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How Cody Keenan Stays Grounded in the White House

Speechwriter Keenan visited Northwestern Engineering on May 5

Speechwriter Cody Keenan talks with assistant dean Joe Holtgreive.

Northwestern alumnus Cody Keenan (’02) arguably has one of the most stressful jobs in the world. As the White House’s director of speechwriting, he is responsible for the words that President Barack Obama speaks when addressing most everyone — from small groups to world leaders.

“My job often feels like driving at 100 miles per hour in a car with no windows and doors,” Keenan said. “And I’m just trying to keep it on a straight path.”

When Keenan visited campus on May 5, he participated in a “Flash Forum,” hosted by assistant dean Joe Holtgreive and sponsored by the Office of Personal Development. During their conversation, Keenan shared how he finds balance in a high-profile, demanding environment to live a life with intention.

Six ways that Keenan stays cool under pressure:

  • Apps: Keenan heavily relies on the calendar and reminders apps on his smart phone. By keeping the apps updated, he has fewer things to remember. “It keeps me from sitting and stressing about what’s coming up.”
  • Inbox Zero: Keenan maintains power over his growing email inbox by reading, filing, or deleting every email every day. When he leaves work at night, his inbox contains zero emails.
  • Reading letters: President Obama reads 10 letters from American citizens per day and shares them with Keenan. “I set aside 15 minutes to read those before leaving work. They remind me why I do my job, so I leave work feeling better.”
  • Naps: Keenan takes a 15-minute nap at 2 p.m. every day for a quick energy jolt. “It’s actually better than coffee.”
  • Cooking: After a long day at work, Keenan unwinds by cooking dinner for his fiancée and finds comfort in the mundane preparation work, such as chopping and mincing. “It’s 15 to 30 minutes where I’m not thinking about work, and I’m not looking at my phone.”
  • Humor: Keenan keeps in touch with close friends who used to work at the White House and understand the fast-paced environment. “We poke fun of each other and at Washington all the time. It keeps us grounded.”
  • Teamwork: When Keenan first entered his role as director, he often did all of the work by himself but quickly realized this was not good for him or his team. “People like us who are type A have a real problem delegating. But it’s an important trait of a leader to trust your team to do the work.”