Thomas Friedman on Lessons Learned After 20 Years of Writing Columns (Transcript)

I opened the door of that little red phone booth, and said to the Fleet Street reporters standing in line behind me, do me a favor, hold the phone? Then, I dashed out of the phone booth. Before I had taken two steps, the guy in line behind me slipped into the booth, slammed down the receiver, started dialing his own newspaper, and turned to me to say two words, I will never forget. Sorry mate. Never ask the competition to hold the phone for you.

Now I will conclude on a very personal note for all you business students: always be a big tipper, always be nice to the help, and always call your mother.

Okay, always be a big tipper. I learned this from my friend the film maker George Stevens. You know if you are a big tipper your whole life it may actually add up to $5,000. Yeah, up to $5,000. If you’re a big tipper every day every meal your whole life. But you’ll make a difference in someone else’s life. You’ll actually be giving them a sign of respect. Always be a big tipper.

Always, always be nice to the help. It’s not only the right thing to do but I can tell you as a reporter, the secretaries who have been putting me through to their boss, the policemen who have let me through a barricade, because I was nice to them when it didn’t count really came back to serve me later. Always be nice to the help.

And lastly, this is advice I always give at every graduation. Always call your mother. Where’s my daughter? Always call your mother. Whenever I’ve had the honor of giving a college graduation speech, I always end it with this story about the legendary University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. Late in his career after his mother had died, South Central Bell Telephone Company asked Bear Bryant to do a TV commercial. As best as I can piece together, the commercial was supposed to be very simple. Just a little music. And Coach Bear Bryant saying in his tough gravely voice, have you called your mama today?

On the day of the filming though, he decided to ad lib something. He reportedly looked into the camera and said, have you called your mama today? I sure wish I could call mine. His mother had just died, and that was how the commercial ran. And it got a huge response from audiences.

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So if you take anything away from this lecture, please take this. Call your mother always, and your father. I wish I could call mine.

So I’m fresh out of ammo here folks. Let me just conclude by saying this. That’s why I want to write this book on a column, right? This is where my opinions come from. And that’s what constitutes a real column. And these are some of the things that I’ve learned writing one for 20 years twice a week. It’s still the best job in the world, I have to tell you. I’ve got the best job in the world. And somebody has to have it. I’ve got it and you don’t. Okay?

I get to be a tourist with an attitude, go where ever I want, write whatever I want, about whatever I want. Some 45 years after taking journalism in that room at room 313 at St. Louis Park High school, I can honestly tell you that I’m as excited about writing my next column as I was my first. And I am also still looking for Minnesota. That’s why I’m going to end where I began with the Jersey Boys. Because the closing lines of that musical play resonate with me just like the opening ones. This time it’s Frankie Valli talking, looking back on his remarkable career as the lead singer of the Four Seasons.

“They ask”, He says, “What was the highpoint? The Hall of Fame? Selling all those records? Pulling Sherry out of the hat. It was all great. But the first time the four of us made that sound, our sound, when everything dropped away and all there was was the music, that was the best. That’s why I’m still out there singing like that bunny on TV with the battery. I just keep going and going and going, chasing the music, trying to get home”.

Thank you very much.

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