Dec 16, 2008
Vartan Gregorian on Character In Difficult Times
Vartan Gregorian was one of my first grownup heroes. Born to modest means in Tabriz, Iran, he eventually moved to the United States, led the New York Public Library from misery back into light, and became president at Brown just in time for my senior year.
We met only once (and barely) but the myth surrounding him during my senior year strongly shaped my imagination of what an adult life could and ought be. Now and then I see his name in the news and I am reminded of his longlasting influence on my mindset. Who influenced his? Before all others, his grandmother.
In 2006, he shared with Stanford's graduating seniors a lesson she taught him:
I want to remind you that whether you like it or not, in order to survive and thrive, you will have to be lifelong students and lifetime learners. And yes, there are and always will be difficult times when you will think you have come to a dead end in your life or in your career, even an apparent point of no return, but let me tell you as one who has experienced those events once or twice, when that happens, think of what the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said when he spoke of the condition that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers gave birth to them, but that life obliges them to give birth to themselves over and over again. Time, experience, knowledge, education, love, one's values, all these can and do affect us and change us, and enable us to reinvent ourselves. I have invented myself many times and I'm sure you will do the same thing.
For me, Marquez's words have a particular resonance because they reinforce values that were taught to me by my maternal grandmother, whom your president mentioned. She raised me. My grandmother was an illiterate peasant, a poor one at that. I don't believe that she knew where Greece was, nor Rome, nor Stanford. She certainly did not know who Plutarch was, but even so she taught me the same lesson as Plutarch highlighted in his celebrated Lives almost 2,000 years ago, when he said, essentially, that character makes the man and woman. My grandmother was my first teacher. She instructed me in the moral lessons of life and the “right way,” through her sheer character, stoic tenacity, formidable dignity, individuality and utter integrity. She was for me the best example of what good character means. In spite of many adversities and tragedies, wartime ravages, poverty, deprivation and the deaths of her seven children, she never became cynical, never abandoned her values and never compromised her dignity. Indeed, it was from my grandmother that I learned that dignity is not negotiable. Your reputation is not for sale and must not be mortgaged as a down payment on your ambitions. It was my grandmother's living example that shaped the very foundation of my character. Between what I have learned from Plutarch and my grandmother—a combination of forces I would dare anybody to challenge!—I feel confident in telling you that in the coming years you will meet people who are more powerful than you, richer than you, smarter than you, even handsomer or more beautiful than you, but what will be your distinguishing mark will always be your character. And what will define your character? Your conduct, your ability to live by principles you believe in, even if that means fighting tenaciously for what is right over what you know to be wrong.
Nobody goes through life without encountering obstacles, disappointments, and problems. Nobody can keep from making mistakes or taking a wrong turn. Nobody can escape illness or avoid the specter of failure. Let me point out that coping with success is easy. How you deal with adversity, with failure, and with setbacks will reveal your true character. How nimble you are about getting back on your feet after some large or small disaster or defeat will help you to determine just how far those feet of yours will take you in the world.
As Gregorian states, himself, these are not new ideas. But when I hear them from someone admirable and living -- whose hand I have shaken, whose dandruff I've seen on the shoulders of his charcoal suit, and whom I have watched mincing his way down a sidewalk when his back was seized in chronic pain -- they stick a little harder.