Cut the Bullshit

NBCUniversal's "2013 Winter TCA Tour" Day 1 - ArrivalsRecently I had the pleasure of watching a speech by Jon Lovett, comedian and former speechwriter for Barack Obama, delivered to the Class of 2013 at Pitzer College, in the US.  Thanks to Mamamia.com.au for sharing Jon’s inspiring and powerful words.  As the Mammia team suggest, “no matter how long it’s been since you graduated – you should have a listen.  It is phenomenal.”  Earning him a standing ovation this is a brilliant speech peppered with wisdom throughout.

Leading in with a warning of his intention to use a ‘bad word’ Jon begins by saying “one of the greatest threats we face is, simply put, bullshit”.  He goes on to say “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.”  Arguing serious impacts and consequences of BS for our world Jon contends that “It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth, making it harder to achieve anything.”

Jon turns the focus of his message to personal accountability by suggesting “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.”  He goes on to share what he describes as three practical lessons that allow us to cut the BS:

  1. Don’t cover for your inexperience – be confident in your potential while at the same time aware of your inexperience.
  2. Learn to know when to speak up and when to ‘hang back’
  3. Know that being honest about what you do know, and what you don’t — can and will pay off

The Corporate DojoIn my first book The Corporate Dojo I dedicated a chapter to the art of balancing belief and humility.  As Jon shared with his audience it’s not only OK but important that we acknowledge when we are “smart, talented, educated, conscientious, untainted by the mistakes and conventional wisdom of the past”.  Just as important to our success however is our awareness of the simply truth that “there is a lot you don’t know that you don’t know”. 

Jon shares a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald who once said “[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The advice Jon offers is “to be confident in your potential, and aware of your inexperience.”  Acknowledging the inherent difficulty in achieving this balance he goes on to say “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.”

Providing insight to his personal experiences Jon shares that he cringes “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.”  He honours the value of those experiences however by viewing them as “a reminder that it’s not mutually exclusive to be confident and humble; to be sceptical and eager to learn.”  At the heart of Jon’s message is it’s OK not to know, what’s not OK is covering up or making stuff up … we need to be honest about what we know and what we don’t.

learn-from-your-mistakesAcknowledging the somewhat contradictory nature of his advice Jon then goes on to describe the importance of speaking up when we arguably lack experience and yet believe we are right. Jon tells his audience that “sometimes you’re going to be inexperienced, naïve, untested and totally right.”  He offers the advice that “in those moments, you have to make a choice: is this a time to speak up, or hang back”.  Reflecting on each of our responsibility to call BS when see it Jon argues, “If you see something, say something.”

Jon’s third and final piece of advice about the power of honesty is underpinned by his confidence that the world is changing for the better.  He amusingly suggests, “I think we may have reached a critical turning point … I believe we may have reached peak bullshit.” Sending a message of hope Jon believes that by refusing to accept the untruths of politics, commerce and government we will be rewarded.

He suggests, “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 performers like Louis CK and Lena Dunham. You can even add the rise of dark, brooding, “authentic” super heroes 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. We see it in politics.”

Offering a wave of change in US politics as an example he says “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.”   He then inspired his audience to lead this movement, to hold “sincere desire to do good in this world; to be responsible for one another and to carry yourselves with integrity.” Closing his inspiring remarks he offers “maybe — just maybe — those traits won’t just mean you do good; that this earnestness, this authenticity, will help you succeed in a society that is demanding those qualities with both hands.”

Well said Jon Lovett you have a new fan in me!

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