We All Fail but Are We Failures? Successful Presidential Speechwriter Jon Lovett Turned Failed NBC Television Writer Still Delivers Kick Ass Commencement Address

One of the things I hate most about our sensationalist news media is how quick we are to label someone as a failure after they have failed.  One of the topics that I focus on with my consulting practice is that being innovative requires failing frequently but that doesn’t equate to being a “Failure.”  This is true in the arts as well as in business.  Perhaps television audiences don’t tune-in to our new show, theater goers skip our new release movie (see my Lone Ranger post), or customers choose not to buy our new product.  Each of these are all very complicated endeavors, each with an infinite amount of variables that we can try to control for.  We can layout the most thorough and thoughtful plan but sometimes we will miss the mark – we will fail.

Back in May, Jon Lovett (@jonlovett) delivered the commencement address for Pitzer College.  If you have heard of Pitzer don’t worry, neither had I until I saw the video of Lovett’s speech.  The school, which is situated in Claremont, CA or about 40 minutes due east of Los Angeles, is a small liberal arts college.  Students create their own academic programs and are expected to engage in community service learning and give back to their communities.  It sounds nice.  What I found interesting about this story was that the students at Pitzer have a unique tradition of selecting their own keynote speaker who will deliver their commencement address.  These students didn’t pick your typical speaker.

To allow for the necessary preparation and planning for the commencement ceremony the selection of the speaker must be done months in advance.  Just a few months earlier Jon Lovett must have been flying high.  He seemed to have everything going for him.

Lovett had been a successful speechwriter for former senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton).  After Hillary had lost the nomination, Lovett had gone on to work as a speechwriter for President Barack Obama (@BarackObama).  He left that role to jump into yet another high profile endeavor.  Lovett became the co-creator and head-writer for the NBC comedy series 1600 Penn.  He had never written a line of television dialog before in his life.  But by the time he was on stage to give his commencement address to the graduating class of 2013 – Lovett had failed.  Just a little over a week earlier it was announced that his new show had been cancelled.

Coming off what must have been one of Lovett’s biggest failures in his life, he went on to deliver one of the funniest and insightful commencement addresses I have ever seen or heard.  In his speech he seems to spare no one with his cutting wit, laying into judges, business professionals, students, teachers, and parents too.

Here are five nuggets that Lovett had to offer but I would encourage you to spend the 17 minutes and watch the entire speech!

 “Now is the time to take risks.  Now is the time not to be safe.  There would be time for safe, that there would be time for offices and stability… and sacrifices… and savings accounts.  But this was the rare moment when a human being could be free.”

“One of the greatest threats we face simply put is bullshit.  We are drowning in it.”

“It is not mutually exclusive to be competent and humble, to be skeptical and eager to learn.”

“Subway rule – if you see something, say something… to call BS when you see it.”

“Lesson #3 – Being honest about what you do know and what you don’t can and will pay off.”

Lovett finishes he speech with the line “You’re going to do extraordinary things and I can’t wait to see what is next.”  At only 30 years old he has a long road ahead of him… beyond his failed television show, he too will do extraordinary things and I personally can’t wait to see what is next.  Jon Lovett’s television show might have failed but he is far from a failure.


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