Keynote Commencement Address by Jon Lovett

May 18, 2013
Pitzer College

President Laura Skandera-Trombley:

In keeping with a 49-year Pitzer tradition, the Senior Class selected this year’s Commencement speaker. Our guest today is Jon Lovett. Jon is the co-creator and head writer of the NBC sitcom 1600 Penn. Prior to this, Jon spent three years as a speech writer for President Barack Obama. During his tenure at the White House Jon drafted speeches on a range of public policy issues. He also helped craft the jokes used by President Obama at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Before serving in the White House he was the chief speechwriter for  then-Senator Hillary Clinton, working on both her presidential campaign and in her Senate office. Jon is a 2005 graduate of Williams College. After college but before entering politics he spent time doing standup at comedy clubs around New York. He is a Los Angeles resident today.  So on behalf of the graduating class of 2013 and the Pitzer community, Jon Lovett , welcome.

Jon Lovett:

Hey, guys. Graduates, how are you guys feeling? I, for one, think we look amazing in these gowns. We look like gay federal judges who aren’t afraid to put a little flair out there because times have changed and you can be a confident, proud, even flamboyant gay judge while still being impartial on, say , a copyright dispute, which you’re seeing more and more of these days as our creaking laws face the onslaught of questions that come with new forms of media. You wonder if the whole idea of copyright is antiquated; of course you believe intellectual property is the lifeblood of a free market, but you didn’t become a gay judge to arbitrate lengthy trademark disputes between multinational corporations. You wanted to stand up for the little guy; you wanted to help that undocumented farm worker who is just providing for her kids; you wanted to help that repeat drug offender get treatment instead of another pointless stint behind bars. And now look at you.  Twenty years on the bench and the only reason you stand out as a jurist is because you wear a colorful sash. You didn’t even want to go to law school. You weren’t sure what you wanted to do but you figured a law degree would be a great resource and give you time to learn who you were but of course, three years later who you were was a lawyer with a ton of debt. So you end up at a big law firm in Manhattan grinding out the billable hours. You’re a young gay man in the heart of New York City but you’re too tired to go out and even if you weren’t you’d have no idea where to go because the only two places you’ve been are your windowless office and your tiny bare-walled studio with a big screen television and a bed. Now in hindsight you kick yourself for wasting the years when you were young and pretty and confident and still had some shine in your eyes and the world seemed boundless and anything was possible and all you wished with every fiber of your being was that you could go back to that young man accepting his college diploma and shake him, shake him hard and tell him that now is the time to take risks, now is the time not to be safe, that there would be time for safe, that there would be time for offices and stability and sacrifices and  savings accounts but that this was the rare moment when a human being could be free—free to write and dream and walk the earth and shout at power and dance, dance with beautiful strangers.  You want to smack some sense into your young self. But you can’t. Because that’s all in the past.  You’re just an old gay judge now.

Anyway, good morning! Listen, you guys didn’t invite a typical commencement speaker so I’m not going to waste your time with a typical commencement speech. If you wanted one of those you could have booked historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, or that nice pilot who crashed into the Hudson or Tom Hanks. Imagine if I were Tom Hanks right now; how cool would that be, and I was like, this reminds me of the time I pulled a prank on Steven Spielberg, which is awesome because it seems like they have a ton of fun making movies together.

But here’s the thing: those renowned, accomplished people, they don’t remember what it feels like to sit in your seats, not really. They can offer advice and sure, some of it may be good. Follow your dreams, aim high, whatever. But long ago they have forgotten the subtle notes of excitement and uncertainty and alcohol coursing through your veins today. And by the looks of you, there’s some other stuff in there, too. The guy in the sandals knows what I’m talking about.

I recently turned 30 which, I know, seems like a generation away to those of you graduating this morning but it’s more than just the worst. 30 is a year when you’re left straddling two worlds. One foot stands in the world of the young amongst the bright, eager minds and supple bodies of students like you. And the other foot stands in the world of the gray and decrepit, the ancient shapes of your professors and parents, their dulling senses, their craggily wizened faces. And by the way, congratulations, parents! This day is your day, too.

But what all this means is that I’m in a position to talk about life after college as someone who just lived through it. For example, do you remember how your elementary school felt enormous but when you returned years later, you were amazed by how small it actually was. In time your chosen professions will feel the same way. That is not to say that you won’t have almost unlimited opportunities but it is to say that if you sleep with someone who works in your industry, just be aware that you’re going to bump into that person at meetings and conferences and birthday parties for the rest of your life. I literally had to leave politics; we’re going to talk about it. Your love is a delicate flower.

So anyway, I’m going to skip the platitudes. I want this to be a practical commencement address and I’m going to do my best to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable to say, even when I probably shouldn’t say it, because you’re already swimming in half-truths and people telling you want they think you want to hear. And in the next phase of your life I promise you, you will encounter more. I should preface this by saying that the problem I’m going to describe involves a bad word, not the worst word, but a bad word, though I made sure I only have to say it now and one more time at the end so if you want to distract any little kids for one second, please do so.

One of the greatest threats we face, simply put, is bullshit. We are drowning in it. We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research, in social media’s imitation of human connection, in legalese and corporate double-speak; it infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth and making it harder to achieve anything. And it wends its way into our private lives as well, changing even how we interact with each other, the way casual acquaintances will now say, “I love you,” the way we describe whatever thing as the best thing ever, the way we are blurring the lines between friends and strangers, and we know that. There have been books written about the proliferation of malarkey, empty talk, baloney, claptrap, hot air, balderdash, bunk. One book was aptly named Your Call is Important to Us.

But this is not only a challenge to society, it’s a challenge we all face as individuals. Life tests our willingness in ways large and small, to tell the truth. And I believe that so much of your future and our collective future, depends on your doing so.

I’m going to give you three honest, practical lessons about cutting the B.S.

Number one: Don’t cover for your inexperience. You are smart, talented, educated, conscientious, untainted by the mistakes and conventional wisdom of the past. But you are also very annoying. Because there is a lot that you don’t know that you don’t know. Your parents are nodding; you’ve been annoying them for years. Why do you think they paid for college? So that you might finally, at long last, annoy someone else. And now your professors are nodding.

  1. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Yeah, this should definitely be in 3D.” No, what he said was, the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. That’s what you have to do. You have to be confident in your potential and aware of your inexperience. And that’s really tough. There are moments when you’ll have a different point of view because you’re a fresh set of eyes, because you don’t care how it’s been done before, because you’re sharp and creative, because there is another way, a better way.

But there will also be moments when you have a different point of view because you’re wrong. Because you’re 23 and you should shut up and listen to somebody who’s been around the block. Now the old people are applauding. It’s hard to tell the difference. I love to get this one wrong. I got it wrong a ton when I started out as a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton. I got it wrong again when I became a presidential speechwriter. I worked on one speech about the financial system that caused the Dow to drop by 200 points. So that speech could have been better, probably.

Just this past year I faced the same dilemma co-creating a show on NBC. It’s called 1600 Penn and while you may have heard of it, based on the ratings you almost certainly didn’t see it, though it recently did make some headlines when it was cancelled. I had never so much as written a line of dialogue before I wrote this show but I was working with directors and writers and executives with years and years of experience in “the Biz;” we call it “the Biz.” I will always cringe remembering those little embarrassing moments when I said something dumb on a conference call, when my inexperience poked through, when I should have been more solicitous of the judgment of those around me. There’s a reminder that it’s not mutually exclusive to be confident and humble, to be skeptical and eager to learn.

But there’s another side to this coin which brings me to lesson number two. Sometimes you’re going to be inexperienced, naïve, untested and totally right. And then, in those moments you have to make a choice: is this a time to speak up or hold back? And it won’t be easy. You know, I worked for then-senator Clinton during her campaign for president, and I believed in her and still do. But I vividly remember feeling that things weren’t right in that campaign. A lot of the young staffers felt that way. It wasn’t a secret that there were problems in how the campaign was being run. The campaign pollster, for instance, rolled out so many slogans that it was impossible to keep track. Here is a sample:  “Let the conversation begin.” “Ready for change, ready to lead.” “Working for change, working for you.” “Strength plus experience equals change.” Now, I like this one because it leads to the lesser-known corollary: “Strength plus experience divided by change equals one.” And then there was my favorite: “Big challenges, real solutions, time to pick a president.” One slogan which she had printed on the side of a bus but it was basically too small to read. So I’m putting these slogans into speeches and I look over at an Obama campaign rally on cable news and they have one slogan; it’s just the word “change” in big letters. That’s even better. But I was timid and a lot of us just assumed or wanted to assume that more experienced people must know what they are doing but that wasn’t true. So the campaign ended, my candidate lost and I ended up as a presidential speechwriter anyway which was cool. But the lesson I drew from that campaign, other than the fact that it’s always a mistake to run against Barack Obama, is the subway rule: “If you see something, say something.” And I’ve tried to honor that ever since, to call B.S. when I see it and to not be afraid to get in people’s faces and throw a punch or two to make a point, metaphorically; look at me, I wouldn’t do well in an altercation.

Now, lessons one and two can be intentioned, and I can’t tell you how to strike the balance every time though it helps to be very charming. And from my point of view I’d rather be wrong and cringe than right and regret not speaking up. But the good news is as long as you aren’t stubbornly wrong so frequently that they kick you out of the building or so meek that everyone forgets you’re in the building, you’ll learn and grow and get better at striking that balance until your inexperience  becomes experience, so it’s a dilemma that solves itself; how awesome is that?

Finally, number three: Know that being honest, both about what you do know and what you don’t, can and will pay off. Up until recently I would have said that the only proper response to our culture of B.S. is cynicism, that it would just get worse and worse. But I don’t believe that any more, and I think this matters for what comes next for you. I think we’ve reached the turning point. I’m going to say the word one last time. I believe we may have reached peak bullshit and that increasingly those that push back against the noise and nonsense, those who refuse to accept that untruths of politics and commerce and entertainment and government will be rewarded, that we are at the beginning of something important. We see it across our culture with not only popularity but hunger for the intellectual honesty of Jon Stewart or the raw sincerity of Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham. You can even add the rise of dark, brooding authentic superheroes in our blockbuster movies. We see it in locally-sourced organic food on campuses like this, at places like the Shakedown, a rejection of the processed as inauthentic. And we see it in politics. I believe Barack Obama represents this movement, that the rise of his candidacy was in part a consequence of the desire for greater authenticity in our public life. But you don’t have to be a Democrat to believe me.  You see it across the political spectrum, from Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts to Chris Christie in New Jersey, to Rand Paul in Kentucky. And what’s awesome is the graduates of schools like Pitzer, you guys, will be the ones who are best prepared and most likely to lead this movement. What’s striking about the culture of this school is an unabashedly sincere desire to do good in this world, to be responsible for one another and to carry yourselves with integrity, and it’s exciting that maybe, just maybe, those traits don’t just mean you’ll do good, but this earnestness, this authenticity, will help you succeed in a society that is demanding those qualities with both hands.  All you have to do is avoid yourself in whatever you choose to do, to avoid the path of the sad, gay judge filled with regret, to go forward with confidence and an eagerness to learn and to be honest with yourselves and others to reject a culture of insincerity by virtue of the example you set in your own lives. And I say this only as someone hoping to do the same and go along with you for the ride. Pitzer Class of two thousand thirteen, you don’t need any more encouragement from me, you’re going to do extraordinary things and I can’t wait to see what’s next. Congratulations.