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Luck, mentors, big risks feature in School of Communication Convocation address

Northwestern alumnus Michael J Gottlieb, Associate White House Counsel and Special Assistant to the President, wowed graduates and their families with a heartfelt message at the 2012 School of Communication Convocations Saturday, June 16. The annual ceremony celebrates the school’s new class of alumni. More than 300 graduates of the Class of 2012 participated in the ceremony, including a group of 12 graduating students from Northwestern’s NU-Q campus in Doha, Qatar.

The convocation featured remarks from University President Morton Schapiro, Dean Barbara O’Keefe, presentations of diplomas by department chairs and other faculty members, and a performance of “Our Time” from the musical Merrily We Roll Along (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) by Brian Bohr (C12), Carly Cantor (C12), and Matthew Deitchman (C12).

Gottlieb’s address to the new graduates was the highlight to many.

Introduced by Kathryn Marovitch (C12) and Adam Docksey (C12), Gottlieb advised the new graduates to take risks and not fear failure.

“Some of you haven’t learned this lesson yet because you are so good at everything,” he said. “But know this—at some point, you will fail. If you can treat failure as a growth opportunity, it can become more than something you survive—it can become a net positive in your life.”

Gottlieb also advised the group, with a laugh, to “be lucky.”

“I don’t know a single successful person who hasn’t benefitted from luck. Neither do you,” he said. “All the luck in the world won’t matter if you are blind to great opportunities—and if you don’t work hard, you’ll never recognize those opportunities when they arise.”

You can’t count on luck, Gottlieb admitted. “But there’s also something honest, and liberating, in recognizing that our success depends upon events beyond our control,” he said. “That realization makes it easier to appreciate what we have, to help others when they let us down, and to forgive ourselves when we fall short.”

Gottlieb advised the group to take risks without being reckless, and to find and cultivate relationships with mentors.

Gottlieb’s mentor was Northwestern Debate Society coach Scott Deatherage, who died too young in 2009. Though Gottlieb has found other sources of guidance, he still cites Deatherage’s enduring influence.

“In truth, though, Scott is still with me,” Gottlieb said. “I write memos to the President that sound in his voice. There is a published Supreme Court opinion that is structured according to his principles. I once gave a speech to former Taliban elders using techniques he taught me. To this day, his lessons still guide me through the toughest choices in my life.”

As the Associate White House Counsel and Special Assistant to the President, Gottlieb has advised the President and senior White House staff on a wide range of legal and legal policy issues. From January 2010 to March 2011, he was detailed to Kabul, Afghanistan as the Deputy Director of Combined Joint Interagency Task Force 435, which focused on rule of law development and detention operations for the U.S. Government in Afghanistan. Prior to his time with the Obama Administration, he served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of California and practiced at the law firm of WilmerHale in Washington, DC, where he focused on government public policy and appellate litigation.

Immediately after law school, Gottlieb clerked for Judge Stephen Reinhardt on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and for Justice John Paul Stevens on the United States Supreme Court. He is a 2003 graduate of Harvard Law School and a 1999 graduate of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern. While at Northwestern, he twice won the intercollegiate National Debate Tournament.