“Serve The People” (The Advice Obama Gave Questlove)

Questlove had just DJ’d Obama’s last-night-in-the-White-House party. What was supposed to be a more artistic set (what he usually does), had turned into “animal house,” with him being asked to play the more traditional party-DJ role (what he usually doesn’t do). The party was a success, but he felt like a hack. Sensing his disappointment, President Obama approached him and gave him some thoughtful advice we can all learn from. 


Straight away, Obama asked if he was upset that he didn’t get to do the set he planned on. Questlove said yes, and explained he doesn’t normally do this kind of DJing. Obama paused and then told him the story of his speech after the Charleston shooting. The speech was well written, it was at a historical moment, and all eyes were on him. Several minutes into the speech, he felt like it was tanking. His audience just didn’t feel engaged. 


A little voice in his head was telling him to get off script, but a more sensible voice was reminding him what his handlers and writers always said (paraphrasing), “you think it’s going to work, you think that you’re going to be good at improvising this time, but you won’t be. Your off-the-cuff speeches are your worst speeches. We have proof. Don’t do it.” He looked around and wondered how it possibly could be worse than this? Not knowing what to do or what to say, he did the first thing that came to mind that wasn’t an improvised speech: he started singing “Amazing Grace.” 


Obama looked at Questlove and said, “I serve the people.” That day in Charleston he saw something was wrong, he took a deep breath, and he remembered to himself, “I serve the people.” At the party, Questlove too looked around, knew something wasn’t right, and then served the people. It’s not always the thing we want to do first, it may defy some wisdom or conventionality, but it’s just the right thing to do. There’s honor in that. And, the results in both situations speak for themselves. The people were more than pleased. 


We all have processes and procedures we are supposed to follow, but in our work, the best decision is always to serve the people. Whether it’s our clients, our peers, or our families, we have to be willing and able to set the planned perfection aside and listen to what they need from us. 

After the talk, Obama asked Questlove if he felt better. “No,” Questlove said. They laughed. He knew he served the people, and he still carries that advice with him today. 


Hear Questlove tell this story and much, much more on the Broken Record podcast with Malcolm Gladwell and Rick Rubin

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