Alums Who Kind Of Have Their Shit Together: Brendan O’Connor ’12
While Kenyon’s proud of all our alumni’s accomplishments, sometimes it’s easy to forget that success isn’t always measured in book deals or starring roles in mediocre PBS miniseries. Plenty of grads are up to interesting things in the real world without getting notable mentions. To rectify that, I talked with Brendan O’Connor ’12 about journalism, the liberal arts, and Ben & Jerry’s.
Activities at Kenyon
I was pretty active member of the Ultimate Frisbee team, I was the captain when I was a senior. I also wrote for the Collegiate.
Can you briefly describe what your career’s like now and what it entails?
I’m a full-time freelance journalist, I’m the night-editor at Gawker, and I write a weekly column for the Awl. I’m also working on some freelance features for other publications that are longer-term projects. So I’ve written for a couple different magazines and other digital publications.
What’s your weekly column for the Awl?
It’s called Surreal Estate, and it’s ostensibly a column about real estate in New York City, but really it’s a column about power and capitalism.
Is that of big personal interest to you or just a topic you were assigned?
When I started at the Awl as an intern, my first editor there basically had me running around as essentially a metro reporter. But he has always had a kind of interest in the real estate industry in New York because real estate seems to be one of the most critical lenses to look at life in the city and sort of intersects with race and class and all sorts of other axes of power and oppression because it really just comes down to who owns what and how they leverage it.
Did you always know journalism was something you wanted to go into?
No, not at all. Far from it. When I was at Kenyon, I knew I wanted to be a writer, but when I was there I had sort of a delusion of making a living writing fiction, which is, as it turns out, not something anybody does, unless you’re Jonathan Franzen. I had these delusions but I was not actually a very good fiction writer. After I graduated I just sort of discovered nonfiction and journalism and fell into it as a form but also that discovery coincided with how I realized that this is how people make a living writing on a day-to-day basis, and writing about things that are happening in the world that are actually out there. It took me a while, about a year, to get my feet under me, but it was definitely not until I graduated that I discovered journalism as a career path.
What do you think were some challenges that first year straight out of college?
I was living at home in New Jersey. It was very, very hard. I was connected with alums who were doing what they could to help me out but they were only a few years older than me so they were also in that space of sort of barely having established themselves. They did what they could do, they made themselves available to me but there was only so much that they could do. Really the biggest challenge in that first year was finding someone who would be willing to take a chance on me as someone who had no experience with reporting or journalism, but had a kind of—it’s kind of cliché to say this—but a sensibility that was shaped by a liberal arts education and being an English major and having a critical understanding of the world. And so I eventually harassed this editor into giving me an internship and he sort of became my mentor, which was really invaluable, to have someone who was guiding me.
Do you think there were any specific skills or lessons you learned at Kenyon that maybe helped you navigate things any easier?
The most important skill that I took away from my experience at Kenyon that I think I tried not to just preserve but build upon is simultaneously being able to think in a kind of critical, structural way and also in an empathetic, individual way.
The downside of Kenyon, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, is that it’s totally a bubble, and that I could’ve done more when I was there to pierce the bubble, like to actually make more of an effort to address and interact with the community beyond Gambier.
When do you think it’s not OK to have birthday parties anymore?
Funny that you should ask that because it was my birthday on Sunday. My girlfriend and I went out to dinner. Last year a friend of mine whose birthday is just a few days before, we had a joint birthday party with all of our mutual friends, and for some reason that felt more grown up, because the attention was shared. People definitely still do birthday parties, so I don’t know if I can make a ruling on that.
Do you think you can still drink like you used to?
No. The answer is no.
Do you think you can still eat like you used to? Like I know when I was in high school I used to be able to eat a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting and now I definitely can’t do that anymore.
I think that I can eat like I used to as long as I spend as much time in the gym as I used to, which is increasingly more difficult to do. So, practically speaking no, but theoretically yes.
Cheesy two-parter: piece of advice for your freshman year self at orientation and advice for your senior year self at graduation?
My advice to my freshman year self would be you don’t need to talk so much. Spend more time listening than you do talking in class. And my advice to my senior year self would really be the same. You learn more from listening than talking, which is, as it turns out, a fundamental principle of reporting and is definitely something that is of a piece with the liberal arts education.