TOMMY VIETOR is a founding partner at Fenway Strategies, a creative strategic communications and public relations agency. He is also a co-founder of Crooked Media and a co-host of the political podcast Pod Save America. Tommy worked as a spokesman for President Barack Obama for nearly a decade. He served as spokesman for the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013, acting as the media’s primary contact on all foreign policy and national security issues. He joined Obama’s Senate campaign in 2004 and served as Obama’s U.S. Senate spokesman. He was a visiting fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, and was named one of the top ten communicators of 2014 by Campaigns and Elections magazine.
What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
A book that really impacted me was The Nightingale’s Song by Robert Timberg. He follows five graduates of the United States Naval Academy (John McCain, Bud McFarlane, Oliver North, John Poindexter, and Jim Webb) through the Vietnam War and into politics. It’s an extraordinary story of courage and sacrifice and also a cautionary tale about how easy it is to lose your way and go down the wrong path, even if you think what you’re doing is in service of a noble goal.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
I graduated from college in 2002 and moved down to D.C. to intern for Senator Ted Kennedy. I instantly fell in love with politics and knew it was what I wanted to do for a living. When my internship ended, I applied for every job opening I could find in D.C. Then Democrats got creamed at the midterm elections, and half of the jobs I’d applied for no longer existed, so I kept interning for free. Eventually a position opened up answering phones and greeting visitors in Senator Kennedy’s front office, and I was convinced that I would get it. I applied, I interviewed, several people put in a good word for me, and it went to someone else. I was devastated, but if I had gotten that job and stayed in D.C., I would never have wound up on Barack Obama’s Senate campaign, and my life would be very different. That failure was the most important step in my career.
What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
The smartest investment I’ve ever made was forgoing jobs that paid well for positions that gave me invaluable experiences. [One such] experience was taking a campaign job. You make no money. You work insane hours. If you lose, you’re unemployed. But making that sacrifice in the short term to learn was the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
My broke ass slept on an air mattress for two years. It came with me to three different states (North Carolina, Illinois, Iowa), and every morning it would end up half-deflated and my butt would be touching the ground. I overdrew my bank account countless times (thanks for all those overdraft fees, Bank of America!), but the experience was worth more than any paycheck then or since.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”?
Don’t worry about making money. Don’t stress about having a plan. Don’t think about networking or setting yourself up for the next thing. Try as hard as you possibly can to find something you love, because the depressing reality is that most people never find a career that they’re truly passionate about. For many people, the real world is a slog and they live for the weekends. It will never get easier than right now to recklessly pursue your passion. Do it.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
I get paid to read and comment on the news for a living, and I still wake up every morning completely overwhelmed by all that’s going on. I can feel my blood pressure go up as I try to figure out what to focus on first. The way I manage it is to remember that the world will go on if I don’t read everything. Newspapers will publish again the next day. I will always be better off consuming a smaller amount of high-quality information than trying to consume it all. I think that lesson can apply to a lot of things. For instance, you’re better off spending quality time with one friend on a given night than trying to run around and see everyone.
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
My billboard would say “STOP LOOKING AT YOUR PHONE,” both as a message to others and a reminder for me.