The firetrucks were already there by the time I had arrived on the scene: somewhere on St. Paul Street in Baltimore adjacent to the Johns Hopkins University campus. I looked out the passenger side window to see the Barnes and Noble corner store was in trouble. Not burning books! In front of me, a couple of firemen carried a hose across the intersection. But it was not the books they were after. Instead, seven stories above, student housing apartment units were exhausted with smoke, and the flashing fire alarm signaled a distressed disco–Panic–as its siren echoed out onto the streets below. I parked my car, and with somewhere unknown to be, integrated myself among the hundreds of students evacuated on the sidewalks, already complaining they had been out in the “cold” for 20 minutes.
It was an otherwise clear, crisp night. The kind that October typically wears this time of the season, nipping your heels into winter and farther away from summer. I could feel both seasons competing for my breath and confusing my lungs on every inhale. Suddenly, I had developed a cough. This emergency scene was both surreal as it was metaphoric. A few weeks earlier I had written a piece titled, “Where’s the Fire? How the Spark for Innovation can Turn into Self-Combustion and Burn Out,” where I described what it was like for curiosity to nearly kill you, and now I had found the fire that had epitomized my desire to intentionally create change. I have been a mad scientist experimenting in various Life spaces, meticulously recording my observations and results, building a library of metrics for something I have yet to prove, and undoubtedly define. Like the fire, my efforts have been exhaustive, and that night on St. Paul Street I was beyond fatigued and barely functioning. Still, I had arrived in the arena, where it is not the critic that counts.
Of course, I was not there to save anyone. I was there to gather more information. Eventually, I made my way through the students and onto Johns Hopkins campus–a beautiful little place that would have been great for me if I wasn’t a 25-year old fully-employed single suburban grad student in another city nearly 100 miles away. In other words, if I was 18 and my life resembled a sappy romance novel in which all my heart’s desires revolved around an 18-22 year-old male counterpart, all the while going to a prestigious university as an undergrad discovering alcohol and drugs for the first time, then yes, I would fit right in. But I was no damsel in distress. Perhaps just damned. Plus, I was actually there to learn.
Jon Favreau may or may not have saved me. As the former Director of Speechwriting for President Obama, he was actually giving a speech himself, as part of JHU’s Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium. And while his words were powerful, it was his delivery that was insightful. Full of poise, grace and hope, it was clear to see this man embodied everything his years in office represented–working for a President who campaigned on the very foundation of those meanings. Yes, this evening was filled with roots, those veins that are anchored by the ventricles in your heart. And as Favreau spoke, he’d tug on them every once in a while. My presence was immediately validated even though I sat in a sea of bright-eyed teenagers determined to save the world. I remained a child, wide-eyed and wondering how the heck I was going to change it without blowing myself up.
I took a few notes in my new pocket-sized moleskin journal. The pages are not lined, a feature I admire about the paper. It allows me to be as messy as possible. What I learned listening to the former speechwriter, was how important a consistent message, based on fundamental beliefs, is when combating abrasive change. And how important unrealistic idealism, based on unwavering faith, is when embracing ambiguity–that state of existence that can never decide what it wants to be. So you dream about it. Envision it. Somewhere between those two equations is the poise to deliver those messages and personify those dreams, and the courage to speak them again and again no matter the audience.
“I don’t deserve to be President if I don’t speak what I believe,” Favreau recalled Obama saying after one of his speeches. I tend to agree. Favreau spoke many truths that night at JHU, a few of which are noted here:
- I made a lot of mistakes in my young career, including two that are notorious for the people you professionally admire: 1) Ask too many questions, and 2) Offer too much help.
- You can’t make decisions based on fear.
- Cynicism is just an excuse not to act. It is our responsibility to try.
- A lot of problems can’t be solved with just relationships.
- Be a normal person.
- There’s something to be said for just working hard and having patience. It really is a virtue.
- Listen to your gut. People will always give you good advice, but follow your moral compass.
- They value your opinion, advice, talent, capability. They hired you for a reason. Don’t be afraid to assert yourself.
- No matter the cynicism, there’s no denying that these decisions matter!
- Do not make decisions based on caution so much that you stop taking risks.
- There is an all-time low in trust.
- Talk to people like you trust them and believe in them.
It is this last point I love the most. It directly refutes the previous statement. Favreau made clear to the audience multiple times that his decade in Washington did not leave him angry and bitter. It made him more hopeful than he’s ever been. The idealism that change had promised had been maintained throughout his tenure despite the insurmountable challenges the President faced. Working on the same wavelength with a fellow writer was inspiring, he said, and the President’s ability to compartmentalize his thoughts and feelings from one sharp change to the next was a significant ability rarely seen up close. But it was also time for Favreau to find his own voice, and so he stepped away from the work that had simultaneously defined his young career and adulthood. Listening to his optimism, his surety of the world and his ability as a human being to navigate it no matter the wind, was comforting if not energizing. He was making me believe, the way all the great communicators do when something important is at stake.