Sunday, November 28, 2021
Interviews

“The things that make you successful in life are not the things that make you a straight-A student.” — Brown Interviews James Comey

Caucasian male in black shirt (James Comey) sitting in office.

James Comey was appointed director of the FBI by President Barack Obama. He served in the position from 2013 to 2017. He was previously the Attorney General for the Southern District of New York and the Deputy Attorney General under President George W. Bush. Since departing the FBI he has taught courses at Howard University, Columbia Law School, and his alma mater, William & Mary University, where he earned BAs in Religion and Chemistry. He obtained his JD from the University of Chicago. Comey is the author of Saving Justice: Truth, Transparency, and Trust (2021) and A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (2018), a New York Times #1 bestseller. He lives in Virginia with his wife Patrice.

Amelia Spalter: Your undergraduate degrees were in religion and chemistry. I am a religious studies Master’s candidate, and one of our department’s student advisors. Most of my job consists of reassuring prospective students, “You really can do things with a religion degree other than become a professor.” As the former director of the FBI, you make my case so much stronger. But I don’t want to be selling a bill of false goods. Do you actually feel your religious studies education was applicable to your work on a day-to-day basis?

James Comey: Oh yeah. I actually think the religion major helped me—I was going to say begin a journey, but maybe I was already on it. What I would say is that it accelerated my development as a better thinker and it forced me to see the world through the eyes of other people. I’d been raised in a Christian tradition and am now able to see the world through the eyes of others in the Christian tradition but also Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and more. Anytime you can broaden yourself like that, you’re going to become a better thinker. 

As you said, I started out as a chem major and stumbled into the religion major later on. It helped me figure out how I might be most useful to people in my career. I thought I was going to be a doctor, but that was the wrong fit. Being a religion major helped me realize that because I found myself just loving my ethics classes and not loving my physical chemistry labs.

From a broader educational standpoint, you’ve said that though you chased big ambitions you were ultimately “not an academic star.” Despite this, you managed to earn a competitive clerkship in the Southern District of New York right out of law school. In the current era with a new emphasis on name-brand colleges, test scores, and a general pressure to be the best at everything one undertakes, is it possible to not be a prodigy and still accomplish something prodigious? 

Oh, I think anybody can do work that is meaningful, rewarding, and brings them great recognition, if that’s something that they’re seeking. Some of the top students from my classes went on to have deeply meaningful careers; however, so did a tremendous number of those who were not the top students. And [the same phenomenon] is still true.

It is hard to figure out the right words to mark success because I really don’t think success is marked by public recognition or money. But the things that make you successful in life are not the things that make you a straight-A student. There is some overlap, but things like judgment and humor and empathy and communication ability, those things are not measured in your standard high school or college class. School rewards being a grind, working really hard, sitting in the front, and doing all the reading. Those skills—and they really are skills—are useful, but that alone is not going to make you successful. You need other things that are actually less skills and more values. Those things are not found throughout the grading scale.

Do most employers share this same philosophy or do students who want stereotypically elite jobs need to conform to the status quo?

I think of intelligence as a cover charge. When you’re hiring, you want people who are smart, but it’s just sort of a gating factor. When you’re hiring people for any role, you’re looking for something way beyond that. You’re looking for a richness of their ability to see and to know people. To communicate [with and] about people is everything you do in life. I’m trying to think about whether or not there are exceptions, but really, nearly everything you do in life you’ll do with other people. So, the ability to build a team, to lead a group, to touch and lift others who may see the world differently than you are, those things are not measured by your GPA and they are essential to your success.

You’ve repeated a particular Einstein quote a few times: “Try not to become a person of success, try to become a person of value.” The public square currently holds the U.S. government in arguably the lowest regard in recent history. How can students who seek to see themselves as people of value get involved in public service if those around them do not acknowledge value in their work? You’ve been there to the utmost extreme, so I’m assuming it can be done.

The first thing is to make sure you’re starting in a place where the opinion of others is not an important value of yours. You can’t start with what other people think. I mean, on some level, who cares what other people think? Do you find the work rewarding? [Ask yourself], is it rewarding when viewed in any thoughtful objective way? Then if people love what you’re doing, great, but so long as you know that it is important work, who cares what others think? My mother would forever say, “Who cares what the crowd thinks. If everyone’s lining up to jump off the George Washington Bridge, you’re just going to get in line?” So, I would urge people to resist the debilitating addiction to approval that so many of us labor under and instead start by deciding, “What do you want to do?”

Then, of course, look at American history. One of the cool things about America is we always have a more or less negative view of government. We were founded by people. The white people who started America came here because they wanted to get away from the government that they thought was trying to control them. So a big part of our national character is the notion that government sucks. 

Therefore, that number bumps up and down, but it’s never been very, very high in the United States. So the fact that people complain about the government is only somewhat relevant. It should be even less relevant because you shouldn’t care much what other people think. Find something you will love doing, have fun doing, and that will be useful to people who need you, and you’ll be fine.

The extent to which people dislike the government does go up and down, but the derision of the last four years was profound. In your experience, does hitting such a depth mean we are due for a drastic rebound or obligated to a slow and steady rebuild?

I think it’s a longer steadier process, in part because millions of our fellow Americans were lied to by the leader of the Executive Branch who was then repeatedly parroted by a media echo chamber. A healthy thing about democracy is that people tend to believe what the president says—except when the president’s a liar—then that’s not so great. The lying worked because people credit what their leader says. So, it’s a long process to help people out of that fog of lies. 

You don’t get them out of a fog of lies by telling them that they’re idiots or that they’re wrong. What is the thing we as humans do least well? Admit when we’re wrong. Especially when we’re wrong because we were fooled. Oh man, we just don’t do that. As human beings, the way we get out of a fog of lies is we convince ourselves that we have found a way out. We tell ourselves a story that allows us to get out of that fog. That will happen slowly in the United States. Our national history is a series of ebbs and flows about people’s confidence in government and their sense of the direction of the country. So don’t get overly depressed or reassured by any one swing in public opinion. 

And look, if you want to console yourself, just study the history of America in the 1960s. When I was a kid, the president was murdered, then the leading civil rights leader was murdered, then the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president was murdered. American cities burned down and we had troops in all the cities. There were bombings every day all over America. Thousands of American young men fled to Canada toward a war that was killing thousands of American young men for no apparent purpose. The country was coming apart when I was a kid, coming apart. But ultimately it didn’t come apart. And a whole lot of it didn’t come apart because a whole lot of young people decided to participate and tried to make this country and the world a better place. So, go. Do. I’m counting on it and I’m optimistic, I know it will happen. The world will be better because of your generation.

To your point, many of the problems America is facing aren’t new. They are the result of decades, in some cases centuries, of errors. Should Generation Z feel the same obligation to address the problems it inherited as it does the ones it is the genesis of?

Look, the world is all screwed up, and [my generation] screwed it up. That’s terrible. But in a way it lifts a burden from your generation because these problems aren’t your fault. So go fix it, because how great is it to have a chance to fix a problem without needing to spend any time feeling guilty about it, because you didn’t cause it? Participate. One of the reasons that I’m still optimistic about America is that I’ve talked to a lot of young people. I was worried that in the wake of Donald Trump and all of the ickiness we’ve experienced that young people would withdraw, would not want to participate in public life, but I’ve actually found the opposite. That’s really exciting.

It is common knowledge that you never get rich in public service. With the post-pandemic economy uncertain, inflation on the rise, and nearly everyone having a student loan to carry, what can be done to make public service careers not only more appealing, but more accessible, to people of all different backgrounds?

Not much. The truth is public service will never pay what talented people can make in the private sector. But its attraction is not the normal marker of success—money. It’s the value that we talked about; that you will be a person of value. I admittedly talk to young people in kind of a depressing way. I suggest that you judge how you’re going to live, and the career you’re going to pursue, by going to the end of your life and looking back.

What is the story you want to tell about your life to your grandchildren? Who were you? What did you do? What difference did you make? I guarantee you’re not going to want to tell your grandchildren about how much money you made or the cool car you had. You’re going to want to tell a story about your contribution to helping people who need you. That perspective really helps.

But I’m not a fool, I’ve had the same problem at different times of my life. You can’t write moral content on a piece of paper and send it to a college to pay your kids’ tuition. You’re going to have to save and borrow money, I get that. Public service can be very, very hard on your credit cards and on your lifestyle, so do it whenever you can. There will be times when you’ll be able to afford to, there may be times when you can’t, but don’t miss the opportunity. I have friends who have chosen to make money for their whole career and I ache for them because I don’t know what story they will tell their grandchildren about the life they lived.

It will be very, very soon that you will be telling that story to your grandchildren. So seize this moment when the country and the world needs you so much. Given the talent of the people that are out there, you’ll have the opportunity to make money when you need to make it. But you don’t have any time to waste in building the kind of life you’ll be proud to tell your grandchildren about.

Regardless of salary, each branch of public service comes with a certain degree of nobility. But if you choose carefully, you may end up in a line of service where you come away with stories about criminals escaping from prison using ropes made of dental floss, or prosecutors borrowing 2,000 pounds of fur coats to prove a point during trial. Those are both stories from your book Saving Justice. Can those who choose a public service career outside of federal law enforcement expect anywhere near that level of excitement ever, let alone often enough to fill a book?

I had the opportunity to work on some really, really interesting cases and collect fun stories. Well, first, yes, it’s bad that a guy escaped outside the seventh floor window of the federal prison in Lower Manhattan down a rope made of dental floss…but it’s kind of awesome. So it’s a story that I stored away and then told over and over and over again because it was fun, it was wonderful and it was interesting. I would urge people to look for those [memorable moments in whatever job they have.]

For example, when I was a student working at a chemistry lab for the summer, the boss was a suppressive dictator. Most of my fellow chemists were immigrants without much leverage, so this guy just brutally mistreated them. I was probably around nineteen on the last day of the summer, and in their view, I was escaping. So, I stole the boss’s lab coat, went outside to the parking lot and lined up at the window where all the chemists could see me, and I held it up so that you could see his name over the pocket… and I drove off. The chemists were cheering, it was great. Okay, so, pause for a second, I shouldn’t have stolen anything. As the former FBI director I guess I should be clear: don’t steal stuff. But do find ways to take joy in your work and in your life, [no matter the circumstances.]

You don’t seem to struggle with finding joy. So, had your first private sector job been something a bit less soulless than going on the defensive against victims of asbestos poisoning, do you think you would have been as quick to return to the public sector?

I was addicted to public service. And yes, our criminal justice system has all kinds of flaws, I discuss them all the time at Columbia [where I am currently teaching at the law school], but when you do the work right as a federal prosecutor, your only obligation is to try and do the right thing every day. You try and figure out, “What is the right thing?” “What is the most just approach to this case?” Then you do it that way. That’s an amazing way to work and live. There is obviously always a risk that you fall in love with your own righteousness, but there aren’t a lot of jobs in the private sector that afford you a sole obligation to doing the right thing. Having had one of those jobs first, as nice as the people were at [the defense firm I went to next], and even if they’d given me really interesting civil cases, I was always going to long for that public service opportunity and for the chance to do work with more moral content.

As nice as it would be if everyone shared that passion, you’ve said that defense lawyering is essential to our justice system. And, of course, plenty of private sector jobs are wholly necessary. So, what is the minimum amount of public engagement those working in the private sector should aspire to?

I don’t know. It will depend upon each person, their family circumstances and their own abilities. I can’t say in the abstract how much people should try to contribute to their community. That means the best I can do is just offer that framing of turning the telescope onto your own life. Look at your life from the end, the last day, and ask, “Who do I want to have been?” And if you ask it that way, it’ll bring into clear vision what your opportunities are, things you could do that you’ll be proud of and will want to tell stories about someday. Those are the things that will involve you doing something for people who need you.

In government work there are many stories you can’t tell. While private sector workers may have aspects of confidentiality to their job, it is rarely the type that can get you sent to prison for violating the terms. As FBI Director, you were required to hold so much in. Should being unable to share what’s happening at work with one’s friends and family give certain people pause about pursuing a government career?

I don’t think it should give people pause about pursuing the work, but it is a really important question. It is an issue you have to pay attention to because stress in general eats at you, drips inside of you like an acid. If you’re not careful, if you bottle too much up inside, it will hurt you. The challenge is, as you said, that you can’t discuss a conflict of our classified program with the people closest to you, but you can do two things. First, you can find people with the appropriate clearances who you can talk to. And second, you can find joy in your life in other ways. You can laugh, you can love, you can sleep—something that is neglected by high powered people. 

Sleep is not a moral failing, it is essential to your effectiveness. Whether you’re a professional athlete or a writer or a prosecutor, your brain needs to be offline one third of each day. And if it’s not, it won’t work well. So I would urge people to talk to those you can talk to. With those you can’t [discuss certain issues with], hug them, laugh with them, live every other aspect of your life with them. Part of having people around you that you can’t talk about work is bad, but part is good, because you need to get away from the work. It’s good for you and it also allows you to have a perspective that’s very difficult to have when you’re too close to the work. Distance gives you the ability to see a problem [through a new lens].

It is a relief to hear someone so conclusively promote the benefits of sleep. Is that a philosophy successful people with high powered jobs like FBI director are actually able to put into practice?

Why does LeBron James take a nap every day? It’s not because he’s a lazy bum, it’s because he’s the world’s greatest basketball player and he knows that to be effective, in order to make sound decisions and have a healthy body, he needs sleep. The science is just overwhelming. You need it, and my advice to young people is if you have a short period of time left before something important to do, don’t use it cramming, use it to sleep. You’ll be much more effective.

You know how to advise young people, as you’ve raised five kids and now have grandchildren. I’ve often heard you reference three “depressing rules” you have for your kids concerning safety, but I have never actually heard you list all three. I would rather be depressed than dead, so, what are they?

There are three depressing rules in my household, and my five kids, who are grown up now, would tick them off [from an early age.] The first is that evil has an ordinary face, meaning I’ve spent a lot of time with really bad people. I’ve spent a lot of time with people who have killed many, many people. And the surprising thing about it is when you’re in the presence of a mass murderer, the light doesn’t change, the music doesn’t start to swell. They look like just another person. They have hopes, they have dreams, they have sadness, they have happiness. I dealt with a Sicilian mafia member who killed twenty-five people, most of them by strangulation. He was very thoughtful, articulate, philosophical, someone really interesting to have a conversation with. And when that first happened to me, when the light didn’t change and I really didn’t see a difference, I found it unsettling.

It was then that I realized evil has an ordinary face. The reason I’ve told my kids that as they grew up is when you’re in the presence of somebody really bad who wants to hurt you, the music is not going to change, the lights are not going to change. You have to be aware of your surroundings and recognize it for yourself. My kids are trained to live in yellow, [I’ll explain what that color coding means in a minute,] but essentially to try to understand that badness is real and to understand that often people sleep walk through terrible things happening to them because they just can’t believe it. Well, believe it. Evil has an ordinary face.

The second rule is that my kids were always taught to die in the parking lot. Meaning if someone ever tries to force you at the point of a gun or a knife into a vehicle, hear my voice, “Fight for your life right there. Don’t you ever, ever, ever, ever get in the car.” And I don’t care how scared you are, or if you’re thinking, “I’ll get it to the next moment.” There will be no next moment. I will never see you again. So hear my voice in that shopping mall parking lot, “Fight, fight, fight,” because the chances are very, very good that the person will just run away.

Third, always be able to see the rear tires of every car you’re stopped behind at a stop light, always. If you can’t see the rear tires of the car in front of you when you’re driving, you’re too close to get away if something bad happens to you from the side. So always stop with enough space so that you can see the rear tires of the car in front of you.

Having told you that, I just ruined your driving experience and you won’t be able to unsee it, but these are things I’ve learned at the FBI that are just really important. Having learned them, I felt like I had to share them with my kids, because how I would ever live with myself if I didn’t pass those along and something happened? 

I will never drive, or in fact, stand, the same way again, thank you. Are there any other pieces of advice along those lines that you wish everyone would be taught at an early age?

Color coding. Most people, including most college students, live in a state of the world that I would describe as “white.” And the reason I choose that color is because the FBI tends to talk in terms of “white, yellow, orange and red.” White is a state of the world where you’re unaware of your surroundings. You have your earbuds in, you’re texting, you’re standing on a bus or subway platform alone at 11:00 at night. That’s living in white. Red is a world where you are in a fight for your life and hormones are surging through you, and that’s unsustainable. Orange is a state of the world where you are on the cusp of a fight and is also not sustainable. The place to live is in yellow with a healthy awareness of your surroundings, but not a disabling, “I’m prepared for the battle of my life at every moment,” sensation.

The FBI teaches people before we send them overseas that you almost always have two seconds before something bad happens. For example, if you’re in a restaurant on a difficult foreign assignment and somebody with a gun bursts into the restaurant, you have two seconds. And if you’re living in white, two seconds are not long enough. But if you’re living in yellow, two seconds is long enough because before you came into the restaurant, you just took a look around to see where the exits were, how the tables are organized, where the cars are outside. [On a day-to-day basis this might look like] you go into a movie theater, you actually look around and see where the exits are and figure out, “Okay, if something bad happened, I’d go there, I’d go here, then go there. Okay, great.” It doesn’t ruin your day, but it prepares you in the event that something bad happens. So don’t ever stand on a sidewalk or sit at a bus station with your earbuds in texting at 11:00 at night. Ok, do that seated on the bus, but on the platform out in the world, live yellow and just be in a healthy awareness of your surroundings.

As someone who has seen behind the curtain of the most high-level American intelligence, on a scale of one to ten, how safe is the average citizen from deliberate harm on a daily basis?

Very, very safe. Given the magnitude of someone harming you physically in some way, it is prudent to live in yellow. But the reason I dislike even the next level up, orange, is because that’s someone who is constantly worried about every single person around them. That’s just not a healthy way to live. Crime in the United States is significantly lower than twenty-five years ago. We have experienced a significant increase in murder in most American cities in the last year and a half, so we have to pay attention to that, and there’s a tendency not to pay attention to it because nearly everybody being killed is a person of color. Nearly all of the additional homicide victims have been Black, so there is a danger that white America will mentally drive around the problem. Instead, we have to stare at it and ask, “How do we make people safer? How do we save those lives?” But in the main, you are living in a country that is safe. I mean, compared to what, I guess, but ultimately very safe. It just requires you to act in a prudent way, live in that state of yellow.

In terms of social media, look, I have a Twitter account and a lot of Twitter followers. I never read comments, ever. I often joke to people that Twitter offers you an insight into the human character that was once reserved only for law enforcement, mental health professionals and the clergy. So you can see people at their darkest. It’s the phenomenon that leads people to give each other the bird in traffic, except it’s even worse because they feel even more anonymous on their devices. Please don’t spend a lot of time listening to those people. Don’t allow someone to occupy that space in your head with something negative they said about you or something they said that upset you. They haven’t earned that. They don’t deserve that, so don’t give it to them. Live your life, listen to the people you have reason to trust. Listen to people whose judgment you want to take into account whether or not they agree with you. The wingnuts, the anonymous commenters, why would you listen to those people?

If you can ignore the President of the United States calling you an “untruthful slimeball” via Twitter, Tweeting about your firing via Twitter, and calling for your arrest via Twitter, then there should be nothing online that the rest of us can’t find the strength to look past.

Yeah, exactly. Why would I give Donald Trump that space to live rent free in my head? I’m not going to do that. He hasn’t earned that and doesn’t deserve that. It does not make me better in any way to consume that vitriol. Look, I know there’s a lot of people out there that say nasty things about me. Okay, great. I don’t care. I don’t see it, I don’t know it, and I don’t want them in my head so I don’t let them in. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to listen to voices that are critical of me. It is really important to find voices who see things differently than you or who think you should approach something a different way. You have got to open that window a crack, but don’t open it too far, or all kinds of craziness comes flowing in. You can’t care so much about what people think.

At a time when local and federal law enforcement are under intense scrutiny for disproportionately negative impact on communities of color, how should those who want to serve but feel the justice system needs an overhaul, view joining law enforcement as it exists today?

By going into it with the knowledge that it is deeply flawed because it is run by human beings and we are all flawed in all kinds of ways, as I’m sure your readers know. Our system is flawed. There are too many people of color in prison. We do such a poor job of preparing people to leave prison. I mean, I could go on and on and on, right? There is systemic racism that has plagued this nation in so many ways beyond just our criminal justice system. All those things are true. If you want to help people, what should you do? Participate. Try and make it better. That doesn’t have to be as a law enforcement officer, it can be as a defense lawyer. But participate and try to make it better, because what is the goal? The goal is to try and achieve justice. Sometimes achieving justice is putting a bad person in jail for a long period of time. There’s never any joy in that, but a serial rapist needs to be found and incapacitated or else other people will be victimized.

That is justice. Sometimes justice is not bringing a case or finding a case where someone was convicted as a result of biases, especially racial bias, and trying to right that wrong. But participate. The idea that because the system is flawed, we either have to embrace it fully to deny the flaws or we have to walk away from it and say, “Burn it all down,” neither of those make any sense to me. Justice is a really important aspect to the human experience. Participate, help us find [justice], and we’ll find more and more of it because smart young people got involved.

One of my first jobs was helping people reintegrate into society after they left prison. Was I, and will people who enter into law enforcement, be furthering the broken system by contributing our services to it?

There are all kinds of problems with the way we imprison and the way we charge. All aspects of the criminal justice system can be better. But they don’t get better if talented young people say, “Nah, not for me.” We really need great police officers in this country. We need police officers who are empathetic, thoughtful, forceful when they need to be to protect innocent people, and who are intellectually and emotionally intelligent. We need more of those people [participating]. We don’t get them by people saying, “Oh, it’s so awful. It’s illegitimate.” 

If you’re someone who believes that all policing is illegitimate, I don’t know how to engage on that. Fine, [you’re entitled to your opinion,] but I think if you’re an “Abolish the police,” kind of person, you’re really a, “The rich are only people who have police departments,” person, and I don’t want to live in that world. I am most worried about the disadvantaged, those without power. Those people need the protection of thoughtful, empathetic, professional police officers. So young people should try to become those.

One of the first steps to being engaged is staying informed. So, as someone who knew what was really happening in government as it made its way through the game of telephone to the press, do you know which news outlets are trustworthy, or at least making a good faith effort to be?

Oh, sure. This is a golden age of journalism. Most journalists, especially at major publications, are trying to get it right. Now, they’re wrong all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying to get it right. I think you can rely upon journalists at the major publications like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Just recognize that they’re often wrong and they’re human beings like you are so they’re captive of various biases and preconceptions. Look to triangulate. If the stories are important to you, read an account of it in one publication then another publication. Maybe you pick one publication that has a bias it wears on its sleeve, then read [a take from the other side], in order to get a view for yourself of what is true and accurate. Sometimes seeing the perspective of clearly biased publications, and even of real wingnuts, is useful because the differences can help you think about the situation clearer, even when you aren’t accepting of their particular take. 

In the face of pressure from the White House and major public figures to orient your decision-making to one agenda or another, was it ever difficult to remain so consistent in your position during the email investigation and ensuing Trump encounters?

The cool thing about telling the truth is you don’t really have to remember it, right? It’s easy to be consistent if you’re just trying to say what you know. It doesn’t require posture and positioning and angles and slant. Just tell the freaking truth. It’s liberating to be in a world like that and much easier than you might expect. One of the great lessons of my life has been that what Bob Dylan said is really true: “What looks large from a distance, up close ain’t never that big.” People who seem unreachable, the people of status, they’re just people. My first time in the Oval Office, I was struck by the sense that it’s just us. I was struck, thinking, “Oh my God, I always thought it was somebody better.” When I got there, it was just me and these people. And they were fine people, but they’re just like I am. And that’s true in all walks of life, so don’t let anybody intimidate you. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but really don’t let people intimidate you. People who have done things are entitled to respect, but not to be able to intimidate you and frighten you when you’re a person of low status. Don’t buy it.

You have been named a hero, a pariah, and everything in-between in the press, but if it were entirely up to you, what do you want your legacy to be?

Well, I think I’m stuck, because the first paragraph of my obituary is probably already written. I will be forever tied to my decisions in the Clinton email investigation and the battle with Donald Trump. There’s nothing I can do about that. And it sounds odd, but I don’t really care that much. I’m proud of the way we conducted ourselves and the way we made decisions. I can’t help how people think about them. I don’t mean to sound glib, I just don’t care that much about my legacy, because really, why is that going to matter to me? I want to be known as a great husband, father, grandfather, friend, and neighbor, things like that. I want to be known as a person of integrity. I want to be known as someone who’s hilariously funny, even though sometimes it doesn’t come across that way. Those are the things that matter.

But the decisions [I made as director of the FBI] will dominate. If your grandchildren know me at all, they will only know me for those high-profile public things and that’s fine. I’m proud of the way we conducted ourselves there. But again, to me it’s part of constantly asking yourself, “Who do I want to have been?” In my first book I wrote about the experience of thinking I was about to be killed in my own house when I was a senior in high school. That was horrible, but it was also really useful, because ever since I have had this obsession with the end of life. I am always asking, “So if it ends today, have I done it the right way? Am I proud of the way I’ve conducted myself?” It helps me not sweat a lot of the smaller things.

When you’re at Brown, I know you’re worried about what your plan is for the next phase of your life. Okay, you should be. But just like the military says, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” no plan survives first contact with life. How did I end up as FBI director? I don’t know. I didn’t apply for the job, it’s just a weird journey. So don’t sweat it too much. Know who you want to have been. And if you know the answer to that question, you’ll swerve in all kinds of weird non-predictable ways. But if the picture you have of the kind of person you will have been is your North Star, you’ll be fine. You’ll find fun things to do. You’ll still do stupid things and make mistakes, but you’ll stay on the right path because you know how you picture it at the end.

What is your parting advice to college students who aspire to build the country to be better, regardless of the sector they’ll find themselves in? 

It is important for students to remember the story of America. We have always been screwed up and our journey is one of retreat, advance, retreat, advance. And our advance is always more significant than our retreat, which is why we’ve constantly made progress towards our ideals. But it’s an endless journey. Do not get discouraged by it. The advance is more significant than the retreat because young people are not discouraged and they participate. America is going to be okay because I know its history and also I know the nature and character of the people like your colleagues, your peers who are going to make its next advance really, really exciting. I envy you in many ways because you are going to step into a world that is going to boom in extraordinary ways. Really extraordinary, [in a way we have not experienced] since the last great pandemic ended a hundred years ago and we had the 1920s in the United States. 

You are going to experience a time of change and innovation and frustration and wonder and all kinds of cool things. And then we’ll screw it up again, then your kids will have to fix it. But your spot in the human experience, especially the American experience, is one that I envy because you are going to have a real opportunity to make a difference.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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