Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2013


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'Work hard and be nice'

'Work hard and be nice'
Commencement speaker Howard Gordon is presented with his honorary doctoral hood BY Pam Zilly '75, chair of the board of trustees, and President Higdon. Photo by Bob MacDonnell.

By Howard Gordon

I've written and produced hundreds of hours of television. I've never once lost sight of what a privilege it is to tell stories to millions of people every week. In our fractured, frenetic society, a compelling TV show can become a collective experience — a kind of massive campfire where people gather to hear a story that moves them and makes them think.

The terrible events of 9/11 made “24” relevant in a way none of us could have anticipated. After Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, Jack Bauer became a much more controversial figure. Some journalists went so far as to find a causal link between “24” and the promotion of torture as an acceptable means of interrogation. Suddenly, I wasn't just writing a television show, I was at the center of a national debate I'd never signed up for. Still, I was grateful to have been part of a dialogue that needed to happen. It made me reconsider the line between social responsibility and free speech. And it showed me the power of telling stories.

With “Homeland,” I've been able to explore some of the big questions we've all been asking in the decade since 9/11. What's the real human cost of going to war? How far can we go to defend our values without losing them along the way? How much of our privacy are we willing to sacrifice to be secure? And can we ever be truly secure?
The fictional characters I create live in the same crazy, complicated world as the rest of us. How they navigate through the world is what makes them compelling. How you navigate your way through the world will make your story compelling.

God knows, you've got great source material: the widening gap between rich and poor; an economy that's losing ground to the growing economies of India and China; a warming planet that's causing our oceans to rise, the implications of which we're only just beginning to understand.

The list goes on. You'll inherit the world sooner than you think, and the sooner you understand its challenges, the better equipped you'll be to meet them head on.
You're all leaving Connecticut College with invaluable tools: the capacity for critical thinking that comes from having earned a first-rate liberal arts education; the ability to ask good questions, even when there may be no good answers; and the understanding that along with your privilege comes the responsibility to give back to those who haven't had your advantages.

I've been talking about the power of stories. The most powerful one you'll ever get to tell is your own. It won't be about your achievements or awards or how much money you've made. It will be about how you touched people and how you let them touch you. What story do you want to tell? What story do you want others to tell about you?
It may sound like fortune-cookie philosophy, but this seven-word sentence inspires me every day from a poster on the wall of my office: “Work hard and be nice to people.”
Hard work doesn't guarantee success. Many people work hard and fail, but I have yet to meet a successful person who hasn't worked hard. So when you get lucky and someone opens a door for you, be ready to walk through it.

As to the second half of my philosophy, being nice to people is like the trunk of a tree with many branches — humility, respect, compassion, empathy and love. Whether I'm creating a bipolar CIA agent or the world's most wanted terrorist, my job is to make them talk and behave like real people. To do that requires understanding their points of view, as different as they may be from my own. Listening to other people is the root of empathy.

It's made me a better writer, but more important, it's made me a better person. It takes practice, and it takes patience. But your story will be better for it.
I want to leave you with a final thought. I think it was Montaigne who said this — or maybe it was Homer Simpson — “Donuts. Is there anything they can't do?” Okay, that was Homer. But Montaigne said, “It's the journey, not the arrival, that matters most.”

I hope you all find happiness in your journeys.

Good luck.

Howard Gordon is the co-creator of the Emmy-winning television series “24” and “Homeland.” This article is excerpted from his Commencement address to the Class of 2013.

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