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Rick Dunham shares 3 tips for improving yourself that his grandfather learned from Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein at his home in Princeton, New Jersey

As part of the online celebration of the 2021 Global Business Journalism commencement, program co-director Rick Dunham congratulated graduates from 11 nations for their remarkable achievements amid a global pandemic. He also offered some lessons he learned from the famed scientist and humanitarian Albert Einstein, who was an acquaintance of his grandfather, Barrows Dunham.

Here is a transcript of Professor Dunham's remarks:

Recently, my wife Pam and I hosted a small dinner party to celebrate the receding of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States after all of our close friends received vaccinations. One of our guests was Dean Chen’s son William, along with his girlfriend and their dog, Albert. I asked Will why the dog was named Albert, and he explained they named their dog in honor of Albert Einstein.

Professor Dunham on the big screen at the 2021 commencement of the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication

That made me joyful, because Albert Einstein has played a role in Dunham family lore for three generations. The famous physicist and humanitarian was an admirer of my grandfather Barrows, who was a 20th century American philosopher and professor, and my grandfather revered the living icon he referred to simply as “the great man.”

For the next few minutes, I want to share with you three lessons Albert Einstein taught my grandfather, and how I have used those lessons to improve my life. You can too.

Lesson Number One: They can’t say yes if you don’t ask them.

When my grandfather was finishing his 1947 philosophy book called “Man Against Myth,” he sought endorsements (called blurbs) from well-known public figures, including the Academy Award winning writer Donald Ogden Stewart and the famous humanist educator John Dewey. He also decided to ask Albert Einstein, who shared some mutual friends and an allegiance to the same university, Princeton.

It was an audacious gamble by my grandfather to ask a world-renowned scientist to read his manuscript and write a publicity blurb. What my grandfather didn’t know is that while Einstein did not know him personally, he knew of his work and thought highly of him. Professor Einstein said yes.

Most of us would not have had the courage to contact someone as famous as Albert Einstein. But my grandfather did, and the answer was “yes.”

This lesson has served me well during my journalism career. I have asked presidents of the United States for interviews, and they have said yes at least seven times. When I was president of the National Press Club, I invited famous actors such as Angelina Jolie and Jane Fonda to speak at the club, and they said yes – along with political stars ranging from the Indian prime minister to a first-year senator named Barack Obama.

As I told my National Press Club speakers committee, “They can’t say yes if you don’t ask them.”

Lesson Number Two: You can always do better.

After my grandfather Barrows Dunham sent Professor Einstein his manuscript, he received a short letter from the famous scientist saying he could not endorse the book because it contained a mistake in reasoning. My grandfather reviewed the chapter that Einstein mentioned and decided that Einstein was, indeed, correct and that my grandfather had made a mistake. He corrected his error and resubmitted the manuscript to Einstein, who then issued a statement praising the book as “instructive, amusing and courageous,” adding that its success was “most desirable in the public interest.”

The lesson I learned from this: Never believe that your work is perfect. Always be willing to accept constructive criticism, even if it is offered by someone other than Albert Einstein. You can always improve your work.

Lesson Number Three: Loyalty matters.

During the so-called “Red Scare” of the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted my grandfather in its investigation of Communist influence in American universities, known in history books as McCarthyism or the Witch Hunts. My grandfather turned to Albert Einstein for help in trying to escape the trap set by the congressional investigators.

Barrows Dunham, from his 1947 book "Man Against Myth"

He drove to Princeton on a rainy Sunday to meet with the great man. While my father waited in the car, my grandfather had tea with Einstein and talked philosophy and physics.

After the meeting, Einstein’s assistant told my grandfather that he would sponsor him for a fellowship and was not at all deterred by my grandfather’s political problems. To Einstein, loyalty was more important than popularity. Einstein did the right thing, even if most Americans disagreed with him. He stood by my grandfather in a dangerous time.

The lesson I learned from this: Loyalty matters. If Albert Einstein can remain loyal to a friendly acquaintance in a time of trouble, we can too.

As you leave the Global Business Journalism program, I hope you will remember these lessons. All of you are talented, compassionate and loyal. Be bold. Strive to be better. Remember your friends and family. And most of all, try to have some fun along the way.

Thank you!

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