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Be open to surprises, says writer Stephen J. Dubner

dubner.jpgBOONE—Be ready for surprises, says writer Stephen J. Dubner, guest speaker for Appalachian State University’s convocation Sept. 7.

The co-author of the university’s freshman summer reading selection, “Freakonomics,” told his audience that his success has been the result of a series of surprises.

A small, hand-written sign posted on a bulletin board in a residence hall at Appalachian ultimately led to Dubner’s career as a writer.

A student was looking for other students interested in forming a band, said Dubner, a 1984 graduate of Appalachian. He joined the group, which he says wasn’t very good. But because the members were passionate about music, they practiced, and they eventually became good enough to land a contract with Arista Records.

But while Dubner didn’t become a famous rock star, the experience of playing in the band took him to New York City, where he pursued a graduate degree in another passion, writing, and later landed a job with The New York Times.

Dubner writes for The New York Times Magazine and is a frequent contributor to ABC News.

During a book reading and discussion Thursday evening, Dubner told the audience that his first book was the result of surprise. When he recounted the story of his parents’ conversion from Judaism to Catholicism, an editor suggested it would make a good column. The column became the award-winning book “Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to his Jewish Family.”

Dubner declined an editor’s request to write a profile on Steven D. Levitt three times before finally meeting with the noted economist. The 2004 profile for the New York Times Magazine led to a collaboration that resulted in “Freakonomics,” which has remained on the best sellers list since it was published in May 2005.

One of the biggest surprises, Dubner told his audience, is how being a father has changed his life. Now, rather than constantly thinking about current or future writing assignments, he has to set that part of his life aside when around his children, who are now his focus when away from work.

Dubner’s next published project will be a children’s book based on a story he created for his young son.

He said students will find there is a gap between what they think they will do in life and what they will actually end up doing.

“I ended up quitting music while we were making an album because I decided that the goal in life to be famous was not a healthy goal for me,” Dubner said. “But I kept at my writing, got a graduate degree and ending up working as a writer and editor for the New York Times, which for me was a huge dream come true.”

He said that dream happened, indirectly, because of the sign he saw posted in his college dormitory.

“You don’t know what surprises await you and you don’t know what path you may end up going down,” Dubner said. “I encourage you to be open to that sort of thing.”

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Photo caption: Convocation speaker and 1984 Appalachian State University graduate Stephen J. Dubner takes a picture of the crowd in the George M. Holmes Convocation Center. “If you had told me when I was a freshman that I would be invited back to Appalachian as a speaker, I would have bet a million dollars against it,” he said. “So to prove to myself, and to take away some evidence that this is actually happening, I’m going to take a picture,” he told the audience. (Appalachian photo by University Photographer Mike Rominger)