Life Lessons


On June 10, 2010, Ken gave the Commencement Address at the Nightingale-Bamford School in Manhattan. Here are his remarks to the new high school graduates.


Unlike you, I almost did’t make my High School Graduation. I was thrown out of high school in my junior year. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

What happened?

I wanted to slip out of the building to hang out at the sweet shop across from my high school in Coney Island. So I swiped a batch of school passes. The Dean of Men was not happy. He expelled me. My parents appealed to Abraham Lass, the Principal. With my parents, we met in the principal's office. He asked me, “Kenneth” — I hated being called Kenneth — “What do you like about Abraham Lincoln high school.”

“Football and baseball,” I answered.

“So tell me Kenneth," he said. “How do you suppose you will continue to play football and baseball if you no longer attend Abraham Lincoln high school?”

Duh!! He had my attention.

My high school principal became my first and foremost mentor. He imposed restrictions, Do’s and Don’ts on me. But he also had compassion. It was tough love. The kind we get at home, but are often less willing to heed. He taught me the 1st of several life lessons I’d like to share with you: Find a mentor. Prodded by him, I started to read and expose myself to the world. He assigned books I should read, quizzed me about them. Mentors help show you the way. Each of you received a better education than I got in high school. But what’s common is that mentors prod and help steer us to find our way, find our passion.

With a letter of recommendation from my mentor, I got into the only college that would take a student with a 64 average — The State University of New York at Oswego. Had I gone to a more competitive university, I would have flunked. I needed to be comfortable, to have time to grow, to ask questions. There are different kinds of comfort. Our daughter, Kate discovered the importance of comfort in her first years at Nightingale. Many of you will discover the importance of feeling comfortable in college.

I encountered another life lesson in college that may apply to most of youL I learned it was normal to keep changing my mind about what I wanted to be when I grew up. One minute I wanted to be a diplomat, traveling the world. The next I wanted to work in a government agency. Or maybe become a writer. Confused, I stalled and got a graduate degree in political science. Throughout, I kept in touch with my mentor, Abe Lass Knowing I had his wise counsel was comforting. I would wander in and out of writing and journalism. But it was a passion I kept postponing. I wanted to help Robert Kennedy Change the world. I wanted to help my candidate for Governor change Albany. But then Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and my candidate for Governor — with my help — was trounced in an election. I decided to take the plunge and write full time. I did something I’ve never regretted and you won’t either: I followed a passion.

Passion is a life lesson I often bump into with those I write about — most recently in the book I just published, Googled. Two Stanford graduate students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, dreamed of making all the world’s information not just available but accessible. They abandoned graduate school. They started in a garage. The didn’t know how Google would make money. And although Google at first made no money, they believed that employees should be provided free food, free bus transit, free medical care, and dry cleaning, and twenty percent of their time off to work on any project of their choice. But without the support of a handful of Stanford Professors who mentored and encouraged them, without the business mentoring of an early Silicon Valley investor, they would have drowned.

Passion or mentors alone are insufficient. Another life lesson one often finds when studying the careers of those who succeed is this: they believed in themselves. However uncertain you feel at any moment, believing in yourself, your chosen course, is your armored vest. Employers, people you meet, co-workers, will feel that sense of self-confidence. When my wife and I were looking for a school for our daughter Kate, we chose Nightingale. Why? Because Nightingale sold us on the idea of single-sex education as the best way to eliminate pushy, dominating kindergarten boys. We embraced the feminist argument that an all-girls school would help instill the self confidence she would need in life.

By the fifth grade, Kate was fearless. One day while her class was jogging around the reservoir, a bunch of high school girls from another school attacked her and tried to steal her Swatch watch. She would not surrender it. Nor would she forget the incident. She chose to ride in a police car to try and identify the culprits. Something else occurred that underscored the pivotal role of self-confidence and its twin, conviction. Nightingale parents demanded a meeting with Miss Hutcheonson. Many told her they didn’t want their girls using the park anymore. They were irate, panicked. They were close to a mob. But Mrs. Hutcheonson was resolute. Although she was new to the school, she insisted that Central Park belonged to the public, not to rowdy teenagers. To surrender to muggers was to teach a horrible lesson to Nightingale girls. They needed self-confidence, not fear; needed to assert themselves, not shrivel.

Over the next decade, many of you will not feel resolute. You will wonder why you kee changing your mind about what subject to major in. my God, you will ask in a panic, What do I want to be when I gro up? Take two aspirins and a nap. It’s OK!

Your career, like mine, will probably not go in a straight line. At first, I wrote about politics. Then about poverty. Then about Wall Street. Then about media. You will find that your life can’t be measured with coffee spoons, as T.S. Eliot’s wonderful poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” instructs us. Leave room for serendipity, for what Eliot described in his poem as: “Time for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions.”

In my life as a journalist and author I learned another vital life lesson: Stay humble. A good journalist needs be able to gather facts. To sort them out. To write. To think. But the most crucual thing he or she needs is the ability to ask questions and listen. This is not just true in journalism. Think about the people with whom you grow most impatient: those who are self-absorbed, who only want to talk about themselves. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, to betray lack of knowledge. If you ask questions you will be more open to search for mentors, to welcome advice, to seek help.

And as you ask questions, you will come to better understand another life lesson that will help arm you for life. You will understand, as Christopher Morley once wrote, that “Truth is a liquid, not a solid.” In a world of various religions and value systems, a world where America will remain a democratic beacon bue not as dominant as it wonce was, it’s critical not just to listen but to hear. I just returned from reporting a story in Afghanistan. There, I encounteredmuslim fundamentalists who believe it’s un-Islamic for women to appear with men in TV studios, for women to sing before audiences, for women to leave their heads uncovered, their arms bare. To a westerner, this seems so outrageously primitive. But those who told me this were not pro-Taliban, not anti-American ro anti-democracy. They were just not in favor of our kind of democracy. We will not change their minds with guns or with our outrage. We will change them only slowly, as is happening today in Afghanistan, by brave women who dare sing on stage, who try to escape from arranged marriages; by independent media that opens eyes with programming from around the world; by editors and owners who dare make women news co-anchors.

One final life lesson that may be relevant to you. I’ve come to believe there are two types of people in this world: those who lean back, and those who lean forward. Those who lean back tend to be pessimists. They whine and blame others. They tend to see problems, not opportunities. Those who lean forward tend to be optimists. They see problems as opportunities. They seel out mentors as guides. They are pro-active. Intellectually, I can give you 100 reasons to be pessimistic — about the economy, about jobs, about Afghanistan. But is that how you want to live your life? To wake up fearful, anxious, unsettled?

Leaning forward, you will come to understand that Albert Camus was right: “A good hope is better than a bad holding.”

On this hopeful day, say a cheerful goodby to wondrous Nightingale, and hello to the adventure that awaits. Good luck.

SpeechesMatt Dellinger