Writer David Brooks offers Vanderbilt graduates ‘blueprint’


Journalist and writer David Brooks delivers the keynote address during Graduates Day 2024. (Harrison McClary/Vanderbilt)

Acclaimed journalist and best-selling author David Brooks shared insights from his storied career and life experiences with the Vanderbilt University Class of 2024 while exploring the timeless question, “What does a good life look like?”

He delivered the Graduates Day keynote address at the David Williams II Recreation and Wellness Center Indoor Practice Facility on May 9 as part of a two-day event celebrating the university’s Commencement.

Brooks called on the new graduates to think about ethical leaders in their own lives to emulate as they consider career options.

“You learn that what a wise person says is the least of that which they give,” Brooks said. “What gets communicated is their way of being in the world in the smallest gestures and the daily acts of integrity and kindness. The message is the person.”

Brooks cited the late Jim Lehrer, a longtime fixture on the PBS NewsHour, who was an outstanding role model for Brooks, a commentator on the program. “Jim never had to say anything to me; but through his small gestures, Jim taught me that this is the way we do things at the NewsHour,” Brooks said. “We grow by imitating a person we admire.”


Brooks, who is also an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, is this year’s recipient of the Nichols-Chancellor’s Medal, one of the university’s highest honors. He has written  11 books, including How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen (Random House, 2023). In addition, Brooks serves on the advisory board for the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy.

“David Brooks has illustrated the immeasurable value of humility and empathy, advocated for the importance of nuance and called on all of us to proceed from our better selves,” Chancellor Daniel Diermeier said. “His work has much to say to us at this moment, and it makes him a most deserving recipient of the Nichols-Chancellor’s Medal, which I am honored to present to him.”

David Brooks receives the Nichols-Chancellor’s Medal from Chancellor Daniel Diermeier. (Harrison McClary/Vanderbilt)

C. Cybele Raver, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, welcomed the graduates and their families to the festive event and presented the Founder’s Medals to each of the students graduating with first honors in the university’s 10 schools and colleges.


Brooks began his remarks by advising the new graduates not to worry too much about career decisions after receiving their diplomas. “It can be stressful to have this much uncertainty in your life, but remember that everyone is struggling in their 20s,” he said. “The crucial question is, ‘What seems beautiful to me? What makes me feel alive?’” He described the 20s as a time to embrace new possibilities.

The graduates and their families applauded when Brooks talked about the importance of maintaining friendships with Vanderbilt classmates. “Find 10 of your closest college friends and form a giving circle,” he said. “Put some money in a pot and every year get together to figure out how to give the money away.” He explained that the charity part of the exercise is beneficial, but the real reason to do this is “to keep Vanderbilt a living presence in your life.”

Brooks referred to the 30s and 40s as the phase of life when determination and resilience matter most. He noted that the influential writer Maya Angelou would rise at  5:30 a.m. daily to go to a sparsely decorated hotel room that she kept for writing. He also talked about the 50s and 60s as the time when many workers become managers. One of their most important responsibilities is to model ethical leadership. Successful managers help their employees become the best version of themselves.

“Wise people don’t tell you what to do,” he said. “They enter with you into your own process of making meaning. They help to expand your vision of yourself and your possibilities. The essential gift is receptivity. It’s not about pontificating to people. It’s about receiving people and what they say. What you want is you are no longer trying to do things for people. You are trying to do things with people, and it’s powerful how that transition of prepositions really works.”

Brooks closed by suggesting that the new graduates come back toward the end of their lives, when they will realize how strong a foundation Vanderbilt provided. “You will feel more gratitude for all that Vanderbilt gave you than ever before,” he said. “You will realize that this university did its fundamental job. It showed you how to think and how to choose, and in that way launched you off to your glorious life.”


Students and families celebrate on Graduates Day at the David Williams II Recreation and Wellness Center. (Harrison McClary/Vanderbilt)

After the Graduates Day address, students and their families celebrated with lunch, music and dessert—including the traditional strawberries and champagne—inside the David Williams II Recreation and Wellness Center Indoor Practice Facility.

Watch as members of the Class of 2024 and their families celebrate their upcoming graduation in the Instagram video below!