100 Coffees

Coffee #7: Mark Brennan

I had the opportunity to speak with Mark Brennan, a professor at NYU, about his avocation, 9/11, language learning, and passion for reading.

When I first applied to university, I wanted to major in either English or Political Science, but I ended up choosing to attend the only business school to which I applied. In order to continue my reading habit, I joined Stern’s new monthly Social Impact Book Club during my freshman year, where I met Professor Brennan (Prof. B) for the first time. 

During these gatherings, he posed many contrarian perspectives to facilitate discussion and chose many provocative books to make us question our views about our own choices, society, and the world. 

I also had the fortune of taking his Professional Responsibility and Leadership (PRL) course, in which Prof. B used his passion and outspoken personality to foster an open, safe environment for us to debate ethical frameworks and the morality of our decisions. His charisma shone through in this course—after each class session, there was always a line of students who stayed behind to seek his advice.

I spent a lot of time hesitating, rewriting, and editing this introduction because I still can’t adequately express the impact that Prof. B had on my intellectual and personal growth during the past four years.

Prof. B is incredibly passionate, opinionated, and well-read, and he has a unique talent for encouraging people to think differently and to challenge the status quo. Many of the lessons and questions that he posed during my undergraduate career have continued to resonate with me, even after graduation.

– Caroline


Occupation: Professor at New York University

Where is “home” for you? I live on East 64th Street in the city.

Favorite Coffee or Tea: Every morning, I drink a straight drip coffee from an Egyptian guy in a cart a block from my apartment, and he puts in either half-and-half or hazelnut milk. My favorite plain drip at a chain is Gregory’s. I’m not a coffee connoisseur; although, when I have good coffee, I appreciate it and value it, but for me, coffee is purely something to get me started in the morning.

koffie met zijn honden

What is one good book or article that you read recently?

I just read a great book that I haven’t read in 20 years: Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington. He was born a slave in the mid-1850s, was emancipated, and the book basically talked about how hard work will get you there. Just do the work, get it done, stop complaining. You won’t get anywhere by complaining—do the work.

I read it when I was a master’s student in history here at NYU, and I didn’t appreciate it nearly as much as when I read it last week. I appreciate the message: the sense that hard work will get you there that has now been completely lost in the United States—now, it’s about whining, gaming the system, or cheating—and it’s so old-school in its message that it’s completely politically incorrect.

I’m in this reading group led by a professor of English from Emory University in Atlanta. He told me that when he goes to English conferences and brings up Booker T. Washington’s name, the crowd will boo and people will get upset. Washington’s train of thought does not fit today’s narrative, so you can’t talk about him anymore.

If you could pick one period of history to visit, what would it be?

The twenty years after WWII in the US when we had this post-war economic boom, the Baby Boom was happening, and it was the period of some of the highest growth rates in the US economy. Suburban expansion fascinates me, and I would have liked to see it firsthand. I found the strides our country made over that period fascinating.

If you could pick someone’s brain for a day, who would it be and why?

It would be Russell Kirk. He wrote a book in the 1950s that was a bestseller called The Conservative Mind. He also wrote a book called Roots of American Order. I can’t think of another person who understood the European roots of American political theory better than Russell Kirk did. He was a political scientist and a prolific author, and I would love for him to explain David Hume, the Scottish Enlightenment, and its effect on the founders of this country, and how it resulted in the liberal and conservative policies we have to this date.

What would be an ideal weekend for you?

I have a physical problem with my eyes and it limits my reading. An ideal weekend for me would be when my eyes don’t act up and I can read for an entire weekend. I told the ophthalmologist that my eyes are always dry. He took a look and said, “I don’t want to imply anything, but I gather from your last name that you’re Irish.”

I said “Yes, I’m half-Irish.”

“There’s a problem that Irish people have with their eyes that causes their tear ducts to clog up, and when they clog up, the liquid doesn’t get through and their eyes just get bone-dry. This is very common for people from the British Isles. Rosacea is a dead giveaway for this eye condition, and there is a 100 percent correlation with this problem with their eyes.”

Which languages do you know how to speak?

I have native fluency in Spanish, Portuguese, and German. I can get by in French, Italian, and Dutch. I can understand and fake my way through Yiddish. I can make my point in a first-grade way in Russian.

When I was doing my PhD, I had to do two foreign languages: Spanish and Portuguese. Someone was kidding around and told me that I ought to go for the record for the most language tests passed. I then did German, Italian, and French, so I was up to five. Then, I did Latin, but I had studied classical Latin, and they gave me a Renaissance Latin text. I think I translated it fine, but they failed me on it, so I lost all my momentum and stopped at five languages. I was going to do 10 in total but I was so upset after I failed on the Latin exam that I stopped after that. After I went to ask about a Romanian exam, one of my advisors said, “You’re really making a lot of work for people.” I thought, “Wow, we’re here to expand our minds and doing more languages would be better.”

I was especially shocked because the professor is somebody who can speak more languages than I can, really appreciates languages, and writes books about them. He’s a great guy and I love him like a father. He taught at Cambridge University for a long time and had mandatory retirement there at 65, so he came to the United States and went to the University of Pennsylvania. One summer, I visited him at Cambridge, and he walked me around the whole university. He said the best thing about Cambridge is that you live in these residential colleges, and the professors live there too—it’s not just all history professors living in one place. There would be a history professor, physics professor, French literature professor, etc. At dinner, you would talk about everything.

Especially coming from him, I couldn’t believe it. The record was seven languages. I left Penn without being number 1. You don’t win everything.

How do you usually approach a language and what drew you to those specific languages?

Spanish

I think you’re doing yourself a disservice if you live in the United States and make no effort to learn Spanish. It’s growing—you’re not going to fight it. It’s actually good for you, and it’s a beautiful language. There’s a saying in Spanish: “When one speaks to God, one must speak Spanish.” There are parts of this country where you almost can’t go without knowing it.

Once you learn Spanish, every other Romance language is so easy—it’s the same language but different dialects. I had the Latin base from studying it in high school.

There was a woman in my PhD class who was super intelligent, but also not great with the interpersonal skills.

One day we were sitting around the student lounge and someone said, “Mark knows five languages.”

She asked “Which five?”

I replied, “Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and German.”

And she said, “Oh, so you actually know 2 languages: Romance and German.”

She was right. It would have been more impressive if I had done Russian, Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, Swahili, and German. That would be from all the different language families and would be more impressive.

German

Because of German, I can go to a Swedish, Dutch, or Yiddish movie and get the gist of it. When I was at Cornell’s business school as a CPA in 1992, the Berlin Wall had just fallen. I had asked people what would be the ‘lingua franca’ of Eastern Europe, and they said German. I went in not knowing a single word of German. At the end of the first year, we read a book, The Judge and His Executioner, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. It turned out to be one of my favorite fiction books of all-time. We went from knowing not a single word of German to reading a fairly important Austrian-German novel. I took classes for ten years at Deutsches Haus next to Washington Mews and had a lot of fun with it.

Russian

I was doing private judo lessons with a guy from Uzbekistan who didn’t speak a lot of English. His name was Alisher Mukhtarov and he won the Olympic bronze medal in 2000 in the 60-kilogram category. So I said, “I have an idea, how about you just speak to me in Russian, and I’ll figure out what you’re saying.” So, he spoke to me only in Russian. I was paying for judo lessons and learning Russian for free at the same time.

I now have an Uzbeki accent when I speak Russian—it’s like having a heavy Mississippi accent. I know all these irrelevant phrases that you wouldn’t use other than in judo, like “throw me.”

He was a Soviet Olympian, and he was a great athlete, but I think in that system, if you are an athlete you just did your sport 24/7 and you got no education. So when I asked a question about verb tenses, he had no idea and said, “I don’t know—that’s just how you say it.” It was great; my Russian was humming along, until he got deported around three years ago. He overstayed his visa and off he went.

How do you meet all these interesting characters? You seem to attract people from so many different backgrounds.

I just go out and meet people. I’m not shy about saying hello to people. I gave this speech last week at the Middle States High School accreditation association. I arrived twenty minutes before the speech started and everyone was standing around nervous. I put on my name tag and started introducing myself to everyone, and wouldn’t you know it—I met this lady from Russia.

On the days where I don’t have a choice and I have to go to Starbucks on Washington Square, I’ll get in that line. It’s always so long, and everybody’s on their phone because they’re afraid to have a conversation or look up. I’ll just start talking to people in the line. Some of them will put their phone away and have a conversation, but other people won’t. I’d probably be meeting more people if these devices weren’t isolating people.

Many people are pretty shy or nervous about meeting new people. How did you overcome this?

I was actually painfully shy as a child and I’ve overcome this obstacle to the point where I now don’t remember what it was like to be shy back then. I started learning the benefits of being outgoing and greeting people, and now I can’t believe that I was shy and afraid to talk to people. I can’t believe that I ever had that disposition. I never spoke, and I got over it.

When you’re shy, you think that everyone else is having fun and everyone else knows each other. Nobody knows anybody. Just go and break the ice. They’ll talk to you. We’re all in the same boat. If you’re in a room full of strangers, nobody knows anybody. On the whole, it’s a much better way to operate. What’s the worst thing someone can do to you? Tell you to go f- off? You’ll be fine. If you have an interesting open-ended question for them, they immediately open up. You just can’t ask a close-ended question.

How does the person you were in college differ from how you are now?

I’m a lot more empathetic than I was in college. I have different priorities in life than I had in college. I thought in college that if I just made a lot of money, I’d be super happy, and I thought that material trappings would make me happy. I think a lot of young people think that. They come to Stern and they have their five-year plans and they’re going to make a lot of money and be really successful.

Prof. B. playing football in college
Prof. B. playing football in college

Last week, I had two freshmen from my BIP class come into my office to meet with me.

I was telling them, “I know you have your grandiose plans, I know you’re going to be the king of the world in seven years—I know—I’ve heard it a thousand times, but just be careful. It might not make you happy. I have students come back all the time and they say “You were totally right, my job sucks, and I need to do something else.” As I was sitting there with these two freshmen, a guy who I had in PRL a few years ago appeared in the doorway of my office.

I was like, “Oh my god, what a surprise—I wish you told me you were coming.”

He said, “I wanted to surprise you,” and I was in total shock.

I said to him, “Tell these two freshmen, when I was speaking in BIP, saying that you’d get to your job and you’re going to be sitting in a fluorescently-lit cubicle and you’re going to suddenly realize that ‘Wow, I can’t believe that’s what it’s all about. This sucks. I have to find something else to do in life.’ Was I right?”

He replied, “That’s why I’m here. I want to talk to you. I didn’t believe you when you said it. I have to find something better to do with my life, I’m so miserable.”

This entire conversation wasn’t planned.

What do you tell them in these situations?

If someone gets on the subway, and goes all the way to see their PRL professor because he talked about this, they already have a couple of ideas in the back of their head by the time they’ve gotten into my office. They were thinking, “I need to go do that career that my parents always said no to, or that career that’s going to make me happy.” That’s why I ask in my PRL classes, “What is your avocation?”

What changed for you and what got you so passionate about this?

I was working as an equity analyst and portfolio manager, which is the dream job for a lot of people. Everybody talks about how intellectually stimulating it is as a career. I didn’t find it intellectually stimulating at all.

I like the idea of following current events—following markets, knowing what’s going on—but the only thing that’s required in that job was a superficial knowledge of what’s going on. Intellectually, I was going out of my mind; I wasn’t being stimulated enough so I was came to NYU at night while I was working and got a masters in history after five years. And that got me really fired up and passionate.

I would be in these classes at night with PhD students and I would look at them and think, “They have the life. They’re taking more classes, reading more books, they’re going someplace I want to go.” A lot of them would come up to me and say “You have the life because you have job security and you make money.” I was really jealous of them and they were to one degree or another jealous of me.

I was getting more and more annoyed by the lack of curiosity by everyone I met in the asset management business. Almost all of them had gone to great universities and great graduate schools, but they had zero intellectual curiosity whatsoever. They didn’t read anything outside of business, and I found that stultifying. I was in a field where I wasn’t being intellectually stimulated, I was surrounded with people whose brains were rotting, and I was just blocks away from 9/11.

There were two investments banks in the World Trade Center on 9/11: Keefe, Bruyette, & Woods and Sandler O’Neill. I knew everybody in those two firms—they were small firms, 100 to 200 people each. I dealt with them everyday, and when the planes hit, they both lost 75 people each, so the firms were devastated. I sat there at my desk thinking, “Wow that could have been me. I’m not happy…I’m not intellectually stimulated…I don’t really care about the stock market anymore, and look at all my friends who went to work today and got incinerated. I don’t want to go out that way.”

I wanted to make some kind of mark on the world before I go out, whether it’s naturally timed or unnaturally timed. I was teaching at the time at Cornell and it was the peak of my day-to-day life. I realized that was my avocation, and I said, “Forget it,” got a PhD, and made teaching my career.

You mentioned what interested you in teaching, but what keeps you at your job?

I’m passionate about teaching because I like teaching things where there’s no right answer. In history, there’s usually no one definitive answer on how we explain historical situations or periods or events, but there are a lot of good answers that we can rank, array, analyze, and discuss. Every course I teach is a gray area, and nothing more than a jumping-off point for people to discuss the issues. I like to watch over the course of the semester how students grow and mature. I’ve seen a lot of growth as long as I’ve been here (seven years)—watching people come in as freshman and watching them leave intellectually different people.

What is something that you’re proud of?

When students ask me, “What should I read?” I’ll rattle off a couple of books and then I’ll actually see the student walk around the school with that book. I actually had an impact on those people to read. One of my favorite history books is called Albion’s Seed. I suggested the book to people for a couple of reasons: 1) it’s a great book, and 2) I wanted to test how serious they were about starting to read. It’s hard to carry and gigantic, but all of them told me “I got ten pages into it and couldn’t stop reading.”

How did you develop your passion for reading?

I thought I was really smart when I graduated college and I was working at Price Waterhouse, now PwC. I was mildly intellectually curious and I thought, “I’m a college graduate, and I should be more conversant in the issues of the day.” I saw an ad in a magazine for a book, and it was in a bookstore in Soho that no longer exists called “Laissez Faire Books.”

Prof. B. at 22 years old
Prof. B. at 22 years old

I went down to the bookstore and I thought I was soooo smart, I was 22 years old, I was a college graduate, I was the smartest person in New York. I walked in and asked the guy if they had the book, and he was overweight and unkempt and kind of looked like the stereotypical Village leftist, college professor. The place was dusty and it was more of a storage room than a bookstore. I was very disdainful of him, thinking, “What am I doing here, I’m at PwC, and I’m making $22,500. I’m so smart and I’m so above this.” And the guy said to me, “Oh, you want that book? Have you read this other book? And how about that other book?” and he rattled off ten books or something. “I don’t know how in the world you expect to read the book you’re asking for without having read the books that are the precursors that underpin everything in that book. Do you not read?”

It was one of the most impactful events of my life. This guy grilled me. It made me realize that I’m not nearly as smart, or cool, or as important as I thought I was. I was an immature self-important jerk.  How dare I have the gall to look down on somebody who has a scraggly beard and is overweight and think that I’m better than him just because I was fit and trim and this guy was fat and unkempt. I’d like to find this guy and tell him how he set me on the right path. From that day I started reading like a maniac. I thought, “Wow, that guy knows way more than I do. I’m nobody. I got nothing, and this guy just humiliated me.” Since then, I’ve been on a rampage of reading nonstop.

I wish I could find that guy and thank him. That encounter really changed my life. The book was called Losing Ground by Charles Murray. That book had a big effect on welfare programs in the United States.

His cancer at its worst
His cancer at its worst

What have you learned from your recent experiences with cancer?

When I was going through my cancer treatments over break, which resulted in my face being deformed for three months, I realized that we all make a point of never staring at people with facial deformities. But what we actually do is that we don’t even make eye contact with them. We don’t just not stare—people like you and me—we don’t even make any eye contact. We avert our gaze, thinking that’s the polite thing to do.  I realized from the three months of having my face like this that no one makes eye contact with you. People would move away from me in the subway, and when I sat down, everyone would leave. I would go to a coffee place, and the cashier wouldn’t even look at me. They would literally look down and say “Can I help you, sir?” Talk about your sense of empathy—that really changed things for me.

“We don’t just not stare—people like you and me—we don’t even make any eye contact. We avert our gaze, thinking that’s the polite thing to do.”

Why do you think people do that?

I thought about it and it was a great experience for me teaching this course. I think you’ve always been told “Don’t stare.” You think that it’s impolite to stare, so instead you just pretend it doesn’t exist. So you look the other way and pretend that they’re not there. I was at the point after three months, I wanted to scream, “Hey, I’m actually here, I do exist, you can look at me.” If you have a permanent deformity, that’s going to rewire you into a way where you know that people won’t look at you. That was really unsettling, and my experience was just temporary.

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