Jen Psaki

Commencement Address at George Washington University - May 19, 2024

Jen Psaki
May 19, 2024— National Mall, Washington, D.C.
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Hi, everyone! Thank you, President Granberg and thank you to Chair Speights, Provost Bracey, and all of the professors and faculty, the mentors, the guides, the parents, the grandparents, the siblings and friends who are here today. Everyone is standing on your shoulders as they're receiving their degrees.

And to Council Member Gray and Jon Ledecky—I look forward to swapping with you the appropriate way to brag about our new degrees with our family members, so I'm looking forward to that after the ceremony.

And most of all—congratulations to the graduating class of 2024. You did it! I mean, this is no small feat, as you all are sitting out there—congratulations!

And you may be sitting here. I've been in your shoes. It was a while ago. Looking ahead to the next job, a big move to a new city, or whatever it is that is currently completely stressing you out right now—put it aside, take in this moment, be in this moment. Leave the rest to tomorrow.

Now, you may know me—if you know me at all, let's be honest—from the time I spent standing behind a different kind of podium. In the years I worked in government, I spoke in front of presidents, prime ministers, Olivia Rodrigo. I know, really—I spoke in front of Olivia Rodrigo. I did. And as President Granberg mentioned, I now host a show on MSNBC.

My point is, I have spent a lot of time in my career speaking publicly. It's kind of what I do for a living. So you'd think I could just kind of roll up here and make something up on the spot at these kind of things by now. Don't worry—I didn't do that. Not only do you all deserve better but I'm not really a person who wings things exactly. That's not my personality. If I can avoid it, of course.

And I learned this the hard way many times over in my career, but one time was when I was White House communications director under President Obama. I learned that even 15 minutes of preparation can make a big difference.

So back in 2016, I was attending a state dinner at the White House for the prime minister of Italy. My daughter Vivi was less than one year old. She's almost my height now, by the way—goes fast. And I had a completely crazy and intense job, obviously, and on top of it my amazing mother was coming as my date. Since many of you have mothers here, I know you know that dropping a pin for your mom to tell her where to meet you doesn't always work out. So just imagine where I was. So between finding a dress, making sure my husband could pick up our daughter from daycare, and making sure my mom knew how to get into the White House—no small feat—I simply didn't take a few minutes to Google the people who would be sitting at my table at dinner, just didn't take a few minutes.

When I finally sat down, I was relieved I was there I was at the dinner with my mom and I shook up a conversation with the man sitting next to me. We made a little bit of small talk about being at the dinner and how beautiful it was. We talked a little bit about my job at the White House, and I asked him what he did for a living.

Well, he said, I spend a lot of time in the studio. Interesting, I thought. Interesting. Is he a painter? A sculptor? I mean maybe he's a writer, maybe he's in the writing studio. How cool. It turned out he was none of those things, but he did a lot.

The person sitting next to me was none other than Chance the Rapper. You know who he is. I know you guys are all really embarrassed for me right now. This happened a long time ago, but I'm still embarrassed for myself as I tell this story. Because Chance is not only a very well-known rapper but one of President Obama's favorites. He's also a native of his hometown of Chicago—oh, there's a big Chicago contingent here! Okay. And I would have known that if I'd spent just a little bit of time doing some research. As a side note, he could not have been more graceful about my mistake. But not everyone you meet in your lives will be.

So as you're venturing out into the world, take it for me—don't find yourself in a position where you don't know who Chance the Rapper is, obviously, or since we're all in Washington and presumably some of you may stay here, make sure you can accurately identify the man who is kind of the Chance the Rapper of Washington—Chuck Schumer, of course, you know who he is.

So given that I knew I would spend some time preparing and I knew the first thing I needed to do was to figure out who I'm talking today, to know my audience, what makes the GW class of 2024 special besides the fact that clearly you're all high achievers who chose to go to college in the weird, nerdy, and mostly lovable power-hungry city of Washington, D.C. So besides that.

As I thought about it, I realized that speaking to all of you today is an especially big honor, not just because we're here in the beautiful National Mall—and as a side note, I love William & Mary but I graduated in a basketball stadium, so just appreciate what you all have here.

I realize that most of you probably don't remember your high school graduation—the undergraduates, of course, four years ago—because you didn't have a high school graduation four years ago. Two months before you finished high school, the world shut down because of the pandemic. You had to learn to adapt to a frightening global crisis that many adults struggle to deal with. You were cheated out of all of the normal experiences—and if you feel that way that's completely fair—you were cheated.

But the thing is, you all persevered and you've emerged stronger and with a better understanding of the world than most graduating classes before you. And in the process, you learned the importance of resilience and the ability to respond to circumstances you can't control firsthand.

Believe me, since I've been out in the world a while, that ability made be more valuable to all of you than anything you learned in the classroom.

And on an expectations note, let's be honest. I mean since many of you have never had a graduation before, it's already a big win for me because you also have nothing to compare my speech to, and by default this is already the best graduation speech you've ever heard. So that's good for me.

Which brings me to the second part of the work I did to prepare for today. I did check in with some of my friends who are GW graduates to know enough that a good joke about ordering a hat at Mad Hatter last night might hit with the audience—okay, they were right—especially if I see someone nodding off and that maybe is because you had a hat at Mad Hatter last night, prompting you to nod off today.

But the thing is, is a graduation speech isn't just about local color. That's part of it. You all are proud GW graduates today. It's about more than that. So as a part of my preparation, I also looked up some commencement speeches online, as many people do. You've had some good speakers here and I looked up others, too, and it was a little intimidating. Every celebrity, dignitary, and professional smart person, as I'll categorize them, has given one. Melinda Gates, Oprah, Taylor Swift—I mean, yeah, hers was actually very, very good, I will note.

What I learned is that it's pretty difficult to come up with something that isn't cliched to say at a commencement address. I mean, of course it's important to follow your dreams. You should do that. Never give up and take risks. Do that, too. You should definitely do all of those things. And if all else fails, this is my favorite: don't be afraid to do what you're afraid of. Of course don't be afraid to do what you're afraid of—obviously.

But that all felt pretty overdone to me. So I called a friend who happens to be a brilliant writer and she helped me brainstorm about what I should talk about today. After a while, I thought I’d kind of figured it out, so I sent her a text: what if I talk about the importance of learning from your mistakes, I asked her. My friend is closer in age to you than I am—much hipper—and she shot this down immediately. She wrote back—this is a quote—"I think that's too negative for a graduation LOL.” And by LOL, she means for the parents out there: you shouldn't do that.

Now, feedback from people you respect is really important and you should always seek it. I took it seriously. But despite the fact that talking about mistakes may be too negative for graduation LOL, here is the thing: I can tell you with a lot of perspective on it: understanding how to deal with your mistakes is also really important.

Sometimes they will be self-inflicted, like the time I couldn't get Steve Carell and the movie “Space Force” out of my mind while answering a question about the actual Space Force, a serious and important division of the military, from the White House podium. If you're wondering, my joke didn't land so well, so I learned from that.

And sometimes they won't be self-inflicted at all. Mistakes are really about things that don't go as we expect them to go and having to regroup and recalibrate and adjust our plans afterwards. Navigating them requires the kind of resilience every single one of you has developed over the last few years—through a global pandemic, through an attack on our nation's capitol, and through all of the other challenges of just being a college student today.

So even if you may not feel like it right now, you are prepared for this moment. You are adaptable. You are already resilient. Which is a good thing, because I promise you, you're going to make a lot of mistakes over the next few years. If everything goes well for you, and I hope it does, you'll make more mistakes in your 20s than in any other decade of your life. No promises, but hopefully you make fewer as you get older.

What's important to remember is that unless you have a really, and I mean really, really high-level security clearance, most of these mistakes and most of the time when things don't go as expected, it's not going to ruin your life.

As Taylor Swift—I had to quote her because her speech was great—said in her commencement speech, “A lot of the time we lose things, we gain things, too.” I often tell my 8-year-old daughter, perfect is completely boring—because it is—and it's almost always limiting.

If I had been a perfectionist and so risk-averse that I would do anything to avoid making a mistake, I would have missed out on a lot of valuable experiences, I mean life-changing experiences. I would not have taken a job as the spokesperson at the State Department and traveled the world with Secretary Kerry or as the communications director at the White House when I was nearly six months pregnant—that was a little risk-taking there. I would not have launched a TV show—definitely not—and I probably wouldn't be here today, speaking in front of all of you. If you royally screw up a graduation speech, it turns out the internet and the world will let you know.

You may learn more about who you are by messing up—I certainly have—and if you handle these moments well and handle your mistakes well, they could become funny anecdotes that you tell at dinner parties or dates or, say, during a commencement speech on the National Mall.

So yes, I've had a front seat to history many times over and I'm so grateful for that. I've briefed presidents, cabinet officials, and again I just needed to mention Olivia Rodrigo just one more time in the speech.

But I've also made some big mistakes in my time. Like the time in 2003 when I was a 24-year-old junior campaign staffer and I CCed the entire Iowa press corps on an email where I was trash-talking one of my boss' opponents—wasn't good. I know. Now my boss at the time was John Kerry, and if you are listening and out there, Howard Dean, I am deeply sorry for everything I said on that email chain.

I was pretty positive I was going to be fired. I'm now certain that this was the end of my political career. And when I called Robert Gibbs—who by the way it was on a landline phone, just to kind of age and date myself a little bit—I braced myself for how he would respond to my mistake. But he didn't fire me. He didn't even yell. He advised me on how to handle any questions from reporters and reminded me to be mindful of my CC line in the future, which by the way is very good advice.

In the moment of my massive screwup, he showed me tremendous grace. The funny thing is, when I called him recently about it, he didn't even remember this happening. I obviously still remember—I just shared it with all of you.

There was also a far more publicly embarrassing time when I was 28 years old. I had a job working for then-Senator Obama as his traveling press secretary during his 2008 campaign for president. It was very much a dream job. And one day on the trail during the Oregon primary we made a surprise visit to a big track-and-field meet so Obama could meet people and shake hands and do what you do when you're a politician.

As we were walking around the track, one of the members of the press corps urged me to jump over a hurdle. Now, not a metaphorical hurdle—I know we're at a graduation—a literal hurdle. A literal hurdle.

Now, you may assume this reporter was just kidding around and they probably were, but I'm kind of a competitive person and I like a challenge. I'm also only five-foot-three, so it's quite impressive. Oh, thank you. Short people, shout out, out there. Okay. So it's impressive that I managed to even clear the hurdle, let's be honest. But as soon as I did, I split my pants. I know! And then I had to proceed around the entire track.

Now the student athletes in here know how big a track is—it's a quarter of a mile, which is not short. When we finally approached the end of the track and arrived back where we started, I thought I'd made it through the most embarrassing moment of my life. And then someone in the stand yelled to Senator Obama, “Go over a hurdle, jump over a hurdle.”

Now many of you know that he's significantly taller than me, I mean almost a foot taller than me, and he's also more suited to hurdling than I am. You also probably know that he's wiser. The truly wise people in life learn from their own mistakes as well as from everyone else's. “I can't do that,” he said. He yelled back to the crowd egging him on, “I'll split my pants!” Of course, somebody in the press corps responded, “One of your staffers already did—Jens Psaki did!” Imagine how I felt in this moment.

So then Senator Obama walked over to me with the entire press corps rolling television cameras, all of them following him. “It's not that bad, sir,” I replied. He replied without skipping a beat, “Looks pretty X-rated to me.”

So the point of my story is this: if you think something you do in the next 10 years or 15 years is so embarrassing that it will ruin your career, I want you to remember that I split my pants in front of the future leader of the free world and he called it X-rated.

My point is that you will make mistakes. You will screw up—we all do. You'll have days that are embarrassing. It's incredibly difficult to have perspective in that moment. You may think in the moment “my career is over” or “I can't show my face in front of this group of people ever again.” Things that seem big in the moment can also end up being not that big a deal, and your ability to navigate through these moments that don't go as expected is often far more important than how you navigate the days that go well.

So if there's one thing that you take away from today from me—at least in addition to your diploma, that's the key thing—it's this: give your friends grace, your parents grace—who are all out there—your future partners grace or current partners grace, and most importantly give yourself grace in these moments.

You are all already resilient, so resilient that I feel kind of silly standing up here trying to explain the importance of being open to learning from your mistakes. You already know exactly what it's like when things don't go according to plan, and you already know how to navigate adversity and keep going.

To finish college at this moment in history like this one, when it can seem as if the world is falling apart around you in multiple ways, takes not only resilience but also optimism that there is a future for you, and I promise you, there is one. Just don't let any mistake or any loss or God forbid any ripped pair of pants get in your way of clearing the hurdles before you.

Thank you. Congratulations and raise high.

The George Washington University. “2024 GW Commencement Speaker: Jen Psaki.” YouTube video, 21:52. May 20, 2024.