If you can’t find a job you love, make one up—-Mo Rocca LIVE
“As you get older, you care less what people think of you.”
Some people break the mold and leave their mark on the world because it simply never occurred to them that it wasn’t an option. Mo Rocca is just such an individual and I had the exquisite delight of getting to see him speak live.
From an early age, Rocca was aware of his affinity for media — he was a television junkie, at least within the range his parents permitted. (Nothing so racy as Dynasty or Dallas for young Mo.) He consumed information and entertainment at every opportunity, even committing to memory the capitols of every nation while pouring over the World Book Encyclopedia. He can still rattle them off, even with geo-political updates. Just ask him. So with a mother encouraging him to make the most of his traditional education and a father escewing commonplace careers (and explicitly instructing him to avoid law school at all costs), Mo sought guidance elsewhere. Indicative of his ‘blaze your own trail’ approach, when he encountered the film The Killing Fields as an adolescent, Rocca was clearly fascinated but couldn’t choose a favorite topic. Did he envision himself as the photographer, in the thick of it covering breaking stories in a forgotten corner of the world? Or was he more interested in the artistic portrayal thereof? Turns out, he would make it his life’s mission to embody the inherent tension between those two roles — akin to “going back to college and taking only electives.”
With an impressively diverse resume, Mr. Rocca has wowed any number of audiences, always bringing an undeniable sense of genuine interest and appreciation to his unique brand of humor. Whether playing dramatic roles on General Hospital, The Good Wife, and Law & Order among others (a far cry from his humble beginnings as Dody in a traveling production of Grease that did the rounds of southeast Asia), or visiting the Republican National Convention to ask brazenly-candid questions of unwitting attendees, there is no doubt that the performance will be uniquely his own. He specializes in either authentic fiction or elaborative fact — I can’t decide which. But he brings his own flavor of humor to everything he touches, which may be why he is best known to many for his frequent appearances on what he calls “the best job ever,” NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. Improvisational and humorous takes on actual news stories? It’s like they tailor made it just for him.
I admire Mr. Rocca for his unabashed selfless-selfishness. He knows that he performs best when he is fascinated, so he takes cues for his next career move based on a constant yearning to be fascinated. When faced with a crossroads, he asks himself, “Am I still interested in what I am doing?” From global capitols to long-forgotten presidential controversy, Mo has covered it all. He regaled us with the not-so-foreign tale of the opposition party claiming that a presidential candidate was ineligible for the White House due to the geographic location of his birth being in question along the US/Canada border. Ted Cruz? Try Chester A. Arthur. Following the trajectory of his fascinations can seem a rather frenetic exercise until you remember: “I gravitate toward things where I can learn something.”
So with all of his infinite wisdom, Rocca reflected a bit, opined a bit, and gave some great advice for life. He’s played nearly every role in media that one can play, so when he suggests that it may be impossible for the 24 hour news machines to be neutral, I listen up. He points out the irony, that the original intention of the round-the-clock news channels was to have the luxury of digging deep into the issues. Instead, the rise of competition and the fall of the modern attention span have created a perfect storm of the same 8-minute long analysis on loop with a runner of headlines bearing all the nuance of a telegram. In fact, Rocca suggests that the weaknesses within the modern media machine have been best highlighted by none other than Mr. Donald J. Trump. Because the media has become so reliant on ratings, and they know that any words out of his mouth guarantee viewers, he is now the pied piper instead of being the target of focused analysis and interrogation. “I’ve never seen Sunday morning shows permit a call-in guest.” If you wanted your voice heard, you had to show up in person; now any whiff of a Trump appearance is sufficient, and the merest hint of a question about Ted Cruz’s birthplace becomes a full-blown phenomenon.
Mo Rocca loves a good story, and is willing to do what is necessary to help tell it. (He even took the opportunity to participate in a stealthy marriage proposal at our live event!) If there were ever someone to take advice from, I would think it would be the man who has written his own ticket in an industry that tends to chew up and spit out many who make it their calling. The keys to success, according to Mo, center around successful communication, no matter the particular persuasion of your ambition. At its core, he points out, communication is a human endeavor. Absolutely essential skills, particularly in this day and age of tech dependence, include the ability to listen, to WRITE, and to send a personal note for occasions of some import. “I still cannot bring myself to send condolences for the loss of a loved one via email.” Some things simply ought not be said in less than 140 characters or in a method that includes autocorrect. “It is never too late to send a hand-written thank you note.”
Perhaps that is Mr. Rocca’s greatest gift is the essence of that human connection — When given the chance to create his own show on Food Network, he opted to wander the country, meeting people’s grandparents and learning their stories and cooking tips. “I wanted to make a reality show with people you would actually want to be related to. I aimed to make a show that makes you want to be 80 years old.” We have a wealth of knowledge in the older generations, and we need only tap it and actually listen. (Though, sadly, he spends so much time traveling for his assorted projects that he has barely had time to test out the stunning recipes he has collected during his time interviewing octogenarians.)He noted that throughout his experience of interviewing everyone under the sun, he has learned one big lesson the hard way; we may think our work is done once the interviewer decides what to ask, but if I am not actively engaged and responsive to my subject, then I am doing them and the audience a disservice. This is remarkable evidence of the skill Rocca values above all others: Storytelling. “The ability to write and tell a story — beginning, middle, and end — is invaluable.” Those stories come in all shapes and sizes, from telling an epic tale to a decent joke. Regardless of quantity, there is no good reason to skimp on the quality.
So how did this event appear on a lineup of speakers on civic engagement? Mo left us with some serious words of wisdom: “We can’t move forward if we are afraid to look foolish. We need to rebrand ‘FAIL’ as something not shameful.” What stronger messages of everyday engagement could there be than to relentlessly pursue intellectual growth, human connection, betterment of self, and authentic communication? If man, like Aristotle says, is a political animal, then surely these are the most modern and existential elements of man’s undeniable social nature and should be at the top of every active citizen’s to-do list.