may well be time to move on. But I caution you: It is likely not to be the first, second, third, fourth or fifth or even tenth time this notion crosses your mind.
Four: Study your mentors. Some will gain that title because they are wise or heroic; some because they are decent but ineffectual; and some because they are exasperating, self-serving fools. Discern carefully. Watch closely their behavior in crises and in the commonplace. Take careful mental notes. You will learn as much about what never to do in a position of authority as about what you will find yourself proudly emulating.
You will make mistakes. One day, as assigned, I wrote a story from a stringer’s notes phoned in from courtside about a small college basketball game, a sport among the many I do not follow. “Dear Brooke,” the note in my box the next day read. “You cannot make a rebound.”
Working the night desk, a stringer called in to report storm damage. A co-worker dutifully took notes and fashioned them into three short paragraphs that began: “A tornado ripped the roof off a barn in Meredosia Tuesday night, killing 2,036 pigs.”
The story moved out on the wire, seen immediately by the stringer who had phoned in the notes. He called the bureau back. “Nooooooo,” he drawled into the telephone. “Two SOWS and 36 pigs.”
The blast from the furnace of humiliation, to quote the psalm, will pass, and yes, you will (This is No. Five) survive the heat and the flames. As for me, all those basketball scores plus the Chicago politics and the national roundups and the murder and mayhem I got to cover along the way — somehow all of that led directly to eight years overseas with assignments in places like Brussels and Bantry Bay, Bethlehem and Beirut. Where will you go? Bogota? Bangalore? Bejing? Bangui? Even if no further than Boston or the Bowery, you must prepare for a world that is ever larger as it gets smaller and ever more complex. Performing well amid such fast-moving, changing scenery will demand whole new levels of agility, to be sure.
Six: Tedium, aggravation; exhaustion. Embrace these three graces now because they never really go away. It helps me to see them as part of life’s great romance. And in spite of their stubborn presence, you will know you are in the right place doing what you were meant to do if every once in a while you find yourself musing on the luck you have had to be getting paid to do something you might well pay to do.
Does it matter, in the end, how big the stage on which you perform will be? Classroom? Conference room? Computer screen? Courtroom? Congress? Kitchen. What matters is to care and to commit as if the audition never ends, as if those of us watching are depending on you to make something significant happen — because we are.
So, let me wish you great good fortune. Audition well and the right parts will come in time. And when they do, how loudly all of us will applaud you! Just as we do today.
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Schedule: 08/10-12 Chicago, 9/1 East Hampton Library LI, NY. 9/11 Corner Bookstore NYC Sept. 11, 9/14 Porter Square Books, Cambridge MA , 9/22-24, Kansas City, 9/28 NY Society Library, 10/10 NY Genealogical & Biographical Society, 10/11 Little Rock, 11/7 NYU Center for the Humanities.
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