Prize-winning journalist Bill Keller 70 shares some hard-won life
lessons with the Class of 2002.
The following excerpts are taken from the commencement
address delivered by Bill Keller 70 on May 19, 2002.
leaving Pomona, Ive learned a lot about what humans are capable
of, for better and for worse. Ive learned about death on a large
scalewhat it looks like, what it smells like. And Ive learned
about death on a more intimate scalewhat it feels like when it happens
to someone you love, what it feels like to be afraid of it. Ive
learned a bit about war and tyranny and privation, and about honor and
compromise and sacrifice and endurance and other things that are not on
the curriculum here at least, not in the same way as they exist out there.
The point is not that experiencing any of these things makes you wise,
only that big things await you in the Graduate School of Serendipity.
Which brings me to my first aphorism, and it is this: An awful lot of
life is just plain luck.
Maybe Im wrong, but I have a suspicion you need to be reminded of
this. Luck is not something that has been stressed in your upbringing.
You are products of one of the worlds great, if imperfect, meritocracies,
the American educational system.
Since toddlerhood you have been told to take responsibility for yourselves,
you have been tested, you have been drilled in the rituals of competition
and you have been taught that your success was something you earned.
On top of that, you live in a country that has a wide streak of self-reliance
in its national myth, and at the moment you live under a government that
preaches laissez faire at home (unless you happen to be a steel company)
and unilateralism abroad. Were a society with a firm grip on its
And I expect a lot of you think, at least subconsciously, that every good
thing that happens in your life is a reward for your talent and hard work,
and that every setback is your own fault. Perhaps this fills you with
Well, lighten up.
It may be that I believe in luck because most of mine has been so incredibly
good. An editor sent me to Russia and, whoops, communism fell and everything
I wrote went right to the top of the front page. Then another editor sent
me to South Africa and, whoops, wouldnt you know itwhites
handed over the government and Nelson Mandela became the president and
there I was, on the front page again. Brilliant timing? Yeah, right.
Im the kind of person who quits smoking cold turkey and never feels
and gentlemen of the Class of 2002, you have worked hard and done well
but you were born with good minds, to nurturing parents. Your luck began
before you were conceived. There are plenty of people out there who have
worked just as hard, and not done nearly as well.
Now, Im not here to suggest that you throw up your hands and surrender
to fate, or abdicate responsibility for the choices you make. One of the
more interesting commencement addresses I ran across was delivered by
a performance artist at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He
came out on the stage and threw pieces of paper that said Surrender
and then left the stage. That was his message, not mine. Mine is less
categorical. Stuff happensgood stuff, bad stuff, all kinds of stuff
that you dont choose or control.
You can get hired on a hunch, fired on a whim. You can end up in the right
place at the right time, or miss the bus.
There is a saying that you make your own luck. Dont believe it.
You can make the most of what life throws you, but life doesnt hand
you the ball and turn over the pitchers mound.
So: Dont whine when things go wrong, dont preen when they
go well. And have some sympathy for people who make out worse than you;
because heres the thing: while you cant make your own luck,
you can definitely make someone elses.
My second aphorism is something Ive been thinking about quite a
bit lately. It is this: The most important division in human affairs is
not the one between left and right, liberal and conservative. Its
the one between zealotry and understanding, between absolute conviction
and compromise, between preachers and politicians.
True believers, whatever their persuasion, start with the answer and therefore
they dont have to think about the question. They have moral clarity.
Moral clarity is all the rage these days. As a basis for governing, it
tends not to work very well, because the world is almost always more complicated
than it seems when you judge by any single catechism, as the President
has been learning in the Middle East. If you decide youre not going
to deal with morally ambiguous characters, youre going to be very,
very lonely in the world.
These categories, preachers and politicians, are not mutually exclusive
categories. There are tolerant believers, and there are politicians with
convictionsyes, there really areand there are some exceptional
people who can play the prophet or the statesman, depending on what the
occasion demands. And yet, the true believers get more than their share
of the respect. They are inspiring, thrilling. We call them uncompromising,
and we mean it as a tribute. Politicians and diplomats are boring, exasperating,
Well, I urge you to spare a thought for the politicians. True believers
are usually the ones who get us into wars. Politicians get us out of them.
True believers are the people to see if youre trying to overthrow
a bad government; politicians are the folks to call if youre building
a new one.
My stumblebums great luck has brought me into contact with some
very large peopleMikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Andrei Sakharov,
who designed the Soviet nuclear bomb and then became one of Russias
bravest defenders of human rights, Nelson Mandela. I keep pictures of
all of them in my office. What do these very different men, all great
reformers, have in common?
First, they were optimists. Reform begins with the sense that things can
Second, they were brave in different ways, and to different degrees. They
took big risks.
But third, all of them could bend. All of them could compromise.
Consider Nelson Mandela. Most people venerate Mandela as a great moral
leader, fighter, champion. Indeed he was, but I watched him pretty closely
for three years and Im convinced the greatest thing about him was
that he was a politician. People tend to think he liberated South Africa
by suffering in prison for 27 years. The fact is, he liberated South Africa
by suffering in prison for 27 years and then sitting down with the white
leaders who put him in prison, and cutting a deal that allowed the country
to change hands peacefullyno civil war, no vengeance. There were
plenty of people in Mandelas party who wanted no part of such a
deal. They wanted moral clarity. But heres the lovely paradox: by
being a politician, by making the compromise, Mandela achieved the ultimate
moral victoryhe showed a generosity of spirit his oppressors could
This subject has been on my mind because, for the past eight months, since
I moved from being an editor to being a column-writer, Ive been
learning how to have opinions.
Now, I recall leaving Pomona full of opinions, and most of you probably
wake up every morning knowing exactly what you think about pretty much
But when youve spent 30 years of your life as a reporter and editor,
trying to keep your opinions from creeping into the paper, trying to be
exquisitely fair, its strange to suddenly be licensed to flaunt
your prejudices in the great department-store window of The New York Times
My third and final aphorism is this: You will regret the things you havent
done more than youll regret the things youve done.
aphorism, in one form or another, is a staple of commencement speeches
and it ought to be, because generation after generation, men and women
heading off into the world of work need to be told: Have a life.
Pomona College graduates may be a little wiser on this score than their
counterparts at other colleges. I read the alumni notes and am always
pleased to run across alums who have abandoned numbing security to follow
a dream, to go to someplace completely odd, to learn something not widely
regarded as productive, to bring some good luck to the luckless.
You are all on a very elegant treadmill, from success to success, from
college to graduate school, to careers. It may bring you immense satisfaction,
but I implore you, take stock from time to time, and if you are tempted
to get off the treadmill, then get off it. Otherwise youre going
to save up all that frustration and have a mid-life crisis when
youre really too old to enjoy it.
So, have a life. Not my life, or your parents life but your own life.
It would be great if it included some romance and some adventure and even
some failure but it should be your own, not one you compare with the guy
at the next table.
Having a life means taking some chances. From time to time, do something
that scares you. Having a life means sharing it with those you love, of
course, but also with those you dont, because a life hoarded is
a life wasted. (Im packing in a few extra aphorisms here.)
Now, I owe you a closing exhortation. This is hard. The best exhortation
Ive read lately came NOT from one of those many commencement addresses
I studied, but from a nun, Sister Veronica McRooney. Sister Veronica read
a column I wrote about the pope, and she didnt like it which is
perfectly within her rights. (God knows, she had plenty of company.)
She bought a postcard of the pope and sent it to me, and the exhortation
neatly typed on the back was as follows: Obey your holy priests
and bishops or risk excommunication, anathema and eternal hellfire!!
Anathema! I cant top that.
But I dont want to leave you with eternal hellfire. What I really
want to leave you with is a plea to pay attention. The Buddhist version
of that is Be here now. The New York version, courtesy of
Yogi Berra, is You can observe a lot just by watching.
My son Tom is 12 now, and hes gotten interested in taking pictures.
My friend Ford Reid, a photographer as well as a boat-builder and crackerbarrel
philosopher, wrote him a nice long letter about how to make his pictures
better, and his letter included a bit of advice from the great photographer
Robert Capa. And that bit of hand-me-down wisdom is my final advice to
you. What Capa always told other photographers was: Get closer.