Speechwriter to public service grads: “Be afraid to fail”

Fear of failure has driven President Obama's chief speechwriter Cody Keenan to succeed.

Good morning! Thank you Jessica, thank you Dean Glied, faculty, families and friends.

So this is what it’s like to actually deliver a speech.

I confess it’s my first time. Usually, my job ends when I click “print.” But as strange as this feels, I’m excited to be here, because I remember well how much fun this day is. Congratulations to the Class of 2015!

I was sitting where you are, as a public policy graduate, just seven years ago. Which brings me to my first piece of advice. Stay out even later with your friends tonight. If you already did that last night, and I can tell that some of you did, do it again. With respect to your professors, the friends you’ve made here will be what lasts you longest.

By the way, give it up for your professors!

But I can tell you from experience that you will have so much fun watching what your fellow students do. You will see their names in the paper, sure, but more importantly, you will see their updates from the trenches — in schools, on the streets, from secluded corners of the world — everywhere that begs for people willing to do what we do — the hard work of change.

It will make you proud. It happens, sooner than you think. And it will confirm something: You made the right choice. Public service is important. It matters.

Parents — your kids made the right choice. Public service is important. It matters. So thank you for helping us along the way.

And while today might feel bittersweet, the best stuff is still coming, I promise. Four years ago, I met a wonderful woman at the White House. Three nights ago, here in New York City, she agreed to marry me. One of her team’s many responsibilities, by the way, is to factcheck my team’s speeches. So she’s the envy of partners everywhere: she literally gets paid to tell me I’m wrong.

Get ready: She did not factcheck this one. And I admit I underestimated how hectic a proposal would make the past few days, so I had to finish this speech yesterday on a bench in Union Square Park. I’ve written in stranger places — but usually with fewer strangers yelling at me.

But it’s true — I am President Obama’s chief speechwriter. So who knows what he’s saying today. I did ask his advice for this, though. He said, why don’t you try something new for you — and keep it short?

Over the years, I’ve studied hundreds of commencements, drafted or edited more than a dozen, and come up with all manner of life lessons and clichés. What makes my task easier today is that you already know them. I don’t have to spend time trying to convince you to serve others, or to hitch your wagon to something bigger, or to change the world — you already made those choices when you chose a school of public service.

You have chosen a calling that is fundamentally hopeful — because it’s full of people who actually believe we can make a difference in this world.

Besides, I don’t have a lifetime of wisdom to offer you. There’s a solid chance that I’m the first commencement speaker in history to be three months removed from living in a group house. And I have no idea what I’ll be doing a year and a half from now, when my boss has to hand over the keys to the White House. All I have on most of you is a head start. So all I can offer you is the cheat codes — how I got here, and what I’ve learned by giving the prime of my life to public service.

When I moved to Washington right out of college, I knew one person — a fraternity brother teaching elementary school. So when it came to finding a job, I was on my own. I figured I went to a good school, and I’d seen every episode of The West Wing, how hard could it be?

Several failed interviews and dead-ends later, my ego was dust. Just when I was rethinking the whole thing, I saw a posting for an unpaid internship in a senator’s office — Ted Kennedy. In him, I saw someone who got things done, and cared about the people I cared about. So, oblivious to the way things work in Washington, I called and asked for his chief of staff. I was quickly transferred to an annoyed intern coordinator, who hired me over the phone on the spot. Not because I was super awesome — but, as she would tell me a few months later, because it was five pm on a Friday and she just wanted to go home.

I showed up on Monday morning in my $150 power suit, ready to make a name for myself in Congress.

I was one of fifty interns. And I was assigned to a windowless mailroom.

But I threw myself into it, reading and routing mail, walking the Senator’s dogs, Sunny and Splash, running memos to and from the Senate floor, whatever the job required. And three months later, I was hired to answer the phones and greet visitors to his front office for the princely sum of $18,500 a year. I lived with three guys and two girls in a group house and drank cheap beer. Life was actually pretty great. Over the next few years, I moved up the ranks, and eventually gained a small legislative portfolio of my own. I got to go to the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and found myself on the floor the night a man named Barack Obama introduced himself to the country. I even got an unexpected entrée into speechwriting when my boss, who usually wrote Senator Kennedy’s policy speeches, had too much on his plate and asked me if I wanted to give it a try. And that one led to a few more.

Then, like a lot of people who aren’t sure what to do with their life, I went to public policy school. And towards the end of my first year, a former colleague introduced me to Senator Obama’s chief speechwriter. The campaign had just started. He was swamped, which made him desperate enough to hire me, someone with maybe five speeches under my belt, as his unpaid intern. So, four years after my last internship, I was the lowest guy on the totem pole again.

And again, I threw myself into it, doing whatever the job required. I have no formal training as a speechwriter — to which critics of the President’s speeches would say, “duh.” But I had a facility with the written word, and what I lacked in skill, I tried to make up for with heart. And when the chief speechwriter had too much on his plate and needed someone to step up, I made sure I was ready.

The truth is, I have been really lucky in my career.

I wish I could tell you that my story was entirely self-made; that it included crushing failure followed by a “Rocky IV”-style montage of moving to a mountain cabin, growing a beard, and teaching myself how to write speeches from scratch all to a monster power ballad. But any successful person who tells you that luck hasn’t played a role in their success is lying to your face.

Now, you can improve your odds of getting a lucky break. Work your tail off. Be the last to leave the office at night. Appreciate being part of a team, rather than just acting like you do. Don’t just embrace, but enjoy being surrounded by people who are smarter than you are. And be nice. As it turns out, people notice these things, and reward you for them.

That’s not to say you can’t succeed by being insufferably brazen and overeager and narcissistic. I do work in Washington. Letting your ambition run wild is actually a pretty effective tactic. It’s just less fun to live with yourself.

So in my book, success is the place where hard work meets luck. But I know that “get lucky” isn’t great guidance — though I do hope you all get lucky. So with my remaining time, based on what I’ve learned along the way, I humbly offer two pieces of advice that hold true regardless of whether luck finds you or not, and might even take you to a better place.

The first is to remember that the career path you’ve chosen isn’t about you at all.

Now, that’s kind of implicit in the words “public service.” But I didn’t get it until I worked in that windowless mailroom back in the Senate. There, I learned that politics is not about sexy walk-and-talks, power lunches, or using witty banter to solve the world’s problems in an hour. With each envelope I opened; with each of the hundreds of letters and phone calls a day from people desperately asking a senator who was not their own for help; with each perfect stranger’s private hopes and pains laid bare across the page — I learned how deeply policy, politics, and public service matter. I learned that my job was no longer about me or my future.

When President Obama took office, and took us along with him, he asked his correspondence staff to give him ten letters a night from everyday Americans. As his speechwriter, I get to read those letters, too. And they really are a representative sample. Some are mean. Some are nice. Some are about specific issues. It wouldn’t surprise any of you that a lot are about the unfairness of student loan debt. But most of them are from ordinary people who work really hard, and do what’s expected of them, but can’t seem to make life work out the way we’re told it should. They don’t ask for anything — they just desperately want somebody to know.

I often think about what it takes for someone to sit down and write a letter that’s so personal. And even when they’re at the end of their rope; even when you can tell that they had to wipe a tear off the page — I still think there’s something inherently hopeful about what they’re doing. It’s the hope that the system still works; that someone will hear their story and care about what’s happening in their life.

It is a constant, searing reminder of why what we’re trying to do has to work.

Now, some of you will go on to work directly with the people whom you got in this business to help. Others of you will work in institutions like government, with colleagues who are well-meaning, but where bureaucracy and convention tend to divorce you from the very people who drew you to this calling in the first place. And that can take you down a road where you’re fighting with a speechwriter to actually write something along the lines of: “This synergistic public-private partnership will leverage innovative micro-financing mechanisms to deliver educational services to the city’s four year-old humans,” when you could just say “Boom — little Billy gets to go to Pre-K now.”

As an aside, my general rule is, “If you wouldn’t say that to a friend in a bar, don’t make me put it in a speech.”

You should join those institutions — but you should resist that separation. Even if you truly love writing regulations more than anything else — in which case, wow — wherever you go from here, always remember who brought you here. It grounds you. It’s why I stay in touch with some of the people whose stories the President tells. Some of them have become friends. I’ve seen their kids grow up via Facebook. And sometimes, I’ve seen their lives improve because of something we did — which is exactly what this is all about.

Whenever the President suffers a political or policy setback, no matter how minor, you can bet that someone in the media will inevitably call it his biggest crisis yet, or, my favorite, “Obama’s Katrina,” of which there have been about twenty. But I’ll tell you, for me, it has never been darker than it was in January 2010. There was a special election to fill my old boss’s seat in the Senate after he passed away. A Republican won, which left us exactly one vote short on Obamacare. The irony was cruel — it was the cause of Ted Kennedy’s career.

The President was advised to set his sights lower, cut a deal to expand coverage to some more kids, and move on. But he refused to go small. He went big. Not for his own sake; not because he was concerned with his legacy; but because he had read too many stories, in too many letters, to let that mail go unanswered. And he won. And for all the noise and nonsense, there are about 16 million newly insured Americans whose lives are better because he did.

That brings me to my final piece of advice. Be afraid to fail.

Now, I know you’ve heard people say “don’t be afraid to fail.” You should ignore that advice. You should be so afraid of failure that you’re willing to do anything to succeed.

I say this as someone who works in a town where so much is driven by a fear of failure. It takes guts to run for office, and good people, with good intentions, fight and claw and suspend their pride to basically panhandle from millionaires to win that office. But when they win, a lot of them become afraid to lose. They end up playing it safe, not rocking the boat, not doing much of anything at all for fear of angering the base or making a “gaffe” — which is another word for “telling the truth.” That’s how you get people running for a fifth, sixth, seventh term saying that government is the problem, not me, send me back there to fix it — without even a hint of irony.

And I’ll tell you, as a writer, I know fear — or at least crippling self-doubt. I told another speechwriter I was doing this today, and he said, “just tell them not to become writers.” Because there’s nothing scarier than a blank page. It taunts you, because it knows you have to shape it into something with a purpose — a rally, a eulogy, a State of the Union Address.

But that’s the thing — fear of failure is a powerful motivator. I’d been in the White House for two years before I was asked to write a speech that would earn national attention. And I pretty much stayed up for sixty hours straight to make sure it was good. Fear of failure keeps you sharp, even if it keeps you sleepless. It’s why, for weeks before something like the State of the Union Address, my car is the last one in the parking lot at night. I’m afraid all the time. I’m afraid to let my colleagues see that I’m not as smart as they are. I’m afraid to let the President down. I was afraid to do this commencement, for fear of being exposed as a lousy speechwriter.

Though if you didn’t like it, I’m just going to blame it on the fact that it was really hard to concentrate in Union Square Park.

And I’m not perfect — I still succumb to that fear sometimes.

Not too long ago, the President and I were working on a speech that we knew would get a lot of attention. Here, let me point out that he’s really the chief speechwriter. He’s a better writer than I am — which he won’t hesitate to point out — and if he had 48 hours in a day, he’d write his own speeches. So I view my job as to gather his thoughts, and try to give him a draft he can work with — one that says what he would if he had the time.

So two days before the speech, I handed him the first draft in the Oval Office. A half hour later, his assistant called and asked me to come back. Typically, when that happens, it’s not just so he can tell you how awesome you are, and send you on your way. And that day, he started out by saying, “Look, this is well-written, and I could probably deliver it as is,” which almost never means he actually wants to deliver it as is. “But we have two days, so let’s make it better.”

And then he gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten, one I wish he’d given me years ago. “You took a half-swing on this. Take a full swing.”

He was right — I did take a half swing. Because I was afraid of what people would think and how they would react. I was afraid of what he would think. And that made me forget a lot of what I’d learned over the years, which is that we have never regretted going big; we have never regretted provoking uncomfortable conversations; we have never regretted poking holes in the B.S. that pervades most political speech and commentary. I let my fear of failure rein me in, when usually, it’s what propels me forward. And I did not make that mistake on the second draft.

The point is, fear of failure forces you to push yourself. And if there’s one place worth pushing yourself, it’s in public service. Complacency is the enemy of change, and we already have enough complacent people in power. The halls of power are full of the timid. Separate yourselves from them. You will always regret taking a half swing, I promise. You will never regret taking a full swing. If you’re going to strike out, you go down swinging — not by watching the pitch go by. There is something worse about failing that way.

Public service is a tough profession, whatever flavor of it you’re heading into. All the theory you learned here is about to run up against cold, hard practice. And I promise you, anytime you try to change something, you will run into a chorus of cynics who tell you that you can’t do it; it won’t work; we don’t do things this way; fall in line. Ignore them. No one remembers people like that. I don’t care if you’re delivering clean water in Africa, devising new traffic patterns in Wichita, or launching a educational nonprofit in TriBeCa — people remember those who take great risks and do big things on their behalf.

Cynicism is easy. Anyone can do it. Change is hard. That takes us.

Today is a day all about you, as it should be. It’s hard-earned, and well-deserved. But take a minute to think about who it was that set you on this course in the first place — not a policy, or a theory, but the people that policy would help. If they sat down today, and wrote you a letter about their lives, what would it say? Hold on to that. Stay true to that. Tell their story — then work to change their story.

One of the things I love about my new fiancée is that she still takes photos of the White House like she just got there. My hope for all of you, as you enter or re-enter your careers, is that you do it with those same wide eyes. Do it with the same sense of wonder you had when you first set foot in New York City. Because public service is important. It matters. Remember who brought you here, and take a full swing on their behalf. Because whether they know you or not, they’re still hopeful that somewhere, someone is listening.

So get out there and show them that we are.

Thank you, congratulations, and good luck.

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