What Success Looks Like

By David L. Marcus '82 / May/June 2017
April 28th, 2017

The assignment was alluringly simple.


Come up with a theme for a reunion panel, then choose four classmates to speak. The theme was a no-brainer: “Life Lessons in the Age of Disruption.” Perfect for a 35th reunion, when many of us are switching jobs, switching homes, or even switching partners.

As for the speakers, they’d need to come from a variety of backgrounds. And they shouldn’t be self-centered or pretentious. No problem. This is Brown, not Princeton.

The first hint of trouble came when I learned the time slot would follow lunch. I know from observation—certainly not from my own experience—that people in their mid-to-late fifties are prone to dozing during after-lunch panels. Especially if, decades ago, they were prone to dozing during after-lunch classes.

Lively speakers? Fortunately, the class of ’82 has plenty of extroverts. In came the recommendations: “Steph Paynes is the lead guitarist for Lez Zeppelin, an all-female Led Zeppelin cover band.” “Dr. Anthony Griffin, the Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, is amazing on TV.” “Christina Haag appeared on Law & Order” (and wrote a best-selling memoir about John F. Kennedy Jr. ’83).

To draw classmates who avoid reunions, we’d want a headliner. Again, our class has a surfeit: U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson, former Delaware governor Jack Markell, former Vikings tight end Steve Jordan. We also have a former MacArthur Fellow, a former Dartmouth president, and the current president of the World Bank—and that’s not three classmates. It’s Jim Yong Kim.

And so the list of four swelled to four dozen: Marcia Wong, who travels the world for the International Red Cross; Barry Sternlicht, founder and CEO of Starwood Capital Group; psychiatrist and marriage expert Dr. Scott Haltzman; longtime Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin; Emmy-winning writer David Yazbek; Emmy-winning filmmaker Lisa Gossels; Pulitzer-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides.

One day I had lunch with my contrarian classmate Stuart Post. “You’re enamored with success,” he said. He sounded like a description of what used to be called a Modes of Thought course: “Is success measured by a career? A relationship? Involvement in a community?” Sure, Stu said, the nominees were extraordinary. And that was the problem: “I don’t want to listen to people my age who make me feel like a failure.” (I refrained from mentioning that I’d contacted Craig Mello, a Nobel Prize–winner for genomic research.)

Stu wondered if any panelist would bring up divorce, illness, job setbacks, or just plain normal life experiences. That got me thinking. What about Jim Austin, who lives on a sailboat with his husband? Or Jim Ferris, a full-time student of yoga? Or Jim Levin, who adopted a child at age fifty-three? Maybe a panel of joyful Jims? I’d already reached out to Donna Conaton Baer, who married our classmate Steve Baer. They have ten children, all home-schooled by Donna. I’ve visited the bustling “Baer den,” and I know her story is as compelling as anyone’s. 

As I write this, we’ve invited six panelists for Commencement weekend: two men (the boat resident, the Nobel Laureate) and four women (the musician, the mother of ten, the ambassador, and the International Red Cross policy adviser). 

“The Zeppelin guitarist. The Sailboat Guy. The Nobel.” Sounds like the opening to an only-at-Brown story. 

David L. Marcus, author of Acceptance, a book about college admissions, is still summoning the courage to try his freshman-year dream of being a stand-up comic.

Illustration by Joohee Yoon

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May/June 2017