The Commencement Address You Cannot Miss
Cody Keenan, Chief Speechwriter for President Barack Obama, dropped the graduation speech of the year
These are the words we all need to hear.
All right, ‘Cats fans. It’s Senior Week. Class of 2020: welcome to The Last Lecture.
Maybe literally, who knows.
Allegra, thank you. I think we all wish we were together at The Cubby Bear right now. Though I’ve come to realize that my apartment is not entirely different.
I’m in New York City, so you might hear sirens, helicopters, my neighbor’s creaky door — it’s Zoom Live; anything can happen.
Still, I want to thank you seniors for this honor. Don’t let the circumstances stop you from enjoying your favorite beverage if you want to. You’ve earned it. Hell, we’ve all earned it. The jokes will be better and the advice more profound.
I graduated from Northwestern in 2002. Today, I have two jobs: I teach speechwriting to seniors in the Poli Sci Department — what’s up Poli Sci 394. And I’ve been writing with Barack Obama for the past 13 years.
So if you’re wondering where the good material is, he used it already. But I did get him to record a very special message, never before seen and definitely not recut this morning, just for you.
Anthony, roll it.
I really hope that worked. Otherwise, the past 30 seconds must have been very weird.
Now, people often ask me if I miss the White House. And the answer is “no.” I do miss the people. I wish we were running the pandemic response. After all, we did write a playbook for it. But I was there for eight years. I had my time. D.C. can be a great place to live. But Washington gets crowded with people who never leave and measure their success by getting noticed at restaurants that haven’t been cool since the ’90s. Like all things, it needs continual refreshing. So even if I was one of the top staffers in the White House four years ago, getting to teach you is a step up. Public service is great. Preparing a gaggle of you each year to go off and do it is even better.
I think about you guys all the time. No dating, no wild nights, no jobs, just as you’re gearing up to graduate. It sucks. Know this, though: Nothing can take these four years from you. Especially you students who beat the odds that said you shouldn’t be here in the first place.
You worked hard. I know you had fun. When you started here, Barack Obama was still President. Six weeks later, the Cubs won the World Series in the greatest Game 7 of all time. That was a good six weeks. And a busy four years. Our fellow Wildcat Meghan Markle became duchess, and un-became duchess. AOC and Greta Thunberg changed the rules. The football team won the Big Ten West for the first time, and women’s basketball won the whole damn thing. You fell in love, had your heart broken, tested your limits, and learned from people who aren’t like you. A pandemic can’t erase that. And even if you’ve been robbed of this last golden moment with each other — you’re sure as hell getting your Last Lecture.
Now, we’re live on Zoom, so I don’t have a ton of options for creativity. And since you chose me in February, the world’s changed a bit, and what I want you to know has changed with it.
So I structured this lecture around the questions you submitted. Some were fun. Here’s one:
“What do you listen to when you write?”
Obama gave me good advice once. He said, “Read James Baldwin when you’re stuck; listen to John Coltrane when you’re not.” When I need a little moral clarity, it’s Bruce Springsteen and Kendrick Lamar. And I’m not going to lie to you — when I was writing the 2015 State of the Union Address, I was oddly into Taylor Swift’s “1989.” It is what it is.
“How do you stay creative?” Read. Widely and often. There’s always someone with better ideas than you.
“How can I find the purpose of life?” …Look, I’m just a visiting professor, okay?
“How do you feel about being named Cody?” I feel great about it. My name’s awesome. Thanks for the question, Karen.
Most of your questions, though, were very similar — and set up two broad topics for this lecture.
What do I wish I’d known when I was your age?
And what gives me hope for the future?
So let’s get into it. You don’t have to take notes. Hell, I can’t even see if you’re paying attention. There’s no quiz. No assignment. The final exam is the rest of your life. And the only person who gets to grade that is you.
Part One: The Top Ten things I wish I knew when I was your age.
Well, I wish I knew how hard it would be to find a job. I’ve talked with enough of you to know you were feeling a constant, low-grade panic over what comes next — even before a pandemic, a recession, and a nationwide wave of protest. In a way, you were ahead of the curve.
Eighteen years ago, I was you. I had no idea what came next. The first day of my senior year was 9/11. I graduated into rising unemployment. I moved back in with my parents for four months. The week I moved to Washington, still unemployed, the city was being terrorized by a sniper.
That was tough. This is tougher. There’s no magic advice, no shortcut, that will land you that first job right now. Unless you’re Jared Kushner. But even then, your dad’s in the pokey, your new family is reviled, you’re in hock to the Qataris for half a billion, and you still suck at your job.
Don’t give up. Keep at it. You will get a job. That brings me to the first thing I wish I knew when I was your age: Your first job will be the best learning experience you ever have.
A lot of you have skipped right over the stress of finding that first job, and stress instead about making sure it’s the right job. Take a breath. Your first job will not make or break your entire career trajectory. It might even redirect you to one you never considered.
When I got to Washington, I had no connections. I figured I went to Northwestern; I’d seen every episode of the West Wing; let’s do this. Nope. People wanted to know what I could do. Which wasn’t much. I sent a hundred resumes that never got answered; I botched a dozen interviews and never heard back.
Finally, I got an internship in a windowless mailroom. And that’s where my education began.
I was asked to walk dogs, and get sandwiches, and run memos around the Hill. We had this one brilliant lawyer on staff who couldn’t type and didn’t care. He’d reply to emails with a phone call. He’d drop six handwritten pages on my desk and ask me to type them up right away.
At first, I was annoyed. I’m in the middle of four different tasks, man. I’m not your stenographer. But then I started typing it up. And suddenly, I was getting a crash course in complicated policy. I actually started looking forward to the next pile of paper getting tossed at me.
It’s true: there’s not much you can learn from walking a dog. But your coworkers can learn a lot about you. That’s how new opportunities come your way. Sitting at that assistant desk was also the first time anyone ever asked me if I could write a speech — and the first time I’d ever thought about doing it.
So don’t panic about your career. Take a leap. Shoot your shot. Don’t hunt for that one perfect needle in the haystack. Instead, be that person who works hard; whose very presence energizes the team. All that static you’ll generate will make you a magnet. The needle will come to you. New opportunities will come to you.
So that’s the first thing I wish I knew when I was your age. You haven’t taken your most important class yet. And if you treat your first job that way, you’ll find opportunities you never considered. When I graduated, I hadn’t heard of Barack Obama. Five years later, I was working on his presidential campaign. Five years after that, I was his chief speechwriter. Five years after that, in the biggest surprise of all, I was teaching Poli Sci at Northwestern. None of that came from five-year plans. So throw them out. If you try too hard to stick to a plan, you’ll miss out on the full array of paths that life throws your way.
The second thing I wish I knew when I was your age is something your generation has learned earlier than others: the system needs an overhaul.
I got where I was because I busted my ass for years and had some lucky breaks. But I also got where I did because I benefited at every step from my privilege. We don’t usually make that part a part of our stories. When you’re walking dogs and answering phones for $18,000 a year, you don’t always notice that just by virtue of being a white man, every door swings wider for you. But they do.
When I was a kid, some of my favorite advice came from Robin Williams in “Hook.” Peter Pan tells one of the Lost Boys, “I want you to take care of everyone who’s smaller than you.” I tried to apply that widely; I went into politics precisely because I wanted everybody else to have the same rights and privileges and opportunities that I had. And over the years, I comforted myself by saying my work was dedicated to equality. But the truth is, I wasn’t doing enough to work towards justice. And there’s a difference. I think people are starting to see that now, myself included. All of us are works in progress. All of us have work to do not only to hold open the doors for others, but to design a new system so they swing just as wide for everyone. And as we figure this out, a lot of us are drawing guidance and inspiration from you.
Okay, that’s one and two. Your first job is your best education. And a secure place in an unjust system doesn’t absolve you from helping others create a better one.
Let’s do the rest rapid-fire:
Don’t move on too fast. We’re wired to think onward and upward. But come back for Homecoming. Stay in touch. You will benefit from each other in unexpected ways.
Live with roommates as long as you can.
Start saving immediately. Even if it’s just a little. Especially if your employer matches your contributions. It makes things tighter in the beginning. But you’ll thank me later.
Breakups are good. Learn from them. They make you better. I’ve had my heart broken twice. Shoot for that. Then marry someone you’ll enjoy being quarantined with.
Surround yourself with friends who are smarter than you and call you on your bullshit. They will make you a better version of yourself.
When they ask you to go on a roadtrip, say yes. You may regret what you do on those trips. But you’ll never regret having gone.
Find a bar, or restaurant, or coffee shop you love. Get to know the people who work there; their names and their lives. They’ve got a lot to teach about human nature. And they’ll be there when you need them.
Never leave Chicago. It can be hard to get back. I’ve been trying for 18 years.
And a bonus: While you’ve got this time, use it to figure out who you are. Do now what so many of us forgot to do when we were in a hurry to join the race. Think about what you value. Figure out what your code is. It will change over the years. But it will be there to guide you when you need it.
Just look at how quickly people rally around someone who says the obviously right thing when too many others are afraid to say it. Be that person in your family, your work, your classroom, operating room, situation room, wherever. However rich or powerful you get, there will always be someone with more money or more power. You can’t win that race. But your character; the trust others place in you — that’s entirely in your hands.
I could go on all night. I want to give you all the cheat codes; to give you an even better start than I had. But it’s like Doc Brown told Marty — you don’t want to mess with the future too much. If you haven’t seen Back to the Future, you’ve got a great trilogy ahead of you.
The point is, it’s the act of gaining that knowledge — failure and success, pride and shame, hope and heartbreak — that makes you grow into that better version of yourself.
That brings me to the final lesson of your college career: how to find hope in the future.
My own students asked me if I’ve ever seen anything like the past three weeks. I haven’t. Sustained, decentralized protests in hundreds of cities, big and small. People of every race and age and orientation and nationality demanding that America live up to our expectations. People marching in London and Berlin and Melbourne, because the cancer of white supremacy knows no borders; because propping it up in the name of nationalism and patriotism represents as grave a threat to freedom and democracy as any in our lifetimes.
All at once, COVID-19 and George Floyd expose how unjust our economy and our society are. Our own president exposes how fragile our democracy is. None of that’s new, of course. Plenty of people have been sounding the alarms and doing the work for years. What is new is that there finally might be a critical mass of people who care enough to join everyone who’s been toiling on these issues for years; to challenge their own assumptions; who believe that the worst outcome of all is to go back to normal.
It may be a tough time to graduate. But it’s an incredible time to change the world.
Now, I can’t speak for everyone, of course. I wouldn’t fault Black Americans for thinking this is just another round of performative, virtue-signaling bullshit and everyone will move on until the next murder. I wouldn’t fault anyone scarred by the last great recession to expect anything changes after this one.
Maybe. But I do have one unique vantage point: I’ve spent time with you.
You’re so much better than we were at your age. Not because Northwestern is more demanding. I think it’s because the world has demanded more of you. You haven’t been as sheltered from the harsh reality of suffering and injustice and disease. You have a lower tolerance for bullshit, and a higher tolerance for one another. You’re better at the internet for sure. It’s terrifying.
That’s what gives me hope: you. I have written that into my share of commencement addresses. But it’s not bullshit. I talked with so many of you the past two years about how to change things for the better. How hard it is. How long it takes. How there’s so much that needs fixing it feels overwhelming. And you made me believe that you’re going to do it anyway.
I’m not going to tell you what to do or how to do it. Other voices and ideas should lead this moment. But if this is your first time trying to change the world, I’ll just offer some brief advice.
You’ll get tired and disappointed. The inertia of the status quo will inevitably return. The protesters will go home. If the virus recedes and we return to more normal lives, the skies won’t stay this blue, and complacency will flood back in, too. Politics — the mechanism we have to lock in what you’re fighting for — is messy and complicated and will break your heart. In fact, the system itself is designed to resist change, exhaust your resolve and your passion, and make you cynical and apathetic. Then nothing changes — because then nothing has to.
Don’t ever give in to it. There’s nothing interesting about cynicism. Cynics aren’t tough or interesting. Cynics are the soft, nostalgic ones. They’re the cowards who say nothing changes, so why try. Anybody can do that. If you put your armor up, then you’ll never be let down.
But “being too cynical and pleasantly surprised is not more sophisticated than being too idealistic and disappointed.” One of my former colleagues, Jon Lovett, said that once. He was defending me from getting dunked on for daring to be optimistic on the internet.
It’s true. Being an idealist is hard. Believing you can break that cycle is hard. You will suffer more setbacks than the people sniping from the sidelines. And idealism itself can be a privilege. Some of us might feel comfortable at a protest. For others, it can be dangerous or outright deadly. That, too, can be a reason that cynicism is so appealing. And that’s why those of us who benefit from that baked-in privilege have an obligation not to throw in the towel.
Let me offer an analogy. Another reason I’m hopeful about this wave of protest is because it’s driven home the notion that it’s no longer enough just not to be racist. We — and by “we,” I mean guys like me — have to strive to be actively anti-racist in every aspect of our lives. Otherwise, we’re just perpetuating a broken system.
I suggest the same holds true for cynicism. If we want to change the system, we can’t just not be cynical. We have to be anti-cynics. Remember that code I was talking about? We have to build it into our code to reach out to those around us who are giving up or giving in — especially if this is the first time they feel like they’ve been seen and heard — and take it upon ourselves to remind them, to prove to them, that progress is possible.
I always think of the ten most extraordinary days I ever experienced in politics.
They didn’t start that way. A white nationalist walked into a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine black people in a prayer group. He had a confederate flag patch on his backpack. He told the police he wanted to start a race war.
But he didn’t. Over the next few days, the families of the victims did something incredible. They forgave the killer, to his face, on television. That grace in the face of unimaginable grief, piled on top of decades, centuries of trauma, opened up space for a surprisingly mature public reflection and debate. That, in turn, made it possible for lawmakers to vote to bring down the Confederate flag over the South Carolina state house.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld the right to health care. On Friday, it unlocked the right to marriage equality in America. That same afternoon, a President who was riding that train with all of us looked at me and said, “if it feels right, I might sing it.” He walked into the memorial service and led the country in Amazing Grace. And that night, as the sun went down on Washington, the White House lit up in all the colors of the rainbow to celebrate with everyone whose love was finally declared equal. Maybe you felt an echo of that today.
That was five years ago this week. All these debts came due at once: racism, violence, bigotry, inequality. And we made it through. It almost felt like we were breaking free of the past into something new. And here’s the thing: None of those victories happened because of one week, or one president, or even one generation. They happened because people had been fighting for LGBT rights for 50 years. Because people had been fighting for universal health care for 100 years. Because people had been fighting for civil rights and human rights for 400 years. And just look at the quiet victories that a growing movement of grassroots gun reform groups has been racking up across the country.
But change is never guaranteed. It was also five years ago this week, one day before that shooting in Charleston, in fact, that Donald Trump rode down his gold lamé escalator, announced he was running for president, and started unraveling decades of America’s work.
Change only comes when enough Americans, usually led by young Americans, demand something more from their country and push relentlessly, through losses and setbacks and compromises, to soften hearts and persuade minds and rewrite laws until the arc of history finally bends just a little.
And voting is a part of that, too. One of you wrote and said “don’t tell us to vote.” Sorry, man. Nobody’s ever told you that voting fixes everything. If you expect to have a candidate that aligns with you 100 percent, then you’re going to be disappointed for the rest of your life. We don’t need to be inspired by a candidate or fall in love with a candidate or get everything we want exactly how we want it before we vote. We’re grownups. We have the critical thinking skills to vote for the person who’s better on the issues, then keep pushing him or her to get on the right side of history.
Not voting is the quickest way to abandon the protesters and organizers who are out there, right now, trying to change things. Laws don’t change without the right people in place on the local, state, and federal levels. And that takes more than one election. I don’t want your generation to vote at higher rates because you should — I want your generation to vote at higher rates so that more elected officials look like you. And care about climate change. And know how to use the internet. There are more of you than anybody else! Open the floodgates. Overwhelm us.
Don’t look for reasons to hope. Create them. Be icons of idealism. Be rock gods of activism. Be the new vanguard of anti-cynicism. There’s already another generation coming up behind you that will have to grow up even faster than you did. What will you mean to them? What will you awaken in them? What if, in the face of all this injustice and disease and pain, you guys were the ones who led us to beautiful, impossible things? Give us the science from sci-fi. Give us an economy that actually works for the other 99 percent. Give us the revolutionary art and music that will make “The Twenties” mean something for decades to come.
What if, through sheer force of will, you pulled the ultimate “OK, Boomer” — what if you took the world of dream and aspiration that so many of us have been talking about for so long and finally made it real?
It may be a tough time to graduate. But it’s an incredible time to change the world. And what an adventure that’s going to be.