Democracy and Solving Problems Together

Interview with Sean O’Keefe

Jimmy Bregman

So far our DC trip has been a great success, and I have had an amazing time with my classmates. Today we did our first formal interview as a group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) with Sean O’Keefe. I was very excited leading up to this interview because I found from my research that he is a very interesting and insightful person. I think that both of my questions landed very well, and I was super satisfied with the answers that I received. It was very insightful talking to someone who has so much experience working in non-profit, commercial, and government organizations, and who is known for being a problem solver.

Kayla asked a very eloquent question about how he dealt with regret and the past. O’Keefe’s personal philosophy on this was beautifully concise and it deeply resonated with me. He reminded us that, although it is paramount to be reflective and mindful of our past, we can’t move forward if we’re constantly looking behind us. This philosophy, he told us, is admittedly difficult. O’Keefe revealed that as a human he too struggles with implementing this thought in practice, although he also reminded us that our best is all we can do.

I spent a lot of time thinking about what question I wanted to ask. For the longest time, I couldn’t come up with any question that I felt had enough substance, and I really wanted to impress O’Keefe with my question. I eventually found a very niche panelist discussion that he participated in over Zoom in which he discussed unique challenges such as our space littering problem and space policy. Although he didn’t expound much on the latter, I felt he would have some interesting things to say. I ended up asking:

“In an online interview in March, you talked about the challenges of expanding into outer space and the need to convince all active parties to cooperate in a manner similar to maritime law. Do you think that different governments will be able to apply these logic-based rules as we expand in space exploration and travel?”

He gave us a lot of his knowledge about why space regulation can be so very hard to implement and how it concerns our innate nature as humans and how we must transcend that nature to work towards larger goals.

Sky Weir

Today, we had our first interview. Leading up to it, people didn’t seem very excited, probably because we are still jet-lagged. However, as we got closer to the interview, everyone seemed more enthusiastic about what was to come. When we got to the interview, we were surprised with a small layout of fruits and desserts that in my opinion raised morale considerably. The interview began, and what followed were many well-worded questions. O’Keefe’s responses gave us valuable insight into his thoughts and feelings. 

The first question that really interested me was Jimmy’s question: “What are some key lessons or concepts you’ve taken away from your varied positions, and what helped you put your best effort into each job?” His response was a well-rounded summary of what his personal values are when it comes to this part of his work. He commented that people skills are essential in public service as well as in life. Knowing how to work with people and how to get a large group to come together and figure out a solution that integrates everyone’s opinions has helped him in all of his jobs and in becoming the person he is today. I found one story he told to be very thought-provoking. He shared a quote that a college professor of his wrote on the board that continues to be meaningful for him: “PEOPLE IS HARD.” I gained some understanding of how complex people are and why it is important to take this complexity into account when working in public service. 

After several questions that explored his personal morals and work experience, Ben asked a question relating to his opinion on how soon large-scale commercial space travel will be available. He brought up the example of air travel and how it first started. When commercial airlines were first introduced, they catered towards the rich, as air travel was expensive, intense, and took a lot of skill on the pilots’ part. Now, however, air travel is highly commercialized, and almost anyone anywhere can partake in what used to be an extremely exclusive mode of travel: “Technology, once devised, reduces in cost at the same time it’s expanded in application.” For this reason, he thinks that space travel will eventually become routine.

As the interview came to a conclusion, he imparted a few thoughts about the importance of being able to work well with others:

Listen to where others come from; you don’t have to agree.

Find and emphasize common ground. Listen, and then project.

These quotations share a common theme: people skills are required when solving large-scale issues that affect us all. As someone who wants to go into the field of business, I now understand the significance of bringing people together to achieve common goals in business.

Bella Cambell

Today we interviewed Sean O’Keefe. I enjoyed Liana’s question: “Given the conflict in the world right now, including the war on Ukraine, how do you think the supply chain issues will evolve?” O’Keefe replied that if we just shut down everything, then the economy will take a dive and hurt the country. He gave the example of the cyber-attack on Colonial Pipeline that shut it down until a ransomware was paid. No one was able to get gas for days, and many people weren’t able to go to work or commute. Similarly, he argued, we can’t just completely stop using an important resource like fossil fuels. Yes, fossil fuels are terrible for the environment, and we do have to stop using them eventually to fight climate change, but not everyone can make the switch to renewable energy overnight. Instead, we have to integrate the use of renewable resources over a period of time. We are racing the clock to find the solutions to the problems of climate change, but we have to bring everyone on board.

He talked about striking a balance in which we introduce renewable energy but do not fully stop using fossil fuels immediately, making the transition efficiently so it won’t hurt the economy and we can get more people to support the cause. Climate change is moving incredibly fast and hurting our planet, but we need to catch up and try to reverse the problems we’ve made without going cold turkey. Because the U.S. is so dependent on fossil fuels, we’ve become an easy target for ransomware attacks that can have drastic effects if our main fuel sources are interrupted again. This is another important reason why we have to make the shift to being more dependent on renewable energy: doing so not only helps the environment but our country’s safety as well.

I thought that his response showed a lot about his personality and work ethic. You can tell from his responses that he takes the time to step back, listen, and observe in order to discuss different possible solutions before settling on a plan that includes everyone and doesn’t focus solely on one’s own ideas.

Sam Kaplan

Going into our first interview of the week, I didn’t know what to expect. When the interview began, I realized that I was expecting something very formal, and I was so preoccupied with being professional, prepared, and competent that I had forgotten the purpose of these interviews. The interviews are not like job interviews in which we are trying to impress others, but are opportunities for the interviewee to share their knowledge and experience with us. I then realized that this interview would be an opportunity for us to receive advice on how to solve problems in our own lives.

My favorite thing about our interview with Sean O’Keefe was the way that he turned every life experience he had into simple and useful tools that we can apply to our own lives. Near the end of the interview, it became clear to me that most of this advice revolved around people. From the very first question of the interview, O’Keefe stressed that the most important problems any organization will face are people problems, and throughout he gave advice on how to solve these problems. In response to a question about how to handle situations that require a lot of sensitivity, he told us that you must put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and that as long as you are watching closely enough, you will be moved by issues that the people have. In response to a later question he expanded upon this idea by emphasizing the importance of listening to the other side in the democratic process.

He also frequently brought up the importance of trusting your own instincts and having integrity with your own values. This duality is something that I’ve wrestled with a lot, and it was good for me to hear that these values are of great importance to him, and that they are reconcilable. During the last question of the interview, when asked about how we can deal with the complex issues of our time, O’Keefe reminded us that all generations have unique problems that are as important as the problems we face now. Although technology is always changing, human nature remains the same, so the skills required to work together are always the most important.

In response to a question about how to implement different principles of democracy, O’Keefe provided an interesting viewpoint about our government by saying that it is an experiment. Furthermore, he argued, it must remain an experiment: a healthy democracy is one that is rediscovered constantly, and it depends on change. He therefore encourages people who have different opinions to become involved in working to change the system. Multiple times in the interview he became passionate when discussing the problem of denying facts and not listening to others or genuinely considering others’ opinions. I enjoyed this perspective, and I think that it is wise not to attempt to stop change in America. Instead, we should encourage change and be wary of those who seek to stifle it and suffocate our democracy.