Sometimes people who pass out of this life leave behind profound lessons on how to live it better. That was true of the incomparable New York Times media reporter David Carr who died of lung cancer at 58 this past February.
I had the fun of being interviewed by Carr once, but even before that I thought he was fascinating-a completely improbable character. Raised in Minneapolis among "white people eating white food," he became in rapid succession a high-profile journalist, crack addict, single father, welfare recipient, weekly newspaper editor, and New York Times reporter. Along the way, he lost much of his neck to cancer, and his voice to the debris in the air in Lower Manhattan while reporting on September 11.
How did he get from welfare and addiction to a job at the world's most influential newspaper-while raising twins? By sheer determination. By telling the brutal truth on a regular basis, whatever the consequences. By working harder than anyone else in a famously hard-working profession. And by being absolutely fearless.
Missing his presence on the planet today, I did a search and discovered his wonderfully irreverent commencement speech at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, delivered less than a year before he died. In it he gave the graduating journalists eleven very wise pieces of advice that will ring true no matter what your profession or stage of life.
Here they are:
1. Hotshots rarely change the world. If you aren't one don't sell yourself short.
"Right now, in your class...there are gunners who are really just head and shoulders above everybody and they're bound for glory," Carr said. "You know what? They're not the ones that are going to change the world. It's somebody we underestimated." In fact, he added, "Maybe you're that person."
2. Don't focus on world domination. Take things one day at a time.
"When you leave school, you've got your loans weighing down on you, you've got parents saying 'What the hell are you going to do with all this?'" Carr said. "Just do what is in front of you, and do it well. I think that if you concentrate on your plot to take over the world you're going to miss things."
3. Do the little things well because they matter.
"Journalism is like housekeeping. It's a series of small, discrete acts performed over and over. It's really the little things that make it better," Carr said. "Just do a good job on what's in front of you. Working on your grand plan is like shoveling snow that hasn't fallen yet." Excellent advice for any profession.
4. Fit in before you stick out.
"I think you should be a worker among workers. I say that because we're in an age of narcissism and personal brand," Carr said. "It's important that you fit in before you stick out."
This is the only thing Carr said that I don't completely agree with. I see his point-if everyone's constantly brand-building and making a splash, useful work never gets done. On the other hand, Carr himself was never one to fit in at any age. He spent his entire life sticking out and it's a big reason for his own success.
5. Follow the Mom Rule.
The "Mom Rule" as Carr describes it is very simple: Don't ever do anything that, if you explained it to your mother, she would say it sounded like the wrong thing to do. "Don't go near it!" he warned.
6. Don't only do what you're good at.
"If you stay in your comfort zone, you'll never know what you're capable of," Carr said. "You need to learn to experience frustration, and you need to learn to experience that frustration as a teachable moment. And you need to humble yourself and ask for help." Without all three of these things, it's impossible to grow.
7. Don't let technology prevent you from being present.
"So many people spend time like their phone is burning a hole in their pocket. Like, who's on there? What are they talking about?" Carr said. "You know what's going on while you're thinking about that? Your whole life."
He had been at many extraordinary events where everyone there spent the entire time using their smartphones, he said. "If your head is in your phone, the scenery never changes. So don't worry about documenting the moment. Experience the moment."
8. Take responsibility.
"I have noticed in leadership, in covering people over and over, it's the people who are capable of taking ownership over failure and apologizing very directly for their shortcomings that succeed," Carr said. "We're all broken in one way or another. To pretend or expect otherwise is stupid. And when you come up short, just say so, don't make excuses."
9. Tell the truth.
"People always say, 'I love that thing you've got where you just say whatever's on your mind. You just come right out with it. It's like, you know, the truth.' It's like, well, that's not really a tactic. That's a way of living. That's a way of being."
And, he added, "When you develop this gimmick, this reputation for telling the truth, people tend to listen to what you have to say." He would know.
10. Don't be afraid to dream big.
"I'm living a pipe dream," Carr declared. At 34, a failure as a journalist, an addict, a single parent, and on welfare, he told his wife that within five years he hoped to be a figure on the national media scene, improbable as that might have sounded.
How did he actually get there? "I'm living it because I wanted it. I wanted it really badly."
11. Treasure your naysayers.
Though Carr promised only ten pieces of advice, he offered one more. Out in the world, he said, you will encounter people with high-paying jobs who will tell you, "Good luck with that. You're going to sink below your waist."
Carr said he had experienced plenty of such nay-sayers in his own life. "You keep them close," he instructed. "Those are your friends, the people who doubt you. Because you're going to make fools out of them."