Buying in bulk is overrated and more ‘real world wisdom’ from Boston Globe’s editor

Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory was the keynote speaker at today’s Mount Ida College commencement. Here’s what he told the graduates:

Good morning. President Brown, thank you for the high honor of being able to join you at such a joyous celebration today. Thank you to the board of trustees. Please don’t look askance at President Brown because he signed up someone in such a high-flying, growth industry like newspapers as your commencement speaker today. To the faculty, proud grandparents, bored siblings, parents who are brimming with equal measures of relief and delight, and most especially, to the Mount Ida graduating class of 2015, huge and heartfelt congratulations.

I know that almost all of you have just two questions on your minds: Who is this guy and how long is he going to take? I have some very good news. I told President Brown that if I go even a second longer than an hour, to give me a little signal and I’ll make every effort to stop as soon as I can. Not that anyone here has anything else they want to do today — except maybe start the rest of your lives.

May is the month when EPA agents should be running around America in hazmat suits investigating the damage caused to our environment by all the commencement speakers who are blowing hot air at captive audiences, and New England, given the number of schools we have, suffers more than most. Since I received the invitation a few months ago, I’ve done something of a study of commencement speeches. There are entire websites devoted to them – good speeches and bad. And what I found was this:/CONTINUES

* I found that the world is a big colorful beautiful place, far more connected and interesting than it’s ever been. The world is a cold and foreboding place, far more detached and lonely than it’s ever been.

* You should chase your dreams across the decades. Don’t spend your life with your head in the clouds.

* Embrace failure; it means that you’re stretching yourselves, sometimes, inevitably, beyond a comfortable reach. Don’t fail too much or you will be branded, well, a failure. Trust your own gut. Find great and wise mentors and lean on them hard.

* You are the most special class we have ever had, coming into the world innately armed with all the tools to take part in this technology revolution. You are not special at all. You’ve just been constantly told that you are.

If it sounds confusing, let me just assure you that you haven’t seen anything yet. Adulthood, the workplace, family issues, parenthood, friendship, it’s one vast thick pot of absolutely indecipherable confusion. Luckily, and I mean this, it’s also a tremendous amount of fun – at least on most days, and if you make it that way.

So before we get to the serious, hot-air part of this program, in which I’ll spend a bit of time talking about me while pretending to relate to you, even though I’m mostly doing it because I just like talking about me, let me share a few bits of basic, real world wisdom gleaned the hard way over the years.

1/ That State Police officer who has just pulled you to the side of the highway has never once in his entire career said to himself, “Hmmm, this driver is yelling at me so hard that I should probably let let him off.”

2/ Buying in bulk is overrated. You really don’t need as many rolls of paper towels, or smoked salmon, or Lucky Charms as it might feel like when you’re in the aisle of BJs or Costco.

3/ When the car salesman says the price is good for that day only, he’s lying.

All right, that’s about the extent of my advice. But now allow me to share a few observations that I’ve gleaned over the years.

Let me flip over to my favorite topic for a moment, which is myself, as at least partial proof that I offer virtually no lessons for you to draw on today.

I was born in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston, where my family spent our first years living in the bottom floor of a two-decker house with my grandparents upstairs. My cousin and sister lived in the attic. We moved out to Weymouth when I was eight years old. Now here’s what’s weird: My entire childhood, I spent wanting to be a newspaper reporter, writing about politicians and holding public officials accountable for their actions, affecting elections, making people want to read what I was writing on any given day. I delivered the Globe on a 52- house paper route for several years when I was either side of 12 years old, and after the route was done, I’d grab a copy of the paper, read it from front to back, and dream of the day.

In fifth grade, when our teacher had us form a student government in social studies class, some kids ran for president and other kids ran for Senate. I opened up my own newspaper, writing it on a big red IBM Selectric typewriter – yes, your parents know what that is – and criticize everyone who was campaigning for office. It was pure glory.

My parents never graduated from college, but my sisters and I were expected to, so I went to school up in Lewiston Maine. I did summer internships with newspapers. I wrote my senior thesis about the news media. I hid away every day in the Bates College Library all but memorizing the Boston Globe. In truth, it’s the only place I ever wanted to work.

Of course, if I had known I was going to realize my most urgent childhood dream, I would I would have dreamed of building a social network site, maybe call it Facebook, or a software company, or maybe a chain of upscale coffee shops with its own language like venti and grande. But I’m not complaining.

When I got my first job out of college at a paper called the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, I knew I wasn’t the smartest reporter in the room, or the most gifted writer, so I was going to outwork everyone else. One of my first front page stories involved a hearing in a local district court, held behind closed doors. A huge ladder truck racing to a fire had barreled through an intersection and slammed into a car, killing the driver. A clerk magistrate was responsible for deciding whether the driver of the firetruck should be charged with manslaughter.

So we sat on a bench in a hallway of the decrepit courthouse, waiting for the hearing to end, me and half a dozen other reporters. The afternoon melted away. Five o’clock came and went and the door remained firmly closed. I knew there were no other ways in and out of that office. Starting at 6, most of the other reporters reluctantly picked up their belongings and left, off to dinner or to meet friends for a drink. I stayed. At about seven, the major parties came out and headed for the door, declining comment. At about 8, the clerk magistrate came out, exhausted. He asked me what I was doing there. I told him I was waiting for him. He gave me his decision before he was even able to file it, with an elaborate explanation of how he had reached it.

When I wrote the story, my editor asked how I got it. “I ran into the magistrate in the hallway,” I said. “I love when we get lucky,” he said. So do I.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky ever since, living out my childhood dreams. I got to the Globe when I was 27 years old and have now been here for 26 years, just a hair under half of my life. Who does that any more? But how could I not? On the Globe’s dime, I’ve travelled to all 50 states, visited every continent but Africa, stayed at some of the best hotels in the world, eaten dry aged steak and molten chocolate cake to feed the Russian Army, if they actually ate that stuff, which I’m not sure they do. I’ve interviewed presidents and senators and governors and corporate chief executives under fire. More importantly, we’ve put bad guys in jail. We’ve put plenty of good people and their causes on the front page. We’ve given voice time and again to those who wouldn’t otherwise have one. And I’d like to think we’ve made a difference in the collective life of the community we cover.

None of this offers anything particularly instructive for you; like I said, I just like talking about myself. But there are a few commencement speech clichés which come to mind: Follow your dream. Do something you love. Work hard at it. Create your own luck. Only you can tell if they apply.

More than anything else, though, my chosen field has given me a front row seat on the workings of the human condition, and in that, there may be some lessons. In all my dealings with princes (I’ve never actually dealt with a prince) and paupers, the powerful and the plebs, I keep coming away with one true fact: The people with the highest character come out on top – not always, but their win-loss record would get you first place in the American League East just about every single year.

I’ve seen gifted, accomplished politicians stumble badly on the campaign trail because they were trying to be someone they are not – a true character flaw. I’ve seen government officials succumb to the lure of easy and illegal money. It’s funny how candidates will always carp that we should write about their plans, not their backgrounds or characters. But plans change in the face of withering pressure. It’s only character that dictates how they will act and react. “You cannot dream yourself into character,” Henry David Thoreau famously said. “You must hammer and forge yourself one.”

I’ve seen corporate chieftains accept pay packages worth tens of millions of dollars at publicly traded or mutually owned companies – basic thievery, if you ask me. And in truth, they don’t seem any happier to me than the guys cutting their lawn or their hair.

I’ve also seen it, time and again, ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary feats – teachers, ministers, sales clerks, landscapers, police officers, public servants. You name it: People of high character making an enormous difference in the lives of others, and in turn, themselves. I saw it after September 11. I saw it all over this region after the Boston Marathon attack. I saw it in the first responders, in the victims and the dignity with which they’ve carried on, in the people who have contributed tens of millions of dollars to the cause.

Character isn’t included with a fancy title or job. I’ve often found it to be quite the opposite. Character in my business means never stretching the information. Character means making the extra call, asking the additional question, or as Jimmy Breslin memorably said, climbing stairs – because those with the best stories often aren’t waiting on the street for you to walk by. Character means having the confidence to say something nice in print about someone. Character means being skeptical without ever being cynical. Character means having empathy.

Stay on that one for a moment, because it is an important trait: empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to feel what they feel, to see the world through their eyes, to know that someone might be messing up because their kids have been trouble, because money is on their mind, because their spouse hasn’t been helpful.

In everyday life, character means praising, rather than criticizing, colleagues, even those who you might be competing for a promotion or a raise. Character means an inherent understanding that precious little of life unfolds in vivid black and white, but in that big swath of gray in between – not even 50 shades of gray, but an infinite number of shades.

Character is an inherent understanding that no political party, no set of people, have a monopoly on good ideas, or for that matter, character itself. It’s a whole lot harder to do the pick and shovel work of finding middle ground to get things done, rather than throw stones at each other from the fringes, and that takes character. Character allows for an understanding that even protagonists are not purely good, and even villains are not purely bad.

Character means fighting against the rampant inequality that is fast becoming the hallmark of our society in 2015, the inequality of economics and the inequality of opportunity. This can’t stand, and we need people of great character to rail against it.

Character means being able to survive all the confusion that we talked about earlier, so many contradictory expectations and opinions in the complex journey through adulthood. Character means knowing who you are, and how , when, whether and why to change. Character is truth and always telling it.

I’m not really one to talk about my own character, but I will say I began thinking a lot more about it when I found myself sitting next to the obituary writer in the Globe newsroom a few years ago. He’s one of the finest obituary writers in the country, and every day, I’d listen to him on the phone talking to widows and widowers, siblings of the deceased, college roommates, professional colleagues, discussing the person they lost. You’re going to tell me that doesn’t cause you to sit up a little straighter and take notice of your role in this world? Bill Clinton used to say quite frequently, “It doesn’t take long to live a life.” You feel that in powerful ways when you’re listening to the obituary writer perform his craft.

Here at Mount Ida, unless I missed something in my review of your class, there aren’t a whole lot of trust fund babies here. There isn’t all that much entitlement in the air. The road here may well have had some bumps, and the scenery wasn’t always of dewy meadows, but that only makes the destination all the more worthwhile. The country club, that’s next door. You sacrificed to get to this campus, took advantage of every scant opportunity presented to you, and busted your collective flanks to arrive safely and joyously at this day.

Which is another way of saying, you are already imbued, even brimming, with character, the graduates in this room. Bank accounts don’t buy character; no, it is formed in personal experience and self- awareness, and revealed in empathy. That’s character, the Mount Ida way, and if there was a betting line available, I’d bet very heavy on your collective success. Congratulations, thank you, and may the road ahead be ever more fascinating for each and every person here.

* Boston Globe editor gives keynote at Mount Ida College commencement (mountida.edu)




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