Four Life Lessons from Cory Booker

The senator shared advice he got from his mom and other—sometimes painfully won—bits of wisdom

Cory Booker, who’s represented New Jersey in the U.S. Senate since 2013, has a pretty nice resume: bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, law degree from Yale, mayor of Newark and one of only 23 mayors ever to be elected straight from city hall to the U.S. Senate.

But in an April 10 conversation moderated by Tisch College of Civic Life Dean Emeritus Alan Solomont, Booker emphasized his conviction that what distinguishes people can’t be captured on a resume. “As one of my father’s friends told me, ‘Any idiot can be elected to the U.S. Senate and they often are,’” joked Booker. What truly matters, he said, is “not the degrees you get but what you are going to give.”

Booker is passionate about ending mass incarceration and reforming a punitive criminal justice system that regularly denies prisoners the resources they need to reenter society. He’s also outspoken about the need to change an agricultural system that is bad for farmers, consumers, and livestock. However, Booker’s remarks focused less on policy recommendations than on life lessons, sometimes reluctantly learned.

Here are four takeaways from the talk, which was held on the Medford/Somerville campus as part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life Solomont Speaker Series.

Dive into your dreams.

Booker recalled his mother asking him “the worst question you can ask a confused college student”: What are you going to do after you graduate?

“I’m worried you are going to make a decision out of fear, not faith,” she told her son. Then she challenged him, just as Booker challenged each member of his audience, to “think of the boldest thing you could do with your life if you knew you couldn’t fail” and find ways to pursue it.

That advice led him to reach out to change agents like Marian Wright Edelman, H89, Bryan Stevenson, H21, and Geoffrey Canada, H11. Inspired by Canada, who moved to Harlem to start the Harlem Children’s Zone, Booker moved from the New Jersey suburbs into Newark’s Central Ward, a gritty, low-income community where he still lives, and launched a career in public service. “Once I dove into my wildest dreams, I didn’t end up where I thought I was going to be, but the momentum was incredible,” he said.

When you fall, take something with you as you get up.

In politics, falls are unpredictable, inevitable, painful, and public. Booker recounted how defeat in his first mayoral race was made all the more “spectacular” because it was chronicled in an Academy Award-nominated documentary film, Fist Fight, which lost the Oscar to The March of the Penguins. (Booker, a vegan, joked that he is still tempted to make a dietary exception in the case of penguins.) He won his second mayoral race with 79% of the vote.

Asked by Solomont about his “secret sauce” for success, Booker noted that “the best things in my life have often come from things I viewed as a disaster, as a mistake, getting knocked down, and getting broken, being shattered.” The important thing, he said, is to take some wisdom with you in the process.

Don’t double down on darkness.

Booker acknowledged the enormous hurt and fear caused by political division, injustice, and violence. But he warned against becoming a prisoner of that pain.

As a young senator, he drew on his mayoral experience forging human relationships. “You can’t pass legislation without that,” he said, “and you can’t create that connection by denigrating or degrading the humanity of another person because they vote differently or hold different views.”

Booker recalled a conversation with conservative Republican Senator James Inhofe about Inhofe’s granddaughter, who was adopted from Ethiopia. That conversation later opened the door to Booker’s amendment to the Every Child Achieves Act benefitting foster and homeless children.

The trap on both sides of the aisle, said Booker, is getting stuck in “hurt mode and doubling down on the darkness. The stakes are too high not to try to find common ground.”

Don’t know what to do? Do something.

Booker repeatedly exhorted individuals to get off the sidelines and get involved. “If you think we get real change because of bold senators, you’re wrong,” Booker said.

Fundamental change doesn’t come from government, he said, it comes to government, driven by the conscience of our country. He recalled his experience as a young city councilor whose constituents were asking him to address drug dealing and violence at a public housing project that city agencies had found intractable. Booker had no answers.

But when a neighbor quietly counseled the frustrated Booker to do “something” rather than give up, he ended up pitching a tent at the project and publicly announcing he would live there while fasting until the city responded. Hundreds of supporters joined him, attracting public attention and, ultimately, action by the city.

We don’t need to know all the answers to have an impact, Booker said. “We just need to show up.”

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