14 May 2017, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA
12 May 2017, University of Houston, Texas, USA
Well, thank you very much. Thank you. Wow. I am now a cougar. Whose house? Who's house? Whose house? Let me try that. It is wonderful.
Thank you so much for the wonderful introduction, President Khator. It is a wonderful day to be here at the University and thank you also for the great work that you are doing on behalf of all of those students. Let's give a big, big hand for the wonderful work that your president is doing here at University.
I tell you, When I read her bio, I am so proud of her. What a great immigrant. How many great contributions she makes to this university, to this state, and to this country. When I heard that she was the first Indian immigrant to lead a comprehensive university in the United States, I say to myself, I'm going to hit it off really well with her. The reason is because I love going to places where I'm not the only one with an accent.
But seriously, I'm proud to be introduced by a fellow immigrant. And the students are very lucky here to have such a fantastic and talented leader. I also want to say thank you to the faculty. You have spent years teaching the students, inspiring them, and occasionally even arguing with them. But none of them will be here without you, so big hand to the faculty.
Finally, I would like to say thank you to the parents and to the families that are here today. You shaped the students from the beginnings of their lives, way before they became proud cougars. You have been there for them every step of the way, giving them advice and giving them affection, love, and pushing them along, and probably sometimes even worried about them. But thank you very much for all of the great work that you have done. Let's give the parents and the families a big hand of applause.
Now, to the students; This is a big day for all of you and I know some of you are going to say, 'Wait a minute, this is our day. Why is Schwarzenegger thanking everyone here in Houston? When is he going to get to us?'
Well, first of all, congratulations to all of you. I know that it took a huge vision, great vision, and a lot of work and a lot of studying and there is no one that can study for you. You have to do that yourself. So I want you all to know that I am very, very proud of all of you. Thank you for the great work that you have done.
Now, the diplomas — there will only be one name and this is yours, but I hope it doesn't confuse you and you think that maybe you made it that far by yourself. No, you didn't. It took a lot of help. None of us can make it alone. None of us. Not even the guy that is talking to you right now, that was the greatest bodybuilder of all times. Not even me, that has been the Terminator and went back in time to save the human race. Not even me that fought and killed predators with his bare hands.
I always tell people that you can call me anything that you want. You can call me Arnold. You can call me Schwarzenegger. You can call me the Austrian oak. You can call me Schwarzy. You can call me Arnie. But don't ever, ever call me the self‑made man.
But this is so important for you to understand. I didn't make it that far on my own. I mean, to accept that credit or that medal, would discount every single person that has helped me get here today, that gave me advice, that made an effort, that lifted me up when I fell. And it gives the wrong impression that we can do it all alone. None of us can. The whole concept of the self‑made man or woman is a myth.
Now, I know you are going to say, look, we have read so many stories about you and we saw documentaries where they talk about that you are the model of the American dream and that you're the perfect example of the self‑made man. Well, let me tell you, I have seen, and heard, and read those stories myself. Enjoyed reading them, but the fact of the matter is, it is not the whole story.
I didn't just materialize out of nowhere like the Terminator through a fireball in the streets of Los Angeles, and then all of a sudden I was there. No. I would have never made it in my life without the help. I happen to be someone, for instance, that believes in God. That we were created by God, but let's assume for a second that you are not into that, then you must also believe in — at least believe in a biological aspect, that parents creating us. I wouldn't be here without my parents creating me, nurturing me, feeding me, changing my diapers, loving me, hugging me, and all of that.
And then later on when I went to school there were the teachers, and then there where mentors, the coaches, and then my mother was there in the afternoon helping me do my homework and be tutoring. And then in the evening my father was there helping me in sports, coaching us in soccer and in the winters skiing, sledding, ice skating, ice curling, and all those kinds of things. My father taught me about discipline and my love and appreciation for sports. And he gave me my first great advice, by saying, 'Whatever you do, Arnold, be useful.'
So, you also read so many times that I decided from one day to the next to become a bodybuilding champion and I started training 5 hours a day and then I became the youngest Mr. Universe ever. Well, it is true, but the fact of the matter is, it is not the whole story, because if I wouldn't have met a lifeguard at the lake where I grew up and some bodybuilders that introduced me to weight training and taught me the first chin‑up on a branch of a tree of that lake, and that eventually introduced me also to a weightlifting club locally, where the coaches taught me powerlifting and weightlifting and bodybuilding. They helped me and they nurtured me. They pushed me.
And then eventually I saw a magazine with Reg Park on the cover. It said, Mr. Universe becomes Hercules. There was Reg Park in a Hercules pose on the cover. I bought that magazine. I read the story from the front to the end cover and let me tell you something. I read exactly how he trained; 5 hours a day. And how he became a champion, Mr. Universe three times, and how he went to America. And then discovered in the movies — Hercules' movies. Well, when I read that, I found my vision.
And let me tell you the most important thing in life is to have vision, to know exactly where you're vision. I found my vision and that magazine, Reg Park, gave me my blueprint for my life, and five years later, after training 5 hours a day, just like him and doing his exercises, I became, through his help and his inspiration, the youngest Mr. Universe ever.
And this is what made then Joe Weider the father of bodybuildings, the owner of a giant food supplement empire, the editor of Muscle and Fitness invited me to America. So, it was Joe Weider that brought me to America, to the greatest country in the world, to give me the opportunity to train in Gold's Gym and to get me a little apartment. I came over here with absolutely nothing. It was his help. I had $20 in the pocket and some sweaty clothes in the gym bag. I had this one little apartment and on Thanksgiving, the bodybuilders from Gold's Gym came to my apartment and they brought me pillows, dishes, silverware, all of those things I didn't have.
And even a black and white TV and the transistor radio, which I still have today on the end table next to my bed. The generosity I saw. The amount of help that I got when I came to America was absolutely extraordinary, saw firsthand how generous the American people are. And then in Gold's Gym, there was a magical place with all of the champions, Mr. Americas, Mr. World, Mr. Universe, everyone was training, powerlifters, Olympic champions and so on. And they helped me change from an amateur champion to a professional champion.
And after that, I won champion after championship, Seven times Mr. Olympia. You heard it all. And became the greatest bodybuilder of all times according to the bodybuilding magazine in 1975. Now this is just — with all of the help, I would not have made any of that by myself.
So, this is why I don't believe in the self‑made man and even when it comes to show business, it was the same thing. I mean — you read the stories that Schwarzenegger decided from one day to the next to retire from bodybuilding and to go and become an actor. And in no time, he did Conan the Barbarian and Terminator and Commander and so on. Well, it is true, but it is only half of the story because the reality of it is without a lot of help I wouldn't have made it.
First of all, it would have been fun to make it that easy and to be that easy, but it was very, very difficult to get into the movies. Very difficult. And only because I had help, I could get in because in the beginning every agent, every manager, every studio executive said, you will never become a leading man. Look at your body. You look like a monster.
I was upset about that because I trained so hard and for so long and all of a sudden they call me monsters, but the bottom line is, they said, 'This is the 70's. Twenty years they did Hercules. Movies today, the little guys are in; Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Woody Allen. Those are the sex symbols of the 70's. Don't you understand it?' I said, 'Oh, my God. Who are they?' But they even belittled me with my accent.
They said, 'Look, the way you talk. I have to be very honest. I don't want to offend you, but you give me the creeps with your accent, with that German accent. It's scary.' They said, 'Maybe we can get you a job in Hogan's Heroes, in that TV show, to play a Nazi officer. And plus your name, Schwarzen, Schmitzl, or whatever it is, I can see that already up there on billboard, and people running in because of the name.'
The bottom line is, it was very, very difficult but only because I decided not to listen to the nay‑sayers and because I decided to work as hard as I did in bodybuilding, to take acting lessons, to take voice lessons, English lessons, speech lessons and accent removal lessons.
Now, I know you are going to say: 'Get your money back, Arnold.' But the bottom line is I ran around, 'The fine wine grows on a vine,' because the Germans always had difficulties with the F, W, and the V. The fine wine grows on a vine. And then, 'The sink is made out of zinc' and all those kinds of things. So, I did this thousands of time and eventually it worked. I started getting little parts and then I started getting bigger parts, and then eventually, even though it was very difficult, it was Dino De Laurentiis and Ed Pressman that came to me with Conan the Barbarian.
And if they wouldn't have helped me to get that part, I would not have broken through and become a leading man.
This movie came out — they spent $20 million, which in today's terms is around $200 million on that movie. It was number 1 in the box office. That was, for me, the big breakthrough. And at the press conference, the director even said, if we wouldn't have Schwarzenegger, we would have to build one because I was the only one that could act and had a body like that for Conan the Barbarian.
And then, of course, there was James Cameron that directed Terminator. When Terminator came out, James Cameron said, the reason why Terminator worked is because Schwarzenegger talks like a machine. Now, I don't know if I should take this as a compliment or what, but the bottom line is, it was the two things that the studio executives said would be big liability, became big, big assets and my career took off.
And this is why I always say thank you to the people that helped me along the way and not ever think that I'm a self‑made man because, not only was the producer and directors that are helpful, and the studio executives are helpful, but every person that works in a movie. As a matter of fact, when we have a wrap party, which is the party at the end of the movie, I always make sure every person gets invited to that wrap party, to say thank you to them at the wrap party. And go to the microphone and you say thank you to the cameraman because without him, I wouldn't look as great on the screen; to the makeup person; to the visual effects person; to the stunt people; the stunt coordinator; the cable pullers; craft services; and the list goes on and on and on. There's 280 people that work in a movie that make you look great on that screen so how can I say I'm a self‑made man?
So, this is why it is important for all of us to recognize and this is why I tell you, on every step of the way I had help. Even when I ran for governor, people say, 'One day he decided to run for governor and to take over the sixth largest economy in the world.' No, this is not the way it was.
Yes, I took over and yes, I won the governorship, but if it wouldn't have been for Jay Leno, who hosted the tonight show, who I called a week before and I said, 'I want to announce my candidacy on your show, on the Tonight Show because I want to sell myself as an outsider because the people in California are sick and tired of the typical politician.' So, he said to me, and he was a great friend, he said 'Yes. I'm going to help you with you that.'
And I announced, without anyone knowing, on August 6th, on the Tonight Show, my candidacy. And he even organized 100 journalists from politics to sit in the back when I announced my candidacy. So, this is the kind of help I got. Then, of course, I didn't even have a team yet. People came out of nowhere and just started helping organizing the campaign, and with fundraising, and with communication, and with all of those things. And I became, two months later, the governor of the state of California, but it took a lot of help.
And I have to say that it is important to acknowledge that because people make it always sound that you did all this yourself. I didn't. I did it with a lot of help. Yes, I was determined. Yes, I never listened to the nay‑sayers. Yes, I had a great vision. Yes, I had the fire in the belly and all of those things, but I didn't do it without the help.
And even when you then say, Schwarzenegger did the most unbelievable environmental laws in California, well guess how laws are done? It took the legislators — 120 legislators to negotiate for weeks and months at a time, and then to send down legislation and then you sign that. So you need help too.
I had a lot of help along the way and this is why it is so important for all of you to recognize that. And the biggest help, of course, was from America.
If I wouldn't have come to the United States, if I would have come to any other country, I would not have had the success. I mean, America has proven not only to the be the land of opportunity image‑wise, but America has proven to be the greatest country in the world. Anyone can make it!
This is why I always tell people, none of my careers would have happened if it wouldn't have been for the United States of America. I could have gone to the Middle East. Do you think I would stand here today? I could have gone to Africa. Do you think I would stand here today Or to Australia or to Asia, to any other country in Europe, it makes no difference. This place has given me the opportunity, step after step, all the way through all my three careers and the millions and millions of dollars I've made all because of America.
So, thank you, America, for the great thing that you're doing for immigrants that come over here.
And the reason why I want you to understand that is because as soon as you understand that you are here because of a lot of help, then you also understand that now is time to help others. That's what this is all about. You got to help others. Don't just think about yourself. Help others.
As my father‑in‑law, sergeant Shriver said, at Yale university commencement speech, just like I'm speaking right now here, except I speak to a better university, but he said — Sergeant Shriver said — you know he was the guy that created the Peace Corps, the Job Corps, Legal Aid to the poor and an extraordinarily human being under the Johnson and Kennedy administration.
So, he said to those students, he said, 'Tear down this mirror. Tear down this mirror that makes you always look at yourself and you will be able to look beyond this mirror and see the millions of people that need your help.'
And let me tell you something, when I heard that, it all made sense to me, that we have to go out and help. And this is why I got involved in special Olympics, to be the international coach of special Olympics, and then eventually became the chairman of the president's council on physical fitness and sports. I was appointed by President Bush, my favorite Houstonian and — I should not say the only one, but Barbara. I should add Barbara because I see them later on. I don't want to leave out Barbara here because otherwise, she gets really mad. Yeah, so anyway, So both of them.
And then drive through around all 50 states to promote health and fitness and then eventually started after‑school programs and now we are in 40 different — 48 different cities providing after‑school programs for over 100,000 kids and all this.
So, i mean it is — to me, it was very important to give back and also to go — every time I travel around the world, to go military bases and to visit our brave men and women that save us, that protect us, to say, thank you, thank you, thank you to them, anywhere in the world that I travel. So it is important to recognize that. So all I'm saying is, it is my challenge to you today to go ahead and to celebrate your accomplishment. You should.
This commencement is a great success and each of you earned your diplomas, but at some point, take a break from the celebration, away from the Instagrams and snapchats, and think about all of the people that help you. Make sure to go and to recognize President Khator and to say thank you to her for the great work that she has done. Say thank you to the deans of this university that are responsible to make this university so great.
Say thank you to the professors and associate professors, everyone that taught you and everyone that's responsible for you to be here today, and go to your parents and give them a big, big hug and tell them that you love them and thank you for everything that you have done to get me here today.
do that, And give something back to your community and to your state and to this country because remember, in the end, we are not going to be remembered for how much we made but for how much we have given.
Make sure that it is not about me. That it is about 'we.' Turn the 'me' into 'we,' and I guarantee you that you can change the world.
Thank you very much all of you cougars. Thank you.
And now I'm going to do a snapchat with my glasses. Let's hear it. Fantastic. Hasta La Vista, baby. I'll be back.
12 may 2017, Virginia Tech, Virginia, USA
President Sands, esteemed faculty, proud parents, devoted friends, wet siblings... congratulations to all of you. But most importantly, congratulations to the Virginia Tech class of 2017!
I am honored to be with you and this San Francisco summer day feels just like home, just like it does with anything with “Tech” in its name.
I’m so delighted to be here with my friend, Regina Dugan. As you just heard, Regina used to run DARPA – for real! – and now she is developing breakthrough technologies at Facebook. In Hokie terms, she’s our Bruce Smith. And she is just one of so many alums doing amazing things around the world.
Today, class of 2017, you join them. And I’m thrilled for you. And thrilled for all of the people who are here supporting you – the people who have pushed you, dried your tears and laughed with you from your first day to this day. Let’s show them all of our thanks.
Commencement speeches can be pretty one-sided. The speaker – that’s me – imparts her hard- earned wisdom... or at least tries to. The graduates – that’s you – you sit in the rain today and listen like the thoughtful people you are. Then you hurl your caps in the air, hug your friends, let your parents take lots pictures of you – ( post them on Instagram, just one idea) – and head off into your amazing lives... maybe swinging by Sharkey’s for one last plate of wings before you go.
Today’s going to be a little bit different because I’m not going to talk about something I know and you don’t. I want to talk about something the Virginia Tech community knows all too well. Today, I want to talk about resilience.
This university is known for so many things. Your kindness and decency... your academic excellence... your deeply-felt school spirit. I’ve spent time at a lot of time at colleges – yes for work, but also because I might want to relive my 20s just a little.
Few people talk about their school the way Hokies talk about Virginia Tech. There is so much pride and unity here -- such a deep sense of identity, and I am going to prove it by asking you one simple question:
What’s a Hokie? [I am!] That’s it!
What you might not realize is that that Hokie spirit has made all of you more resilient. I’ve spent the last two years studying resilience because something happened in my life that demanded more of it than I ever would have thought possible.
Two years and eleven days ago, I lost my husband Dave suddenly and unexpectedly. Sometimes I still have a hard time saying the words because I can’t quite believe it actually happened. I woke up on what I thought would be a totally normal day. And my world just changed forever.
I know, important day — it’s raining, and I’m up here talking about death. But I promise you there’s a reason – and even one that’s not even sad.
Because what I’ve learned since losing Dave has fundamentally changed how I view this world and how I live in it. And I want to share it with you, on this day because I think it’s going to help you lead happier, healthier, and more joyful lives. and you deserve all of that.
Each of you walked a very unique path to reach this day. Some of you faced real trauma. All of you faced challenges. disappointment, heartache, loss, illness – all of these are so personal when they strike – but they are also so universal.
And then there are the shared losses. The Virginia Tech community knows this. You’ve stopped for a quiet moment by the 32 Hokie stones on the Drillfield, as I did with President Sands just this morning. You’ve joined your friends for the “Run in Remembrance.” You know that life can turn in an instant. And you know what it means to come together, to pull together, to grieve together, but, ultimately, to overcome together.
After Dave died, I did something I’ve done at other hard times in my life: I hit the books. With my friend Adam Grant, a psychologist who studies how we find meaning in our lives, I dove into the research on resilience and recovery.
The most important thing I learned is that we are not born with a certain amount of resilience. It is a muscle, and that means we can build it.
We build resilience into ourselves. We build resilience into the people we love. And we build it together, as a community. That’s called “collective resilience.” It’s an incredibly powerful force – and it’s one that our country and our world need a lot more of right about now. It is in our relationships with each other that we find our will to live, our capacity to love, and our ability to bring change into this world.
Class of 2017, you are particularly suited to the task of building collective resilience because you are graduating from Virginia Tech. Communities like this don’t just happen. They are formed and strengthened by people coming together in very specific ways. You’ve been part of that here, whether you knew it or not. As you go off and become leaders – and yes, you will lead, you are destined to lead – you can make the communities you join – and the communities you form – stronger.
Here’s where you start.
You can build collective resilience through shared experiences. You’ve had lots of those: jumping to “Enter Sandman,” - I saw that this morning, it’s incredible. Enduring the walk across the Drillfield in the winter (kind of like Jon Snow at the Wall), finding new loves and then NEW new loves, being there for each other through triumph and through disappointment. Every class, every meal, every all nighter has added another strand to a vast web that connects you to each other and to Hokies everywhere.
These ties do more than connect – they support. Nearly 30 years ago, a very talented young man made it from a very underprivileged background all the way to college, but then he didn’t finish. And when he dropped out, he said, “If only I had my posse with me, I would have graduated.” That insight led an amazing woman named Deborah Bial to create the Posse Foundation, which recruits high-potential students in teams of 10 to go from the same city to the same college. Posse kids have a 90 percent graduation rate from some of the best schools in the country.
We all need our posses – especially when life puts the obstacles in our path. Out there in the world, when you leave Virginia Tech, you’re going to have to build your own posse – and sometimes that’s going to mean asking for help.
This was never easy for me. Before Dave died, I tried to bother people as little as possible – and yes, “bothering people” is what I thought it was. But then my life changed and I needed my friends and family and colleagues more than I ever could have thought I would. My mom – who along with my dad is here with me today just like yours are here with you – stayed with me for the very first month, literally holding me as I cried myself to sleep. I had never felt weaker. But I learned that it takes strength to rely on others. There are times to lean in and there are times to lean on.
Building a posse also means acknowledging our friends’ challenges. Before I lost Dave, if a friend was going through something hard, I would usually say I am sorry – once. And then I wouldn’t bring it up again because I didn’t want to remind them of their pain. Losing my husband taught me how absurd that was – you can’t remind me I lost Dave. But like I had done with others, when people failed to mention it, it felt like there was a big, old elephant following me around everywhere I went.
It’s not only death that ushers in the elephant. You want to completely silence a room? Say you have cancer, that your father went to jail, that you just lost your job. We retreat into silence just when we need each other the most. Now, not everyone is going to want to talk about everything all the time. But saying to a friend, “I know you are suffering and I am here with you” can kick a very ugly elephant out of any room.
If you are in someone’s posse, don’t just offer to help in a generic way. Before I lost Dave, when a friend was in need, I would say, “Is there anything I can do?” And I meant it kindly – the problem is, that question kind of shifts the burden to the person in need. And when people asked me, I didn’t know how to answer the question. “Can you make Father’s Day go away?” Here’s a different approach. When my friend Dan Levy’s son was sick in the hospital, a friend texted him and said, “What do you not want on a burger?” Another friend texted from the lobby and said “I’m in the lobby of the hospital for a hug for the next hour whether you come down or not.”
You don’t have to do something huge. You don’t have to wait for someone to tell you exactly what they need. And you do not have to be someone’s best friend from the first grade to show up. If you are there for your friends, and let them be there for you – if you laugh together until your sides ache, if you hold each other as you cry, and maybe even bring them a burger with the wrong toppings before they ask – that won’t just make you more resilient, it will help you lead a deeper and more meaningful life.
We also build collective resilience through shared narratives. That might sound light – how important can a story be? But stories are vital. They’re how we explain our past and they are how we set expectations for our future. And they help us build the common understanding that creates a community in the first place.
Every time your friends tell their favorite tales – like, I don’t know, when Tech beat UVA in double overtime – you strengthen your bonds to each other.
Shared narratives are critical for fighting injustice and creating social change. A few years ago, we started LeanIn.Org to help work towards gender equality – helping women and men form Lean In circles – small groups that support each other’s ambitions. There are now more than 33,000 Circles in 150 countries. But It wasn’t until I lost Dave that I understood why Circles are thriving – it’s because they build collective resilience.
Not long ago, I was in Beijing and I had a chance to meet with women from Lean In Circles across China. Like in a lot of places, it’s not always easy to be a woman in China. If you’re unmarried past age 27, you’re called sheng nu – a “leftover woman.” And I thought the word “widow” was bad! The stigma that comes from being a leftover woman can be intense. One woman – a 36-year-old economics professor – was rejected by 15 men because - wait for it -- she was – too educated. After that, her father forbade her younger sister from going to graduate school.
But more than 80,000 women have come together in Lean In Circles to create a new narrative. One Circle created a play, The Leftover Monologues, which celebrates being “leftover” and tackles the topics too often unspoken, like sexual harassment, date rape, and homophobia. The world told them what their stories should be, and they said, actually, we’re writing a different story for ourselves. We are not leftover. We are strong and we will write our own story together.
Building collective resilience also means trying to understand how the world looks to those who have experienced it differently – because they are a different race, come from a different country, have an economic background unlike yours. We each have our own story but we can write new ones together – and that means seeing the values in each other’s points of view and looking for common ground.
Anyone here a little bit anxious about your future? Not sure where the future is taking you? Sometimes me too. And you know what helps you combat that fear? A very big idea captured in a very tiny word: hope.
There are many kinds of hope. There’s the hope that she wouldn’t swipe left. Sorry. There’s the hope that as you sit here your stuff will magically pack itself. Sorry. There’s the hope that it would stop raining. Double sorry. But my favorite kind of hope is called grounded hope — the understanding that if you take action you can make things better.
We normally think of hope as something that’s held in individual people. But hope – like resilience – is something we grow and nurture together. Just two days ago, I visited Mother Emanuel church in Charleston. We all know about the shooting that took place there just two years ago, claiming the lives of a pastor and eight worshippers. What happened afterwards was extraordinary. Instead of being consumed by hatred, the community came together to stand against racism and violence. As a local pastor Jermaine Watkins beautifully put it: “To hatred, we say no way, not today. To division, we say no way, not today. And to loss of hope, we say no way, not today.”
That was the theme of maybe the most touching Facebook post I’ve ever read – and let’s face it, I’ve read a lot of Facebook posts. This one was written by Antoine Leiris, a journalist in Paris whose wife Hélène was killed in the 2015 Paris attacks. Two days later – two days – he wrote an open letter to his wife’s killers. “On Friday night, you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son. But you will not have my hate. My 17-month-old son will play as we do every day, and all his life this little boy will defy you by being happy and free. Because you will not have his hate either.”
Strength like that makes all of us who see it stronger. Hope like that makes all of us more hopeful. That’s how collective resilience works – we lift each other up. This might seem very intuitive to you Hokies because these qualities of collective resilience – shared experiences, shared narratives, and shared hope – shine forth from every corner of this university. You are a testament to courage, faith and love – and that’s been true, not just for these past 10 years, but for over a century before then. This university means a lot to you, graduates... but it also means a lot to America and to the world. So many of us look to you as an example of how to stay strong and brave and true.
This is your legacy, Class of 2017. You will carry it with you – that capacity for finding strength in yourselves and building strength in the people around you.
Virginia Tech has given you a purpose, reflected in your motto, “That I May Serve.” An important way you can serve and lead is by helping build resilience in the world. We have a responsibility to help families and communities become more resilient – because none of us get through anything alone. We get through it together.
As you leave this beautiful campus and set out into the world, build resilience in yourselves. When tragedy or disappointment strike, know that deep inside you, you have the ability to get through anything. I promise you do. As the saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger than we ever imagined.
Build resilient organizations. Speak up when you see injustice. Lend your time and your passion to the causes that matter. My favorite poster at Facebook reads, “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.” When you see something that’s broken and there is a lot that is broken out there, go fix it. Your motto demands that you do.
Build resilient communities. Virginia Tech founded the Global Forum on Resilience four years ago, and it’s doing outstanding work in this field. Be there for your friends and family. And I mean in person – not just in a message with a heart emoji. Even though those are pretty great too. Be there for your neighbors; it’s a divided time in our country, and we need you to help us heal. Lift each other up and celebrate each and every moment of joy. Because one of the most important ways you can build resilience is by cultivating gratitude.
Two years ago, if someone had told me that I would lose the love of my life and become more grateful, I would have never have believed them. But that’s what happened. because today I am more grateful now than I ever was before – for my family and especially my children. For my friends. For my work. For life itself.
A few months ago, my cousin Laura turned 50. Graduates, you may not appreciate that turning 50 happens soon and feels old – but your parents do. I called her that morning and I said, “Happy Birthday, Laura. But I am also calling to say in case you woke up this morning with that ‘oh my God, I’m 50’ thing. Don’t do that. This is the year Dave doesn’t turn 50.” Either we get older, or we don’t. No more jokes about growing old. Every year – every moment –even in the pouring rain –is an absolute gift.
You don’t have to wait for special occasions – like graduation – to feel and show your gratitude to your family, your friends, your professors, your baristas – everyone. Counting your blessings increases them. People who take the time to focus on the things they are grateful for are happier and healthier.
My New Year’s resolution last year was to write down three moments of joy before I went to bed each night. This very simple thing has changed my life. Because I realize I used to go to bed every night thinking about what I did wrong and what I was going to do wrong the next day. Now I go to sleep thinking of what went right. And when those moments of joy happen throughout the day, I notice them more because I know they’ll make the notebook. Try it. Start tonight, on this day full of happy memories – but maybe before you hit Big Al’s.
Graduates, on the path before you, you will have good days and you will have hard days. Go through all of them together. Seek shared experiences with all kinds of people. Write shared narratives that create the world you want to live in. Build shared hope in the communities you join and the communities you form. And above all, find gratitude for the gift of life itself and the opportunities it provides for meaning, for joy, and for love.
Tonight, when I write down my three moments of joy, I will write about this. About the hope and the amazing resilience of this community. And maybe you’ll write that I finally stopped talking.
You have the whole world in front of you. I cannot wait to see what you do with it.
Congratulations and go Hokies!
8 May 2017, Atlanta, Georgia
Transcript to follow.
1 June 2012, Bennington College, Vermont, USA
Don’t be frightened! When a Bennington student, 10 minutes before you come up to the podium hands you a mace, that he made,
If you don’t bring it to the podium with you, you will never be Bennington.
So I would like to thank you Ben for helping me put the fear of God in the audience tonight. But I have to put it down because I’m an actor, and I am really weak. That was heavy! It wasn’t like a prop. That shit was real!
So now I’m going to read. And I’m not off book. So I might be looking down a lot.
Thank you, President Coleman, Brian Conover, faculty, students, family, alumni, some of whom are dear friends of mine who have travelled all the way from the big city to see me hopefully not humiliate myself tonight.
And especially thanks to you, the Graduating Class of 2012.
See, as a joke I wrote, hold for applause, and I was actually going to read that. So you kind of killed my joke!
Let’s do that again. 2012, hold for applause.
2012! Wow! I never thought I’d see 2012. I thought perhaps the Mayan calendar would prove correct. And the end of the world would have been the greatest excuse to get me out of this terrifying task of delivering the commencement speech. But wait! According to the Mayan calendar here, when does the world end? December — December 2012. Damn!
Okay. Maybe I shouldn’t talk to the graduates eager to start their new lives about the end of the world. Okay. Really? Really?
Of all the novelists, teachers, playwrights, poets, groundbreaking visual artists and pioneers of science, you got the TV actor. No, no, and I actually heard you petitioned for me. Oh, you fools!
You know what, for those of you who didn’t petition for me, I would love to later on talk about the problems in the Middle East and the downfall of the world economy. And for those of you who did petition for me, I don’t have any signed DVDs of the Game of Thrones. But I am happy to talk about the parallel lineages of the Targaryens and Lannisters later at the bar.
You see, it took all of my strength, and, of course, a little extra push from my wife Erica for me to agree to do this. Because I don’t do this. In my profession, I am told by people who know what they’re doing, where to stand, how to look, and most importantly, what to say. But you’ve got me — only me — my words unedited and as you will see quite embarrassing.
Okay, let me think.
I’m thinking. [But actually I didn’t read that. That was ad libbed.]
Let me think. What has — everyone and their uncle told me, as I desperately seek out advice on how to give a commencement address.
“Tell them what they want to hear.”
“Talk about your time at Bennington.”
“Know that there is no wrong speech.” I like that one.
“Just keep it brief.” That was my father-in-law.
“Be brutally honest. Tell them how hard it is after you graduate.” We’ll get back to that one.
“Just watch Meryl Streep’s commencement speech at Barnard and you’ll be fine.”
What did Beckett say: “I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On”.
So even if I don’t burn in your hearts and minds long after this speech is over. Even if I don’t inspire you to reach for the stars and beyond. Even if I am erased from your memory after one glass of wine tonight — Where am I going with this? I can’t go on. I’ll go on.
You know, I won’t speak of my time here, like some old fishermen. You have already had your time here. You have your own story to tell.
But I have to say. For me, it did start here, in Vermont, on a very rainy night. It was 1987. And I was a prospective student. The rain was coming down so hard, it was impossible to see that I was meeting the person who would later become my greatest friend and collaborator. A freshman, who would, 17 years later, introduce me to the woman that became my wife. I’ll call him Sherm. Because I do.
It was late at night, on the road, right there near Booth House. And despite the dark night and the heavy rain, this place was so alive. The lights pulsed from each of the dorms.
Now I was a kid from New Jersey who went to an all-boys catholic high school. I was four-foot something. I mumbled when I spoke. I wore a sort of woman’s black velvet cape, black tights, combat boots and a scowl.
But here at Bennington, I was home. And I have to say it doesn’t get better. Let me clarify. There are not shinier more important people out there. Your fellow students, you friends sitting around you are as good as it gets. Twenty two years after my own graduation, I have worked with my rainy night friend and fellow graduate Sherm on countless productions he has written, in all stages of development from living rooms to off-Broadway.
Brooks, Ian, Justin, Brett, John, Matthew, Jim, Sean, Hyla, Nicki and The B are all classmates I shared my time with here and still work with, and am lucky to call my friends. We are very spoiled here. People always say to me, “for such a small school it seems like there are so many of you”. I find that really interesting. And I kind of think that’s perfect. We can’t help it. We burn very brightly. Please don’t ever stop.
Graduates, now when I sat where you are right sitting right now, I had so many dreams of where I wanted to go, who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do. Theater companies I wanted to start with classmates. Movies, I wanted to be in. Directors I wanted to work with. Stories I needed to tell. It might take a little time, I thought. But it would happen. When I sat there, 22 years ago, what I didn’t want to think about is where I would be tomorrow. What I would have to start to do tomorrow.
And I graduated in 1991, a great year. A time of resurgence for independent films in this country. A time of relatively affordable rents in New York City. See, I assumed that I could make a living writing my plays, acting way off off off Broadway. And hopefully, you know, one day, join the actors I loved and respected in those independent films. TV – oh, what, no. What! Are you kidding me? No, didn’t even consider that. I had much more class than that. Much more self-respect than that. And so bothers —
What I didn’t have was cash, a bank account, a credit card, or an apartment. I just had debt. A big hungry, growing larger every moment debt.
So as you will tomorrow, I had to leave beautiful Vermont. Attack the life that I knew with socks and a tooth brush into my backpack. And I slept on ouch, after couch, after couch, after couch at friends’ apartments in New York. Until I wore out the rent paying roommates’ welcome.
I didn’t want a day job. I was an actor, I was a writer. I was a Bennington graduate. I had to get a day job. I dusted pianos at a piano store and let those streak for five months. I worked on the property of a Shakespeare scholar for a year pulling weeds and removing bees’ nests. I went on unemployment once but for not for long, I couldn’t handle the guilt.
Eventually I was able to pay rent for a spot on the floor of an apartment on the Lower East side. But my roommate had a breakdown and disappeared. He later resurfaced in a religious cult. I’m making this sound romantic. It really wasn’t.
I helped hang paintings at galleries, paintings that inspire you to think, I could do that.
And then finally, after two years of job and couch surfing, I got a job in application processing. As a data enterer at a place called Professional Examination Services. And I stayed for six years. Six years! Longer than my time at Bennington.
From the age of 23 to 29, well they loved me there. I was funny. I wore black no cap no tights. I smoked in the loading docks with the guys from the mail room and we shared how hung-over we all were. Everyone called each other shortie. What’s up short? How you doing shortie? So how so hung-over shortie?
I called in sick almost every Friday because I was out late the night before. I hated that job. And I clung to that job. Because of that job, I could afford my own place.
So I lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Yeah, you say that now. Oh, my kingdom for a time machine. Yeah, that’s right. I lived in an industrial loft. My rent was $400 a month.
My dream of running a theater company with my friend and fellow Bennington graduate, Ian bell had died. I won’t go into those details but neither one of us had any business sense and the theater we lived in. It had no heat or hot water. We didn’t smell very good. But we had our youth, but youth gets old very quickly. You’ll see.
So Ian moved out to Seattle. And I moved up the street to my loft. And I still didn’t have heat.
In 1993, industrial loft meant not legal to live there. See, I don’t want this to sound cool and I feel like it’s sounding cool. Ad lib.
But I did have hot water — hot water in my bathroom, which a friend of mine using that bathroom once shouted, it smells exactly like. A summer camp in here. It was true. For some reason, in the middle of Brooklyn, there was earth in my shower – actual earth and then oh, look, mushrooms growing from the earth. But I was safe though.
The ideal fire control company was right across the street where they make all the chemicals that put out chemical fires. I did not fear a chemical fire. I would be OK. And all those chemicals in the air were OK too. Because up the street we had the spice factory, they made spices, and that just covered everything up in a nice cumin scent. I had a rat. But that was OK, because I got a cat. His name was Brian, no relation.
My grandmother had given me a pink pull-out couch. Oddly no friends or recent graduates wanted to crash on my couch. So I put the couch on its end, so Brian could climb it and look out the window.
I had only the one window. I myself could not look out the window. It was – it was quite high. So I had no heat. No girlfriend. What! Are you kidding me? No, acting agent. But I had a cat named Brian who told me of the world outside. And I stayed for 10 years. No, don’t pity me. There’s a happy ending.
When I was 29, I told myself the next acting job I get no matter what it pays, I will from now on, for better or worse, be a working actor. So I quit my position at the Professional Examination Services. My friends really weren’t happy about that, because it was so easy to find me when I worked there. Work – that was the only place I had the internet. This was at the beginning of the Internet.
And now I didn’t have either the internet or a cell phone or a job. But something good happened.
I got a little pink theater job in a play called Imperfect Love. Which led to a film called 13 Moons with the same writer. Which led to other roles. Which led to other roles. And I’ve worked as an actor ever since.
But I didn’t know that would happen. At 29, walking away from data processing, I was terrified.
Ten years in a place without heat. Six years at a job, I felt stuck in. Maybe I was afraid of change. Are you?
My parents didn’t have much money. But they struggled to send me to the best schools. And one of the most important things they did for me — and graduates, maybe you don’t want to hear this – is that once I graduated, I was on my own. Financially, it was my turn.
Parents are applauding, graduates are not. But this made me very hungry. Literally. I couldn’t be lazy. Now I’m totally lazy but back then, I couldn’t be.
And so at 29, in a very long last, I was in the company of the actors and writers and directors I’d start out that first year, that first day after school. I was. I am by their sides.
Raise the rest of your life to meet you. Don’t search for defining moments because they will never come. Well, the birth of your children, OK, of course, forget about it, that’s just six months. My life is forever changed, that’s most defining moment ever. But I’m talking about in the rest of your life and most importantly in your work. The moments that define you have already happened. And they will already happen again. And it passes so quickly.
So please bring each other along with you. Everyone you need is in this room. These are the shiny more important people.
Sorry, it sucks after graduation. It really does. I mean, I don’t know. At least it did for me. But that’s the only thing I know.
You just get a bit derailed. But soon something starts to happen. Trust me. A rhythm sets in. Just like it did after your first few days here. Just try not to wait until like me, you’re 29 before you find it. And if you are, that’s fine too. Some of us never find it. But you will, I promise you. You are already here. That’s such an enormous step all its own. You’ll find your rhythm, or continue the one you have already found.
I was walking downtown in Manhattan the other day. And I was approached by a group of very sweet young ladies. Easy. Actually they’re sort of running feverishly down the street after me. When they got to me breathless, it was really — they didn’t know what to say, or couldn’t form the words. But it came out that they were NYU freshmen. And they were majoring in musical theater. Of course, come on. They were like science majors. They are running after me.
“What musicals are you doing?” I inquired.
“Well,” one of them said, looking down at her shoes, “we aren’t allowed to be in plays in our freshman year”.
Now they were paying a very high tuition to not do what they love doing.
I think I said, “Well, hang in there”. What I should have said was, “Don’t wait until they tell you you are ready. Get in there”. Sing or quickly transfer to Bennington.
When I went to school here, if a freshman wanted to write direct and star in her own musical, the lights would already be hung for her.
Now I tell the story, because the world might say you are not allowed to yet. I waited a long time out in the world before I gave myself permission to fail. Please, don’t even bother asking, don’t bother telling the world you are ready. Show it. Do it.
What did Beckett say? “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Bennington Class of 2012, the world is yours. Treat everyone kindly and light up the night.
Thank you so much for having me here.
This terrific little mash up in under 2 mins with Game of Thrones clips is pretty ace.
12 May 2017, Uinversity of Southern California, USA
We are SC We are [SC]. We are [SC]. We are [SC]. Thank you. Thank you.
It is such an honor to deliver this year’s commencement address to the University of Southern California’s graduating class of 2017.
I would like to say thank you, graduates, for that warm welcome. I would also like to apologize to all the parents who are sitting there, saying, ‘Will Ferrell? Why will Ferrell? I hate Will Ferrell. I hate him. I hate his movies. He’s gross. Although he’s much better-looking in person. Has he lost weight?’
By the way, that discussion is happening out there right now.
Today I have also received an honorary doctorate, for which I would like to give my thanks to President Max Nikias. I would also like to recognize my esteemed fellow honorary doctorates, Suzanne Dworak-Peck, a great humanitarian and visionary in the field of social work. Dr. Gary Michelson, whose innovation as one of the country’s leading orthopedic spinal surgeons has revolutionized this field. Mark Ridley Thomas, a pillar of local and state government for over 25 years. David Ho whose work in AIDS research led him to be TIME Magazine’s Man of the Year for 1996. And one of the great actors of our time, Academy-Award winning actress Dame Helen Mirren.
And then there’s me. Will Ferrell, whose achievements include running naked through the city of Montrose in Old School. Montrose in the house, alright. Running around in my underwear and racing helmet, thinking that I’m on fire as Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights. Running around in Elf tights eating gum off the ground and playing cowbell. I think my fellow doctorates would agree based on our achievements we are all on equal footing.
I want the university to know that I do not take this prestigious honor lightly. I’ve already instructed my wife and my children, from this point on, they have to address me as Dr. Ferrell. There will be no exceptions. Especially at our children’s various school functions and when opening Christmas presents. ‘Yay, we got the new Xbox, thank you Dad! I mean, Dr. Ferrell.’
I’ve been informed that I can now perform minimally invasive surgery at any time or any place, even if people don’t want it. In fact, I am legally obligated to perform minor surgery at the end of today’s ceremonies, or my doctor’s degree will be revoked. So if anyone has a sore tooth that needs to be removed or wants hernia surgery, please meet me at the “surgery center” – by “surgery center” I mean a windowless van I have parked over by the Coliseum.
The next time I’m flying and they ask if there’s a doctor on board, I can now confidently leap to my feet and scream, ‘I’m a doctor, what can I do? Yes, no problem, I can absolutely deliver that baby.’ Hopefully it will be on United Airlines, in which I will be immediately be subdued and dragged off the aircraft, which we all know will be recorded on someone’s iPhone and put on YouTube. You will hear me say, “Call Max Nikias, President of USC. He told me I’m a doctor.’ Rest assured, President Nikias, I will use my powers wisely.
Although this is my first commencement address I have delivered to an actual university, this is not my first commencement speech. The institutions to which I have spoken at previously include Bryman School of Nursing, DeVry Technical School, Debbie Dudeson School of Trucking, University of Phoenix, Hollywood DJ Academy and Trump University. I am still waiting to get paid from Trump University. In fact, it turns out I owe Trump University money for the honor to speak at Trump University.
You are the graduating class of 2017. And by every statistical analysis you are collectively considered the strongest class ever to graduate from this university. All of you have excelled in various courses of study. All of you, except for four students. And you know exactly who you are. If you would care to stand and reveal yourself right now, that would be great, those four students. There’s one. Two. Three, four, five, six, eight, more like 20. Very honest of you.
It is incredibly surreal, one might even say unbelievable, that I get to deliver this address to you. As a freshman in the fall of 1986, if you were to come up to me and say that in the year 2017 you, Will Ferrell, will be delivering the commencement address for USC, I would have hugged you with tears in my eyes.
I then would have asked this person from the future, ‘Does that mean I graduated?’
‘Yes, you did,’ says the person from the future.
‘What else can you tell me about the future?’
Future person turns to me and says, ‘I can tell you that you will become one of the most famous alumni in this university, mentioned in the same breath as John Wayne, Neil Armstrong and Rob Kardashian. You will be referenced in rap songs from Kanye West, to Little Wayne to Drake. Nas will say, ‘Get me real bonkers like Will Ferrell on cat tranquilizer.’’
‘Is that it?’ I would ask.
‘Yes, that sums it up. Except one other thing – in the future there will be something called Shake Shack. It will start in New York and then come to LA and people will wait hours for a milkshake that is definitely good but not that good that you should wait two hours.’
So yes, if I had heard all of that I would have been incredulous at best. But it turns out I did graduate in 1990 with a degree in Sports Information. Yes. You heard me, Sports Information. A program so difficult, so arduous, that they discontinued the major eight years after I left. Those of us with Sports Information degrees are an elite group. We are like the Navy Seals of USC graduates. There are very few of us and there was a high dropout rate.
So I graduate and I immediately get a job right out of college working for ESPN, right? Wrong. No, I moved right back home. Back home to the mean streets of Irvine, California. Yes. Irvine always gets that response. Pretty great success story, right? Yeah, I moved back home for a solid two years, I might add. And I was lucky, actually. Lucky that I had a very supportive and understanding mother, who is sitting out there in the crowd, who let me move back home. And she recognized that while I had an interest in pursuing sportscasting, my gut was telling me that I really wanted to pursue something else. And that something else was comedy.
For you see, the seeds for this journey were planted right here on this campus. This campus was a theater or testing lab if you will. I was always trying to make my friends laugh whenever I could find a moment. I had a work-study job at the humanities audiovisual department that would allow me to take off from time to time. By allow me, I mean I would just leave and they didn’t notice. So I would literally leave my job if I knew friends were attending class close by and crash a lecture while in character. My good buddy Emil, who’s also here today – Emil, in the house – Emil told me one day that I should crash his Thematic Options literature class one day. So I cobbled together a janitor’s outfit complete with work gloves, safety goggles, a dangling lit cigarette, and a bucket full of cleaning supplies. And then I proceeded to walk into the class, interrupting the lecture, informing the professor that I’d just been sent from Physical Plant to clean up a student’s vomit. True story.
What Emil neglected to tell me was that the professor of his class was Ronald Gottesman, a professor who co-edited the Norton Anthology of American literature. Needless to say a big-time guy. A month after visiting my friend’s class as a janitor, I was walking through the campus when someone grabbed me by the shoulder and it was Ron Gottesman. I thought for sure he was going to tell me to never do that again. Instead what he told me was that he loved my barging in on his class and that he thought it was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen and would I please do it again? So on invitation from Professor Gottesman I would barge in on his lecture class from time to time as the guy from Physical Plant coming by to check on things, and the professor would joyfully play along.
One time I got my hands on a power drill and I just stood outside the classroom door operating the drill for a good minute. Unbeknownst to me, Professor Gottesman was wondering aloud to his class, 'I wonder if we’re about to get a visit from our Physical Plant guy?' I then walked in as if on cue and the whole class erupted in laughter. After leaving, Professor Gottesman then weaved the surprise visit into his lecture on Walt Whitman and the Leaves of Grass. Moments like these encouraged me to think maybe I was funny to whole groups of people who didn’t know me, and this wonderful professor had no idea how his encouragement of me — to come and interrupt his class no less — was enough to give myself permission to be silly and weird.
My senior year I would discover a comedy and improv troupe called the Groundlings located on Melrose Avenue. This was the theater company and school that gave the starts to Laraine Newman, Phil Hartman, John Lovitz, Pee Wee Herman, Conan O’Brien, Lisa Kudrow to name a few. Later it would become my home where I would meet the likes of Chris Kattan, Cheri O’Teri, Ana Gasteyer, Chris Parnell, Maya Rudolph, Will Forte and Kristin Wiig. I went to one of their shows during the spring semester of my senior year and in fact got pulled up onstage during an audience participation sketch. I was so afraid and awestruck at what the actors were doing that I didn’t utter a word. And even in this moment of abject fear and total failure I found it to be thrilling to be on that stage. I then knew I wanted to be a comedic actor.
So starting in the fall of 1991, for the next three and a half years I was taking classes and performing in various shows at the Groundlings and around Los Angeles. I was even trying my hand at stand-up comedy. Not great stand-up, mind you, but enough material to get myself up in front of strangers. I would work the phones to invite all my SC friends to places like Nino’s Italian Restaurant in Long Beach, the San Juan Depot in San Juan, Capistrano, and the Cannery in Newport Beach. And those members of my Trojan family would always show up. My stand-up act was based mostly on material derived from watching old episodes of Star Trek. My opening joke was to sing the opening theme to Star Trek. [Sings]
Thank you. Not even funny, just weird. But I didn’t care, I was just trying to throw as many darts at the dart board, hoping that one would eventually stick. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t extremely confident that I would succeed during this time period, and after moving back to LA there were many a night where in my LA apartment, I would sit down to a meal of spaghetti topped with mustard, with only $20 in my checking account and I would think to myself, ‘Oh well I can always be a substitute schoolteacher.’ And yes, I was afraid. You’re never not afraid. I’m still afraid. I was afraid to write this speech. And now, I’m just realizing how many people are watching me right now, and it’s scary. Can you please look away while I deliver the rest of the speech?
But my fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of what if. What if I never tried at all?
By the spring of 1995 producers from Saturday Night Live had come to see the current show at the Groundlings. After two harrowing auditions and two meetings with executive producer Lorne Michaels, which all took place over the course of six weeks, I got the word I was hired to the cast of Saturday Night Live for the ‘95-‘96 season.
I couldn’t believe it. And even though I went on to enjoy seven seasons on the show, it was rocky beginning for me. After my first show, one reviewer referred to me as ‘the most annoying newcomer of the new cast.’ Someone showed this to me and I promptly put it up on the wall in my office, reminding myself that to some people I will be annoying. Some people will not think I’m funny, and that that’s okay. One woman wrote to me and said she hated my portrayal of George W. Bush. It was mean-spirited, not funny and besides you have a fat face. I wrote her back and I said, I appreciate your letter and she was entitled to her opinion, but that my job as a comedian especially on a show like Saturday Night Live was to hold up a mirror to our political leaders and engage from time to time in satirical reflection. As for my fat face, you are 100% right. I’m trying to work on that. Please don’t hesitate to write me again if you feel like I’ve lost some weight in my face.
The venerable television critic for the Washington Post Tom Shales came up to me during my last season of the show. He told me congratulations on my time at the show and then he apologized for things he had written about me in some of his early reviews of my work. I paused for a second before I spoke, and then I said, ‘How dare you, you son of a bitch?’ I could tell this startled him, and then I told him I was kidding, and that I’d never read any of his reviews. It was true, I hadn’t read his reviews. In fact I didn’t read any reviews because once again, I was too busy throwing darts at the dartboard, all the while facing my fears.
Even as I left SNL, none of the studios were willing to take a chance on me as a comedy star. It took us three years of shopping Anchorman around before anyone would make it. When I left SNL all I really had was a movie called Old School that wouldn’t be released for another year, and a sub-par script that needed a huge rewrite about a man raised by elves at the North Pole.
Even now I still lose out on parts that I want so desperately. My most painful example was losing the role of Queen Elizabeth in the film The Queen. Apparently it came down to two actors, myself and Helen Mirren. The rest is history. Dame Helen Mirren, you stole my Oscar!
Now one may look at me as having great success, which I have in the strictest sense of the word, and don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and I feel so fortunate to get to entertain people. But to me, my definition of success is my 16-and-a-half-year marriage to my beautiful and talented wife, Vivica. Success are my three amazing sons, Magnus, 13, Matthias, 10 and Axel age 7. Right there, stand up guys, take a bow, there you go.
Success to me is my involvement in the charity Cancer for College, which gives college scholarships to cancer survivors, started by my great friend and SC alum Craig Pollard, a two-time cancer survivor himself, who thought of the charity while we were fraternity brothers at the Delt house, up on West Adams. Craig was also one of the members of my Trojan family sitting front-and-center at my bad stand-up comedy shows, cheering me on.
No matter how cliché it may sound you will never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself. Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence, and that’s what Viv and I try to teach our boys. Hey Matthias, get your hands of Axel right now! Stop it. I can see you. Okay? Dr. Ferrell’s watching you.
To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.
Class of 2017, I just want you to know you will never be alone on whatever path you may choose. If you do have a moment where you feel a little down just think of the support you have from this great Trojan family and imagine me, literally picture my face, singing this song gently into your ear: If I should stay, I would only be in your way. So I’ll go, but I know, I’ll think of you every step of the way. And I will always love you, will always love you, will always love you, Class of 2017. And I will always love you.
Thank you, fight on!
May 1983, Mills College, Oakland, California, USA
I want to thank the Mills College Class of ’83 for offering me a rare chance: to speak aloud in public in the language of women.
I know there are men graduating, and I don’t mean to exclude them, far from it. There is a Greek tragedy where the Greek says to the foreigner, “If you don’t understand Greek, please signify by nodding.” Anyhow, commencements are usually operated under the unspoken agreement that everybody graduating is either male or ought to be. That’s why we are all wearing these twelfth-century dresses that look so great on men and make women look either like a mushroom or a pregnant stork. Intellectual tradition is male. Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is the men’s language. Of course women learn it. We’re not dumb. If you can tell Margaret Thatcher from Ronald Reagan, or Indira Gandhi from General Somoza, by anything they say, tell me how. This is a man’s world, so it talks a man’s language. The words are all words of power. You’ve come a long way, baby, but no way is long enough. You can’t even get there by selling yourself out: because there is theirs, not yours.
Maybe we’ve had enough words of power and talk about the battle of life. Maybe we need some words of weakness. Instead of saying now that I hope you will all go forth from this ivory tower of college into the Real World and forge a triumphant career or at least help your husband to and keep our country strong and be a success in everything - instead of talking about power, what if I talked like a woman right here in public? It won’t sound right. It’s going to sound terrible. What if I said what I hope for you is first, if — only if — you want kids, I hope you have them. Not hordes of them. A couple, enough. I hope they’re beautiful. I hope you and they have enough to eat, and a place to be warm and clean in, and friends, and work you like doing. Well, is that what you went to college for? Is that all? What about success?
Success is somebody else’s failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.
Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.
What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.
Well, we’re already foreigners. Women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that’s their country; let’s explore our own. I’m not talking about sex; that’s a whole other universe, where every man and woman is on their own. I’m talking about society, the so-called man’s world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority, and power. If we want to live as women, some separatism is forced upon us: Mills College is a wise embodiment of that separatism. The war-games world wasn’t made by us or for us; we can’t even breathe the air there without masks. And if you put the mask on you’ll have a hard time getting it off. So how about going on doing things our own way, as to some extent you did here at Mills? Not for men and the male power hierarchy — that’s their game. Not against men, either — that’s still playing by their rules. But with any men who are with us: that’s our game. Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Machoman or serve him? Why should she live her life on his terms?
Machoman is afraid of our terms, which are not all rational, positive, competitive, etc. And so he has taught us to despise and deny them. In our society, women have lived, and have been despised for living, the whole side of life that includes and takes responsibility for helplessness, weakness, and illness, for the irrational and the irreparable, for all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean — the valley of the shadow, the deep, the depths of life. All that the Warrior denies and refuses is left to us and the men who share it with us and therefore, like us, can’t play doctor, only nurse, can’t be warriors, only civilians, can’t be chiefs, only indians. Well so that is our country. The night side of our country. If there is a day side to it, high sierras, prairies of bright grass, we only know pioneers’ tales about it, we haven’t got there yet. We’re never going to get there by imitating Machoman. We are only going to get there by going our own way, by living there, by living through the night in our own country.
So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you’re good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you that it’s second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing — instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.
16 May 2016, University Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, USA
Thank you President Gutmann, MC Provost, Board Of Trustees, Faculty, Family, Mister Vice President, Undergrads of the 4 Penn schools of Hufflepuff, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Gryffindor, and dear exhausted, exhilarated, terrified graduates of the class of 2016.
I begin with an apology.
I am the writer of Hamilton: An American Musical. Every word in the show—and there are over 22,000 words in the show—were chosen and put in a really specific order by me. So I am painfully aware that neither Philly nor the great state of Pennsylvania is mentioned in Hamilton, with the exception of ONE couplet in the song Hurricane, where Hamilton sings:
“I WROTE MY WAY OUT OF HELL
I WROTE MY WAY TO REVOLUTION,
I WAS LOUDER THAN THE CRACK IN THE BELL.”
That’s it! One blink and you miss it Liberty Bell reference!
I am also painfully aware that this commencement address is being livestreamed and disseminated all over the world instantly. In fact, “painfully aware” is pretty much my default state. “Oh yeah, that’s Lin, he’s…PAINfully aware.”
So, with the eyes of the world and history on us all, I’d like to correct the record and point out that a few parts in Hamilton: An American the Musical actually took place in Pennsylvania.
The Battle of Monmouth, wherein General Charles Lee, in our show, “S’ed the Bed” and retreated against Washington’s orders. According to Lafayette, this was the only time he ever heard George Washington curse out loud. That’s right, the father of our country dropped his choicest profanity and F-bombs in Pennsylvania.
The Constitutional Convention, wherein Alexander Hamilton spoke extemporaneously for 6 hours in what is surely the most un-Tweet-able freestyle of all time, happened right here in Philly.
In fact, Alexander Hamilton lived at 79 South 3rd Street when he began his extramarital affair with Mariah Reynolds, creating the time-honored precedent of political sex scandals and mea culpas.
You guys, The Good Wife wouldn’t even EXIST if Hamilton hadn’t gotten the ball rolling on this dubious American tradition, right on South 3rd street, right near the Cosí.
Finally, I need to apologize on behalf of the historical Alexander Hamilton, because if he hadn’t sat down to dinner with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, desperate for support for his financial plan, Philadelphia might well still be the U.S. Capitol.
Hamilton traded Philly away in the most significant backroom deal in American history. As the guy who plays Hamilton every night, let me get into character for a moment and say, “My bad, Philadelphia.” Thank you.
But take the long view, Motown Phillly. Who really won that deal in the end? Look at D.C: it’s synonymous with institutional dysfunction, partisan infighting and political gridlock. YOU are known as the birthplace of Louisa May Alcott, Rocky Balboa, Boyz II Men, Betsy Ross, Will Smith, Isaac Asimov, Tina Fey, Cheesesteaks, and you can have SCRAPPLE, SOFT PRETZELS, and Wawa HOAGIES WHENEVER YOU WANT.
YOU WIN, PHILLY. YOU WIN EVERY TIME. WATER ICE.
The simple truth is this: Every story you choose to tell, by necessity, omits others from the larger narrative. One could write five totally different musicals from Hamilton’s eventful, singular American life, without ever overlapping incidents. For every detail I chose to dramatize, there are ten I left out. I include King George at the expense of Ben Franklin. I dramatize Angelica Schuyler’s intelligence and heart at the expense of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal. James Madison and Hamilton were friends and political allies, but their personal and political fallout occurs right on our act break, during intermission. My goal is to give you as much as an evening as musical entertainment can provide, and have you on your way at home slightly before Les Mis lets out next door.
This act of choosing—the stories we tell versus the stories we leave out—will reverberate across the rest of your life. Don’t believe me? Think about how you celebrated this senior week, and contrast that with the version you shared with the parents and grandparents sitting behind you.
Penn, don’t front. You’re a Playboy Magazine ranked Party school—you KNOW you did things this week that you’re never mentioning again. I know what you did this summer!
I’m going to tell you a story from my twenties today—a story I’ve never told in public before. I’ll tell you two stories actually. It’s my hope that it’ll be of use to you as you stare down the quarter life marker.
I am 20 years old, finishing my sophomore year at Wesleyan, and my girlfriend of four and a half years is home from her semester abroad. I cannot wait to see her again—she is my first love. I dread seeing her again—I’ve grown into my life without her. In her absence, with time and angst to spare, I have developed the first draft of my first full-length musical, an 80-minute one-act called In The Heights. I have also developed a blinding pain in my right shoulder, which I can’t seem to stop cracking. My girlfriend comes home. I am so happy to see her, even as my shoulder worsens. My mother takes me to a back specialist, ranked in New York Magazine, so you know he’s good.
He examines me, looks me dead in the eyes, and says, “There’s nothing wrong with your back. There will be if you keep cracking it, but what you have a nervous tic. Is there anything in your life that is causing you stress?” I burst into tears, in his office. He looks at me for a long time, as I’m crying, and get this—you’ll appreciate this Renee—he tells me the story of Giuseppe Verdi. A 19th century Italian composer of some note, who, in the space of a few short years, lost his wife and two young children to disease. He tells me that Verdi’s greatest works—Rigoletto, La Traviata—came not before, but after this season of Job, the darkest moments of his life. He looks me in the eyes and tells me, “You’re trying to avoid going through pain, or causing pain. I’m here to tell you that you’ll have to survive it if you want to be any kind of artist.”
I break up with my girlfriend that night.
I spend the summer in therapy. I tell a lot of stories I’ve never told before.
My father asks my mother, “What the hell kind of back doctor…Verdi? Really?”
I stop cracking my shoulder.
The story I had been telling myself—happy guy in a long-distance relationship with his high school sweetheart—was being physically rejected by my body via my shoulder. I’d never broken up with anyone before—in my head, I was a “good guy,” and “good guys” don’t break up with their significant others when one of them goes off to study abroad. I was trying to fit my life into a romantic narrative that was increasingly at odds with how I really felt. In retrospect, we both were.
What about her story? Well, it’s not mine to tell, but I can share this much: she began dating one of her good friends the following year of college. Fast-forward to present day: She is happily married to that same good friend, with two beautiful kids. In her story, I am not the angsty, shoulder-cracking tortured artist. I’m the obstacle in the way of the real love story. For you Office fans: They’re Jim and Pam, and I’m Roy.
Story #2: I am out of college, I am 23 years old, and Tommy Kail and I are meeting with a veteran theater producer. To pay rent I am a professional substitute teacher: at my old high school. Tommy is Audra McDonald’s assistant. Tommy is directing In The Heights, and with his genius brain in my corner, my 80-minute one-act is now two acts. This big deal theater producer has seen a reading we put on in the basement of The Drama Book Shop in mid-Manhattan, and he is giving us his thoughts. We hang on his every word, this is a big deal theater producer, and we are kids, desperate to get our show on. We are discussing the character of Nina Rosario, home from her first year at Stanford, the first in her family to go to college.
The big deal theater producer says:
“Now I know in your version Nina’s coming home with a secret from her parents: she’s lost her scholarship. The song is great, the actress is great. What I’m bumping up against, fellas, is that this doesn’t feel high STAKES enough. Scholarship? Big deal. What if she’s pregnant? What if her boyfriend at school hit her? What if she got caught with drugs? It doesn’t have to be any of those things, you’re the writer—but do you see what I’m getting at guys, a way to ramp up the stakes of your story?”
I resist the urge to crack my shoulder.
We get through the meeting and Tommy and I, again alone, look at each other. He knows what I’m going to say before I say it.
“Nina on drugs—“
“I was there.”
“But he wants to put our show up.”
Tommy looks at me.
“That’s not the story you want to tell and that’s not the show I want to direct. There are ways to raise the stakes that are not THAT. We’ll just keep working.”
If I could get in a time machine and watch any point in my life, it would be this moment. The moment where Tommy Kail looked at uncertain, frazzled me, desperate for a production and a life in this business, tempted, and said no for us. I keep subbing, he continues working for Audra, we keep working on In The Heights for five years until we find the right producers in Jill Furman and Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller. Until Philly native Quiara Hudes becomes my co-writer and reframes our show around a community instead of a love triangle. Until Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman take my songs and made them come to life through their orchestrations. It will be another five years before Heights reaches Broadway, exactly as we intended it.
And then the good part: Nina’s story that we fought to tell, keeps coming back around in my life. It comes around in letters, or in the countless young men and women who find me on the subway or on college campuses and take my hand and say, “You don’t understand. I was the first in my family to go to college, when I felt out of place like I was drowning I listened to “Breathe,” Nina’s song, and it got me through.” And I think to myself as these strangers tell me their Nina stories, “I do understand. And that sounds pretty high stakes to me.”
I know that many of you made miracles happen to get to this day. I know that parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and family behind you made miracles happen to be here. I know because my family made miracles happen for me to be standing here talking to you, telling stories.
Your stories are essential. Don’t believe me?
In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done.
My dear, terrified graduates—you are about to enter the most uncertain and thrilling period of your lives.
The stories you are about to live are the ones you will be telling your children and grandchildren and therapists.
They are the temp gigs and internships before you find your passion.
They are the cities you live in before the opportunity of a lifetime pops up halfway across the world.
They are the relationships in which you hang on for dear life even as your shoulder cracks in protest.
They are the times you say no to the good opportunities so you can say yes to the best opportunities.
They are what Verdi survived to bring us La Traviata.
They are the stories in which you figure out who you are.
There will be moments you remember and whole years you forget.
There will be times when you are Roy and times when you are Jim and Pam.
There will be blind alleys and one-night wonders and soul-crushing jobs and wake-up calls and crises of confidence and moments of transcendence when you are walking down the street and someone will thank you for telling your story because it resonated with their own.
I feel so honored to be a detail, a minor character in the story of your graduation day.
I feel so honored to bear witness to the beginning of your next chapter.
I’m painfully aware of what’s at stake.
I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
Thank you and congratulations to the Class of 2016.
14 May 2016, University of Berkeley, San Francisco, California, USA
Thank you, Marie. And thank you esteemed members of the faculty, proud parents, devoted friends, squirming siblings. Congratulations to all of you...and especially to the magnificent Berkeley graduating class of 2016!
It is a privilege to be here at Berkeley , which has produced so many Nobel Prize winners, Turing Award winners, astronauts, members of C ongress , Olympic gold medalists.... and that’s just the women! Berkeley has always been ahead of the times. In the 1960s, you led the Free Speech Movement. Back in those days, people used to say that with all the long hair, how do we even tell the boys from the girls? We now know the answer: manbuns.
Early on, Berkeley opened its doors to the entire population. When this campus opened i n 1873 , the class included 167 men and 22 2 women. It took my alma mater another ninety years to award a single degree to a single woman . One of the women who came here in search of opportunity was Rosalind Nuss . Roz grew up scrubbing floors in the Brooklyn boardinghouse where she lived . She was pulled out of high school by her parents to help support their family. One of her teachers insisted that her parents put her back in to school — and in 1937, she sat where you are sitting today an d received a Berkeley degree. Roz was my grandmother . She was a huge inspiration to me and I’m so grateful that Berkeley recognized her potential.
I want to take a moment to offer a special congratulations to the many here today who are the first generation in their families to graduate from college . What a remarkable achievement.
Today is a day of celebration. A day to celebrate all the hard work that got you to this moment. Today is a day of thanks. A day to thank those who helped you get here — nurtured you, taught you, cheered you on , and dried your tears. Or at least the ones who didn’t draw on you with a Sharpie when you fell asleep at a party.
Today is a day of reflection. Because today marks the end of one era of your life and the beginning of something new. A commencement address is meant to be a dance between youth and wisdom. You have the youth . Someone comes in to be the voice of wisdom — that’s supposed to be me.
I stand up here and tell you all the things I have learned in life , you throw your cap in the air , you let your 2 family take a million photos – don’t forget to post them on Instagram — and everyone goes home happy.
Today will be a bit different. We will still do the caps and you still have to do the photos . But I am not here to tell you all the things I’ve learned in life.
Today I will try to tell you what I learned in death. I have never spoken publicly about this before . It’s hard. B ut I will do my very best not to blow my nose on this beautiful Berkeley robe.
One year and thirteen days ago , I lost my husband , Dave . His death was sudden and unexpected . We were at a friend’s fiftieth birthday party in Mexico. I took a nap. Dave went to work out. What followed was the unthinkable — walking into a gym to find him lying on the floor . Flying home to tell my children that their father was gone . Watching his casket being lowered into the ground. For many months afterward, and at many times since , I was swallowed up in the deep fog of grief — what I think of as the void — an emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even to breathe.
Dave’s death changed me in very profound ways. I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface , and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void — or in the face of any challenge — you can choose joy and meaning.
I’m sharing this with you in the hopes that today, as you take the next step in your life, you can learn the lessons that I only learned in death. Lessons about hope, strength, and the light within us that will not be extinguished.
Everyone who has made it through Cal has already experienced some disappointment. You wanted an A but you got a B. O K , let’s be honest — you got an A -- but you ’ re still mad. You applied for an internship at Facebook, but you only got one from Google. She was the love of your life... but then she swiped left. Game of Thrones the show has diverged way too much from the books — and you bothered to read all four thousand three hundred and fifty -- two pages .
You will almost certainly face more and deeper adversity . There’s loss of opportunity: the job that doesn’t work out, the illness or accident that changes everything in an instant . There’s loss of dignity : the sharp sting of prejudice when it happens . There’s loss of love : the broken relationships that can ’t be fixed . And sometimes there’s loss of life itself. Some of you have already experienced the kind of tragedy and hardship that leave an indelible mark.
Last year, Radhika , the winner of the University Medal , spoke so beautifully about the sudden loss of her mother. The question is not if some of these things will happen to you. They will. oday I want to talk about what happens next . A bout the things you can do to overcome adversity , no matter what form it takes or when it hits you .
The easy days ahead of you will be easy. It is the hard days — the times that challenge you to your very core — that will determine who you are. You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive .
A few weeks after Dave died, I was talking to my friend Phil about a father -- son activity that Dave was not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave . I cried to him , “ But I want Dave.” Phil put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”
We all at some point live some form of option B. The question is: What do we do then? As a representative of Silicon Valley, I’m pleased to tell you there is data to learn from. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that there are three P ’ s — personalization, pervasiveness , and permanence — that are critical to how we bounce back from hardship .
The seeds of resilience are planted in the way we process the negative events in our lives . The first P is personalization — the belief that we are at fault. This is different from taking responsibility , which you should always do. This is the lesson that not everything that happens to us happens because of us. When Dave died, I had a very common reaction, which was to blame myself. He died in seconds from a cardiac arrhythmia . I poured over his medical records asking what I could have — or should have — done . It wasn’t until I learned about the three P ’ s that I accepted that I could not have prevented his death. His doctors had not identified his coronary artery disease . I was an economics major; how could I have ?
Studies show that getting past personalization can actually make you stronger. Teachers who knew they could do better after students failed adjust ed their methods and saw future classes go on to excel . College swimmers who underperformed but believed they were capable of swimming faster did . Not taking failures personally allows us to recover — and even to thrive.
The second P is pervasiveness — the belief that an event will affect all areas of your life . You know that song “Everything is awesome?” This is the flip : “ Everything is awful. ” There’s no place to run or hide from the all -- consuming sadness . The child psychologists I spoke to encouraged me to get my kids back to their routine as soon as possible .
So ten days after Dave died, they went back to school and I went back to work. I remember sitting in my first Facebook meeting in a deep, deep haze. All I could think was, “What is everyone talking about and how could this possibly matter? ”But then I got drawn into the discussion and for a second — a brief split second — I forgot about death .
That brief second helped me see that there were other things in my life that were not awful . My children and I were healthy. My friends and family were so loving and they carried us — quite literally at times. The loss of a partner often has severe negative financial consequences, especially for women. So many single mothers — and fathers — struggle to make ends meet or have jobs that don’t allow them the time they need to care for their children. I had financial security, the ability to take the time off I needed, and a job that I did not just believe in, but where it’s actually OK to spend all day on Facebook. Gradually , my children started sleeping through the night, crying less, playing more.
The third P is permanence — the belief that the sorrow will last forever. For months, no matter what I did, it felt like the crushing grief would always be there . We often project our current feelings out indefinitely — and experience what I think of as the second derivative of those feelings. We feel anxious — and then we feel anxious that we ’re anxious. We feel sad — and then we feel sad that we’re sad. Instead, we should accept our feelings — but recognize that they will not last forever.
My rabbi told me that time would heal but for now I should “lean in to the suck . ” It was good advice , but not really what I meant by “lean i n . ” None of you need me to explain the fourth P...which is, of course, pizza from Cheese Board.
But I wish I had known about the three P ’ s when I was your age . There were so many times these lessons would have helped . Day one of my first job out of college, my boss found out that I didn’t know how to enter data into Lotus 1 -- 2 -- 3. That’s a spreadsheet — ask your parents .
His mouth dropped open and he said, ‘I can’t believe you got this job without knowing that” — and then walked out of the room. I went home convinced that I was going to be fired. I thought I was terrible at everything... but it turns out I was only terrible at spreadsheets.
Under standing pervasiveness would have saved me a lot of anxiety that week. I wish I had known about permanence when I broke up with boyfriends . It would’ve been a comfort to know that feeling was not going to last forever, and if I was being honest with myself... neither were any of those relationships.
And I wish I had understood personalization when boyfriends broke up with me. Sometimes it’s not you — it really is them. I mean , that dude never showered. And all three P’s ganged up on me in my twenties after my first marriage ended in divorce . I thought at the time that no matter what I accomplished, I was a massive failure .
The three P ’ s are common emotional reaction s to so many things that happen to us — in our careers , our personal lives , and our relationships. You’re probably feeling one of them right 5 now about something in your life . But if you can recognize you are falling into these trap s , you can catch yourself. Just as our bodies have a physiological immune system, our brains have a psychological immune system — and there are steps you can take to help kick it into gear.
One day my friend Adam Grant, a psychologist, suggested that I think about how much worse things could be. This was completely counterintuitive; it seemed like the way to recover was to try to find positive thoughts.
“Worse?” I said. “Are you kidding me? How could things be worse?” His answer cut straight through me: “Dave could have had that same cardiac arrhythmia while he was driving your children.” Wow. The moment he said it, I was overwhelmingly grateful that the rest of my family was alive and health y. That gratitude overtook some of the grief .
Finding gratitude and appreciation is key to resilience . People who take the time to list things they are grateful for are happier and healthier . It turns out that counting your blessings can actually increase your blessings .
My New Year’s resolution this year is to write down three moments of joy before I go to bed each night. This simple practice has changed my life. Because no matter what happens each day, I go to sleep thinking of something cheerful . Try it . Start tonight when you have so many fun moments to list — although maybe do it before you hit Ki p’ s and can still remember what they are .
Last month , eleven days before the anniversary of Dave’s death, I broke down crying to a friend of mine. We were sitting — of all places — on a bathroom floor. I said: “ Eleven days. One year ago, he had eleven days left. And we had no idea.” We looked at each other through tears, and asked how we would live if we knew we had eleven days left.
As you graduate, can you ask yourselves to live as if you had eleven days left? I don’t mean blow everything off and party all the time — although tonight is an exception . I mean live with the understanding of how precious every single day would be . How precious every day actually is.
A few years ago, my mom had to have her hip replaced. When she was younger , she always walked without pain . But as her hip disintegrated, each step became painful. Now, even years after her operation , she is grateful for every step she takes without pain — something that never would have occurred to her before.
As I stand here today, a year after the worst day of my life, two things are true. I have a huge reservoir of sadness that is with me always — right here where I can touch it . I never knew I could cry so often — or so much. But I am also aware that I am walking without pain. For the first time, I am grateful for each breath in and out — grateful for the gift of life itself.
I used to celebrate my birthday every five years and friends ’ birthdays sometimes . Now I celebrate always .I used to go to sleep worrying about all the things I messed up that day — and trust me that list was often quite long. Now I try really hard to focus on each day’s moments of joy .
It is the greatest irony of my life that losing my husband helped me find deeper gratitude — gratitude for the kindness of my friends , the love of my family, the laughter of my children.
My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude — not just on the good days, like today, but on the hard ones, when you will really need it . There are so many moments of joy ahead of you. That trip you always wanted to take. A first kiss with someone you really like. The day you get a job doing something you truly believe in. Beating Stanford . (Go Bears ! ) All of these things will happen to you . Enjoy each and every one . I hope that you live your life — each precious day of it — with joy and meaning. I hope that you walk without pain — and that you are grateful for each step . An d when the challenges come , I hope you remember that anchored deep with in you is the ability to learn and grow.
You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are — and you just might become the very best version of yourself.
Class of 2016, as you leave Berkeley, build resilience . Build resilience in yourselves. When tragedy or disappointment strike , know that you have the ability to get through absolutely anything . I promise you do.
As the saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger than we ever imagined. Build resilient organizations . If anyone can do it , you can , because Berkeley is filled with people who want to make the world a better place. Never stop working to do so — whether it’s a boardroom that is not representative or a campus that ’ s not safe . Speak up, especially at institutions like this one , which you hold so dear . My favorite poster at work reads, “ Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem . ” When you see something that ’ s broken, go fix it. Build resilient communities .
We find our humanity — our will to live and our ability to love — in our connections to one another . Be there for your family and friends. And I mean in person. Not just in a message with a heart emoji . Lift each other up, help each other kick the shit out of option B — and celebrate each and every moment of joy. You have the whole world in front of you . I can’t wait to see what you do with it. Congratulations, and Go Bears!
26 May 2016, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Thank you, thank you, President Faust, and Paul Choi, thank you so much.
It’s an honor and a thrill to address this group of distinguished alumni and supportive friends and kvelling parents. We’ve all gathered to share in the joy of this day, so please join me in congratulating Harvard’s Class of 2016.
I can remember my own college graduation, which is easy, since it was only 14 years ago. How many of you took 37 years to graduate? Because, like most of you, I began college in my teens, but sophomore year, I was offered my dream job at Universal Studios, so I dropped out. I told my parents if my movie career didn’t go well, I’d re-enroll.
It went all right.
But eventually, I returned for one big reason. Most people go to college for an education, and some go for their parents, but I went for my kids. I’m the father of seven, and I kept insisting on the importance of going to college, but I hadn’t walked the walk. So, in my fifties, I re-enrolled at Cal State -- Long Beach, and I earned my degree.
I just have to add: It helped that they gave me course credit in paleontology for the work I did on Jurassic Park. That’s three units for Jurassic Park, thank you.
Well I left college because I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and some of you know, too -- but some of you don’t. Or maybe you thought you knew but are now questioning that choice. Maybe you’re sitting there trying to figure out how to tell your parents that you want to be a doctor and not a comedy writer.
Well, what you choose to do next is what we call in the movies the ‘character-defining moment.’ Now, these are moments you’re very familiar with, like in the last Star Wars: The Force Awakens, when Rey realizes the force is with her. Or Indiana Jones choosing mission over fear by jumping over a pile of snakes.
Now in a two-hour movie, you get a handful of character-defining moments, but in real life, you face them every day. Life is one strong, long string of character-defining moments. And I was lucky that at 18 I knew what I exactly wanted to do. But I didn’t know who I was. How could I? And how could any of us? Because for the first 25 years of our lives, we are trained to listen to voices that are not our own. Parents and professors fill our heads with wisdom and information, and then employers and mentors take their place and explain how this world really works.
And usually these voices of authority make sense, but sometimes, doubt starts to creep into our heads and into our hearts. And even when we think, ‘that’s not quite how I see the world,’ it’s kind of easier to just to nod in agreement and go along, and for a while, I let that going along define my character. Because I was repressing my own point of view, because like in that Nilsson song, ‘Everybody was talkin’ at me, so I couldn’t hear the echoes of my mind.’
And at first, the internal voice I needed to listen to was hardly audible, and it was hardly noticeable -- kind of like me in high school. But then I started paying more attention, and my intuition kicked in.
And I want to be clear that your intuition is different from your conscience. They work in tandem, but here’s the distinction: Your conscience shouts, ‘here’s what you should do,’ while your intuition whispers, ‘here’s what you could do.’ Listen to that voice that tells you what you could do. Nothing will define your character more than that.
Because once I turned to my intuition, and I tuned into it, certain projects began to pull me into them, and others, I turned away from.
And up until the 1980s, my movies were mostly, I guess what you could call ‘escapist.’ And I don’t dismiss any of these movies -- not even 1941. Not even that one. And many of these early films reflected the values that I cared deeply about, and I still do. But I was in a celluloid bubble, because I’d cut my education short, my worldview was limited to what I could dream up in my head, not what the world could teach me.
But then I directed The Color Purple. And this one film opened my eyes to experiences that I never could have imagined, and yet were all too real. This story was filled with deep pain and deeper truths, like when Shug Avery says, ‘Everything wants to be loved.’ My gut, which was my intuition, told me that more people needed to meet these characters and experience these truths. And while making that film, I realized that a movie could also be a mission.
I hope all of you find that sense of mission. Don’t turn away from what’s painful. Examine it. Challenge it.
My job is to create a world that lasts two hours. Your job is to create a world that lasts forever. You are the future innovators, motivators, leaders and caretakers.
And the way you create a better future is by studying the past. Jurassic Park writer Michael Crichton, who graduated from both this college and this medical school, liked to quote a favorite professor of his who said that if you didn’t know history, you didn’t know anything. You were a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree. So history majors: Good choice, you’re in great shape...Not in the job market, but culturally.
The rest of us have to make a little effort. Social media that we’re inundated and swarmed with is about the here and now. But I’ve been fighting and fighting inside my own family to get all my kids to look behind them, to look at what already has happened. Because to understand who they are is to understand who were were, and who their grandparents were, and then, what this country was like when they emigrated here. We are a nation of immigrants -- at least for now.
So to me, this means we all have to tell our own stories. We have so many stories to tell. Talk to your parents and your grandparents, if you can, and ask them about their stories. And I promise you, like I have promised my kids, you will not be bored.
And that’s why I so often make movies based on real-life events. I look to history not to be didactic, ‘cause that’s just a bonus, but I look because the past is filled with the greatest stories that have ever been told. Heroes and villains are not literary constructs, but they’re at the heart of all history.
And again, this is why it’s so important to listen to your internal whisper. It’s the same one that compelled Abraham Lincoln and Oskar Schindler to make the correct moral choices. In your defining moments, do not let your morals be swayed by convenience or expediency. Sticking to your character requires a lot of courage. And to be courageous, you’re going to need a lot of support.
And if you’re lucky, you have parents like mine. I consider my mom my lucky charm. And when I was 12 years old, my father handed me a movie camera, the tool that allowed me to make sense of this world. And I am so grateful to him for that. And I am grateful that he’s here at Harvard, sitting right down there.
My dad is 99 years old, which means he’s only one year younger than Widener Library. But unlike Widener, he’s had zero cosmetic work. And dad, there’s a lady behind you, also 99, and I’ll introduce you after this is over, okay?
But look, if your family’s not always available, there’s backup. Near the end of It’s a Wonderful Life -- you remember that movie, It’s a Wonderful Life? Clarence the Angel inscribes a book with this: “No man is a failure who has friends.” And I hope you hang on to the friendships you’ve made here at Harvard. And among your friends, I hope you find someone you want to share your life with. I imagine some of you in this yard may be a tad cynical, but I want to be unapologetically sentimental. I spoke about the importance of intuition and how there’s no greater voice to follow. That is, until you meet the love of your life. And this is what happened when I met and married Kate, and that became the greatest character-defining moment of my life.
Love, support, courage, intuition. All of these things are in your hero’s quiver, but still, a hero needs one more thing: A hero needs a villain to vanquish. And you’re all in luck. This world is full of monsters. And there’s racism, homophobia, ethnic hatred, class hatred, there’s political hatred, and there’s religious hatred.
As a kid, I was bullied -- for being Jewish. This was upsetting, but compared to what my parents and grandparents had faced, it felt tame. Because we truly believed that anti-Semitism was fading. And we were wrong. Over the last two years, nearly 20,000 Jews have left Europe to find higher ground. And earlier this year, I was at the Israeli embassy when President Obama stated the sad truth. He said: ‘We must confront the reality that around the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise. We cannot deny it.’
My own desire to confront that reality compelled me to start, in 1994, the Shoah Foundation. And since then, we’ve spoken to over 53,000 Holocaust survivors and witnesses in 63 countries and taken all their video testimonies. And we’re now gathering testimonies from genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia and Nanking. Because we must never forget that the inconceivable doesn’t happen -- it happens frequently. Atrocities are happening right now. And so we wonder not just, ‘When will this hatred end?’ but, ‘How did it begin?’
Now, I don’t have to tell a crowd of Red Sox fans that we are wired for tribalism. But beyond rooting for the home team, tribalism has a much darker side. Instinctively and maybe even genetically, we divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ So the burning question must be: How do all of us together find the ‘we?’ How do we do that? There’s still so much work to be done, and sometimes I feel the work hasn’t even begun. And it’s not just anti-Semitism that’s surging -- Islamophobia’s on the rise, too. Because there’s no difference between anyone who is discriminated against, whether it’s the Muslims, or the Jews, or minorities on the border states, or the LGBT community -- it is all big one hate.
And to me, and, I think, to all of you, the only answer to more hate is more humanity. We gotta repair -- we have to replace fear with curiosity. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ -- we’ll find the ‘we’ by connecting with each other. And by believing that we’re members of the same tribe. And by feeling empathy for every soul -- even Yalies.
My son graduated from Yale, thank you …
But make sure this empathy isn’t just something that you feel. Make it something you act upon. That means vote. Peaceably protest. Speak up for those who can’t and speak up for those who may be shouting but aren’t being hard. Let your conscience shout as loud as it wants if you’re using it in the service of others.
And as an example of action in service of others, you need to look no further than this Hollywood-worthy backdrop of Memorial Church. Its south wall bears the names of Harvard alumni -- like President Faust has already mentioned -- students and faculty members, who gave their lives in World War II. All told, 697 souls, who once tread the ground where stand now, were lost. And at a service in this church in late 1945, Harvard President James Conant -- which President Faust also mentioned -- honored the brave and called upon the community to ‘reflect the radiance of their deeds.’
Seventy years later, this message still holds true. Because their sacrifice is not a debt that can be repaid in a single generation. It must be repaid with every generation. Just as we must never forget the atrocities, we must never forget those who fought for freedom. So as you leave this college and head out into the world, continue please to ‘reflect the radiance of their deeds,’ or as Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan would say, “Earn this.”
And please stay connected. Please never lose eye contact. This may not be a lesson you want to hear from a person who creates media, but we are spending more time looking down at our devices than we are looking in each other’s eyes. So, forgive me, but let’s start right now. Everyone here, please find someone’s eyes to look into. Students, and alumni and you too, President Faust, all of you, turn to someone you don’t know or don’t know very well. They may be standing behind you, or a couple of rows ahead. Just let your eyes meet. That’s it. That emotion you’re feeling is our shared humanity mixed in with a little social discomfort.
But, if you remember nothing else from today, I hope you remember this moment of human connection. And I hope you all had a lot of that over the past four years. Because today you start down the path of becoming the generation on which the next generation stands. And I’ve imagined many possible futures in my films, but you will determine the actual future. And I hope that it’s filled with justice and peace.
And finally, I wish you all a true, Hollywood-style happy ending. I hope you outrun the T. rex, catch the criminal and for your parents’ sake, maybe every now and then, just like E.T.: Go home. Thank you.
22 May 2016, Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Thank you. Thank you. I am deeply honored to be here today, and I am deeply humbled by this award. I appreciate the invitation to join you here today. Thank you, President McKenna, thank you. I really am.
You know, I can’t think of a better place to be celebrating education than at Suffolk University, a school founded in 1906 for the best possible reason, a deep belief that, because higher education matters, it should be available not just for the wealthy few, but for everyone. Exactly right, Suffolk. Exactly right. One hundred and ten years ago, Gleason Archer decided that the legal profession shouldn’t be limited only to students who could afford to go to school full time. He dedicated the money, the energy and the passion to make an evening law school available to working students in Boston. Suffolk would grow in many ways that Mr. Archer could never have dreamed, becoming a world-class university and a cornerstone for the city of Boston. Now it is big and vibrant. But Suffolk has never strayed from its original vision of being an excellent school that sends smart, tough, capable, hardworking people out into the world to make a real difference. Congratulations to Suffolk. We share your success.
And now, for the graduates, this is your day. After years of hard work and perseverance, your long wait is almost over. You’ve done it. You can now proudly take a zillion selfies wearing a cardboard hat. Stylin’. But seriously, Class of 2016, congratulations. You did it. You did it.
Fabulous. And to the parents and grandparents, to the families and friends, to the teachers and advisors, to Talia Sanchez and to her big brother, Ricardo, who works for me and dared me to embarrass her at this graduation, for all of you, this is a pretty amazing day. Without you, this day would not have been possible, so congratulations to all of you. Congratulations.
Now, graduation speakers have a lot of important responsibilities, but the main one is to give advice, ideally based on personal experience and, if we all get lucky, the advice will not be a big thumping cliché. That is actually a high bar. And I just want you all to know I did my homework on this. You can always tell the professor. I did my homework, and I considered a lot of possibilities here. I started with don’t live your life based on what other people think. Excellent advice. But Suffolk University runs one of the best public opinion polls in the country, so it seemed off-message. By the way, President McKenna, how’s this speech polling so far? Higher or lower than Donald Trump’s unfavorable numbers with women?
O.K., O.K. Advice. Lots of people turn to Robert Frost, who spent much of his life in Massachusetts. Take the road less traveled. I always liked that advice. But Jerry Seinfeld once pointed out: Sometimes, the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason. Hmm, good rebuttal. O.K., or how about: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Important lesson on being resilient. But when it comes to lemonade, could I really add anything to Beyoncé?
Now seriously, I know that graduation speakers are supposed to inspire, to offer good life advice, but I’ll be honest. My own journey here feels so unexpected—so full of mistakes and twists and turns. On the day of my graduation, I never imagined the most important things that were going to happen in my life. I never imagined I would be a law professor. I never imagined I would be a United States Senator. I never imagined I would be a blonde, but here I am. And I can tell you, it is life-changing to be a blonde. So my message to all the graduates this year is simple. Get ready because, even if you think you’ve got everything figured out, trust me, the most exciting parts of your life aren’t even on your radar screen.
From the time I was in second grade, I wanted to be a teacher, but that meant college. My family had no money for college, and besides—my mother didn’t think I should go to college. I should just find a nice man to marry and let him take care of me. That’s what she said. But I had a different plan. I was a high school debater, as was noted earlier. I got a full scholarship to college, and off I went. And I knew at that moment my path was set for life. And then I turned 19.
There were some details left out of the earlier story. I married the first boy I had ever dated who had parachuted back into my life, and in the blink of an eye, I took my mother’s advice. I said yes to the marriage proposal, gave up my scholarship, dropped out of school. I was really smart at 19. But the dream of being a teacher did not go away, so I found another school. I scraped together enough credits to graduate, and then I got the job of my dreams, teaching special-needs kids. And now I knew for sure that my path was set for life.
Except not exactly. Surprise, surprise, I was going to have a baby. And in those days, there were actually some pretty harsh rules about pregnant teachers. So good bye, beloved teaching job. I was at home with a little baby. I did all the usual stuff, and I watched a lot of television. And then I was inspired—all those lawyer shows. I figured, “How hard could that be?” Warren for the defense. So I decided to go to law school at a nearby public university, and then I was sure I was set on my path for life.
But surprise, surprise caught up with me again. I graduated from law school nine months pregnant. You will notice a pattern to this. That was at a time when employers were pretty iffy on the idea of a woman lawyer. And the idea of a pregnant, already the mother of a toddler woman lawyer was just plain old impossible. Nobody wanted me, and I mean that literally. Nobody would hire me.
But just as that plan went out the window, I got another call. Would I like to go back to teaching, this time teaching law? I started with night school, just like the original Suffolk Law, and I loved it. I truly loved it. In fact, I spent 30 years teaching at different schools about bankruptcy and contracts and finance law. I studied why working families were going broke and how big banks were raking in gigantic profits by cheating people. I wrote books and gave speeches and headed up commissions and did everything I could to try to get the law changed to help hardworking people. And I knew that this was the work I wanted to do forever. Now for sure I was set on my path for life.
And then, in 2008, a huge financial crash rocked this country. One day, truly out of the blue, I’m in my kitchen and the phone rings and it’s Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader of the Senate. And he calls and he says that Congress is putting together a panel about how the Treasury Department was handling the Wall Street bailout. And he asked if I’d come to Washington to try to bring some accountability to it. Now I was still a professor and I really had no idea why Senator Reid had called me and why he thought I was the right person for this job. But our country was in trouble.
I went to Washington, and I just did my best. The big problem at the heart of the crash was that Wall Street had made zillions of dollars in profits by ripping people off and there was no one with the power and the backbone to stop them. So I put together an idea for a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose only job would be to protect consumers from tricks and traps on credit cards and mortgages and student loans. Now, no surprise, the big banks and the credit cards hated this idea. Can we underline hated and put like little fiery things around it, little zaps coming out from it? They hated it. They spent more than a million dollars a day fighting against these financial reforms. They did that for over a year. And what did we have on our side? We didn’t have any money on our side. But we scrambled and we scratched and we fought back.
It was truly David taking on Goliath, 21st century style. But here’s the thing about it. We won, and that little Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is now the law. It is the law. Now, before you go home and say to yourself, “Good grief, I just clapped for a government agency at my graduation. Maybe graduating from college means I’m turning into a nerd.” Let me just point out to you that that little consumer agency has been up and running for nearly five years, and it has already forced the biggest financial institutions in this country to return more than $11 billion directly to the people they cheated. Now that’s government that works for the people. That’s what I like.
A few years later, my world turned upside down again. Running for office had not been on my bucket list, my shopping list or any other list. But there I was in 2012, busting my tail to be the first woman to be elected senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Now I know that’s all a long story and today it truly is all about you, but there is a point to that story. Actually, like most graduation speeches, there are three points to that story.
First, all the planning in the world can’t prepare you for the twists that are coming your way. You can’t predict it all. People will tell you to plan, to focus. They will tell you that if you want to succeed, you must stubbornly stay on your path no matter what. And they will be right. But they will also be wrong. So there’s my first point. I never planned to get married when I did, and I sure didn’t plan to get divorced. I never planned to become a lawyer or a law professor. No amount of focus when I was 20 would have envisioned me as a United States Senator standing on this stage. So there’s my first piece of advice for you. Don’t be so focused in your plans that you are unwilling to consider the unexpected.
My second piece of advice is that you have to figure out who you are. I grew up in a family that was barely hanging on to the ragged edge of the middle class. And that experience shaped who I am, not just on the surface, but deep down, down in my gut. It made me passionate about helping working families, families that were a lot like mine. Families whose kids may have all the potential in the world but don’t really have much of a chance to build a future. Families that have the system rigged against them. I figured out what I’m fighting for and no matter where I’ve gone and what I’ve done it has helped guide my life. And you have to do the same. You have to figure out who you are, and who you are isn’t about what job you have or what kind of car you drive. You have to think hard about what really matters to you.
What makes your heart flutter and your stomach clench? What makes you wake up ready to go, and what makes you grind your teeth? I’m not saying it’s easy. One of the hardest things to do in a world of Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat is to carve out time for yourself and not just the time you carve out following Selena Gomez on Instagram. I mean making it a priority to know yourself, to know what defines you, totally separate from what anybody else thinks. But here’s the thing: If you figure that out, nothing will be more valuable. Because knowing who you are is the compass that will help guide you to unexpected opportunity or when a setback blows your way. Knowing who you are is the centerboard that will help steady you when you’re afraid you may capsize.
And knowing who you are is also helpful for another reason, and this is my third piece of advice. You have to be willing to fight for what you believe in. You have to be willing to fight for what you want.
It is a tough world out there, and you’re going to encounter roadblocks and setbacks and even people who want you to fail. I couldn’t get a job when I graduated from law school. There were almost no women law professors when I started out. When I proposed a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, people told me I shouldn’t even try, that I should lower my sights.
And now that I’m in the Senate, I can tell you that Washington is full of people who say, “No, no, no,” and who are saying it in nastier and nastier and nastier ways. But knowing who you are will help you when it’s time to fight. Fight for the job you want, fight for the people who mean the most to you and fight for the kind of world you want to live in. It will help when people say that’s impossible or you can’t do that. Look, if you take the unexpected opportunities when they come up, if you know yourself, and if you fight for what you believe in, I can promise that you will live a life that is rich with meaning. You’ll be on the road less traveled. You won’t care what the polling says. And you’ll find that lemonade is terrific. And besides, if you don’t like drinking lemonade, you can always listen to Beyoncé.
It has been a great honor to share this celebration with you. Congratulations again on a job well done. Now get ready for a lifetime of unexpected adventures. Thank you.
22 May 2016, Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA
Thank you Mr. President. It’s great to be here. I wasn’t told I had to prepare anything, so I figured I’d just take questions for the next 15 minutes. Yes, you at the back, way down there.
No, no. I actually, uh … Although those of you who might remember me from my academic career here would know that that concept is not completely far-fetched. But I actually, look, I did prepare a speech today. Which, you know, I’m very excited, because this is the first time ever that I’ve been standing on the Tufts campus holding a writing assignment that I can actually say I completed on time. Yes, thank you.
So good morning and welcome, friends, family, faculty, most important, the graduating Class of 2016. Uh, yes. [Chuckles] Even though it’s interesting for me to call you the graduating Class of 2016. That is what you are, but you’re also individuals of course. Each one of you has a unique character, a unique back-story. If I were to play any one of you in a movie, which I admit is highly unlikely, but stranger things have happened. It’d be odd casting for me to be cast as a 21-year-old female graduating student, but I’m a character actor. I try not to limit myself creatively. But if I were to play any of you, it would take me hours, days, weeks to study each of you and learn your traits, your quirks, your likes, your dislikes, your hopes and dreams and fears.
So I was given the delightful and impossible task of standing up in front of all of you today and offering some words of wisdom that would somehow impact and affect each one of you as you move forward in your individual journey. Some truth to apply to about 1,300 bright, young, singular minds. So I wasn’t sure if that was possible. So like most Hollywood actors, I’ve decided just to talk about myself for the next 15 minutes. [Chuckles]
I was a pretty good student. [Laughs] I’m not kidding. They’ll be, they’ll be some points I’ll sneak in along the way. I was a pretty good student until 11th grade when a wonderful and horrible thing happened to me: I did a play. I was cast as King Arthur in Camelot, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but I thus lost all concentration for my studies. I desperately and passionately wanted to be an actor. And I actually booked a gig on my very first professional audition. It was a product called Brooklyn Gum. It was on Italian Television. And I thought, “Hey, this acting thing is easy. Why am I wasting my time on things like getting an education, when apparently I’m ready to go out there and become a professional right now?” Uh, P.S., I did not work again professionally for about seven years.
Of course my grades suffered. In fact, my transcript was so poor my senior year of high school that I did not get into any of the schools I applied to. I was wait-listed here at Tufts and at Brown and at Georgetown. Now, I think it would be safe to categorize my mother’s reaction to this as a “total freak-out.” She told me through gritted teeth that I was going to “get on a plane” … This is the way my mother talks, by the way, when she’s angry. “Appear at each one of these schools in person and make some kind of impassioned plea to get accepted into college.”
So still consumed with my love of acting, I looked at these interviews this way, I figured, well I want to make it as an actor, so I need to be convincing. So I thought of this as my first acting job. I really did. I told each school the same thing, that it’s always been my dream to attend “insert name of university here.” [Chuckles] And that I had a, I had a really rough personal time senior year, I broke both my elbows in a basketball accident, which was true, to be fair. [Chuckles] And that I had a lot of difficulty accomplishing my academic tasks. This did not work at all at Georgetown. The Brown guy was considering it, but the Tufts lady bought it hook, line, and sinker. [Chuckles] Which is why I’m standing before you today and not at Brown or at Georgetown.
Truth, the truth was though that I, I still did not see why I needed to attend school to follow my dream. Now, when I got here, I discovered that I loved acting and the theater more than I even knew. I spent almost all my time at the Arena Theater, either involved in productions or drama classes. Yes. [Laughs] Drama students. Just take it easy, guys. But just hanging out with the kindred spirits I met here at Tufts over in the theater. Now, I would love to report that once I found my niche, all of the sudden that was reflected in my grades and my transcript took an acadermic, academic … Or acadermic [Chuckles]… turn for the better.
But I’m here to tell you a different story. Neither one of those things happened. In actuality, I found myself here not really caring about whether I was given an A or an F or a pass or a fail. I studied what interested me, and I enjoyed it without really worrying too much if I was going to be rewarded for my efforts or not. I really was only concerned with what I was personally getting out of it.
Okay, so at this point, you might be asking yourself, “Where is he going with all this?” You might even be upset that I didn’t give you this speech on your first day here so that you could’ve saved yourself from a lifetime of being buried in student debt. Just bear with me. So there I was. I’m very grateful to find myself spiritually, mentally, and physically in an incredible institution of learning that offered me opportunities every day to follow my passions and interests. You know, when I actually went to class, that is.
It would also be nice to report that at this juncture, I was at the very least, able to complete my 4-year college curriculum and call myself a Tufts graduate. Again, not the case for me. When I marched with my graduating class in the spring of ’85, I received an empty box instead of a diploma. I was a few credits shy. Thank you, yes. Ever kind and compassionate, the administration here was good enough to let me participate in commencement, thus saving my mother yet another in what had become a series of freak-outs during my college career.
So I went to New York not long after that. I almost immediately, immediately got fired from a bartending job. Apparently out in the real world, they do not appreciate it if you don’t really care about how well you’re accomplishing your given tasks. And I, I moved to LA. Now the good news out there was I was lucky enough to audition for a bunch of movies and TV shows my first year. The bad news is that I booked exactly none of them.
So I sat down with my mother. This time I was the one freaking out, whining about the things that young, unemployed actors whine about and looking for some maternal encouragement. My mom listened to me attentively and then rather matter-of-factly stated, “Well, I just … ” This is my mom talking again. “I just don’t think anything is going to happen for you in your life until you get that degree.” And I said, “Mom, I think you’ve just placed a mother’s curse on my head, and I would like you to remove it.” To which she replied, “No.” And she walked out of the kitchen.
So with the help of Doc Collins, Sherwood Collins, who was then head of the drama department here, I coordinated the last two or three classes I would need to complete my drama major and I had the credits transferred. And that’s why I’m officially the Class of Tufts ’87. One of the upsides of which being that I can believably claim to be two years younger than I actually am, which is very handy for an actor in Hollywood.
Okay, so what is the point of all this? Um, first of all, and as much as it pains me to say this and please don’t tell her I said this, but my mom was right. Maybe not for the reasons that she thought. But completing my drama major two years late made me realize that even though I had taken my own weird and atypical and borderline bizarre path, I could follow that road and get to the same place that the world wanted me to get to, even if it … Even if I didn’t do it in a quote-on-quote “conventional” fashion. I could now put a diploma in that empty box. I don’t think it registered on me at the time, but the notion that I could do things my way, even if that was, uh, a way that no one had ever done before or would ever care to do again, it was valid and unique and ultimately viable.
I’ve always been a singular, strong-minded person, which is a nice way of saying that I’m very stubborn. And I don’t know about Brown or Georgetown, but I know that Tufts accepted me as the willful person that I was and allowed me to be that headstrong fellow for four years without ever robbing me of my individuality.
Now, and as an actor, and I believe in any profession, all you can really count on at the end of the day are your own instincts. What is right for somebody else, even if that somebody else is most of society, may not be right for you. Case in point, and this is one of my favorite Hollywood stories. I was talking to Dianne Wiest, who’s a wonderful actress. We were on the set of The Birdcage, where I played the Guatemalan house-boy, Agador Spartacus. [Character voice] Thank you. Okay, take it easy. You’re going to hear some advice from Agador later, so just relax.
Dianne had just won an Oscar for her work in Woody Allen’s film Bullets Over Broadway. And I asked her about her experience on that movie, and she said it was very nerve-wracking for her because about a week into shooting the movie, she asked, uh, Woody, “How’s it all looking?” And Woody Allen said [clears throat], “It’s, you know, it’s not good. Not good.” So she said, “You mean the whole film or just my performance?” He said, “No, just you, darling. Your character’s not … It’s just not working.” She said, “Well what’s the matter?” He said, “It’s your voice. It’s too high and it’s not convincing and, you know, it’s distracting.” So she said, “Well, should we re-shoot these scenes? Uh, should I deepen my voice or something?” He said, “Yeah. That’s probably a good idea. Let’s do that.” So and in that film, Dianne Wiest is speaking in a very baritone, hyper-intense way, covering people’s mouths and saying things like, “Don’t speak.” She won the Oscar.
Years later, I was talking to Mira Sorvino, another wonderful actress who won the Academy Award … Uh, Academy Award in Woody Allen’s film Mighty Aphrodite. In that movie, she plays a, a prostitute with a heart of gold, with an absurdly high voice. She literally sounds like Miss Piggy from The Muppets. And once again, about a week into shooting, she said there was a knock on her trailer door and there was Woody Allen. And he said to her, “I … So, listen. It’s not working.” She said, “The whole movie or just me?” “No, just you, darling. Just you.” She said, “What’s the matter?” And I, I swear this is true. He said, “Yeah, it’s your voice. It’s too high. It’s, you know, it’s silly and the scenes are not believable and, you know, let’s re-shoot. Let’s re-shoot.” So Mira Sorvino said she took this in and she had a good cry over it. And by the time lunch was over, she realized that she felt both comedically and dramatically that she, she believed in how she was playing the character and that the high voice she was using was really going to work. And she told Willy, Woody Allen as much, and that’s what ended up on, on film.
Now, and this is exciting for me, because I’m finally getting to my point. Um, it, it’s this. One day, a very powerful director can walk up to you and tell you to lower your voice, and if you do it, you will win an Oscar. And on another day, that very same director can walk up to you and tell you to lower your voice and if you don’t do it, you will win an Oscar. Now, how will you know which is the right decision? You know, in a moment like that, what you think anybody else might do will not help you. But if you calm, if you calm down, you will know what your instincts are telling you and you’ll know which way, right or wrong, that you must proceed.
So, as you may have gathered from my stories about my checkered past, my academic career is not why I’m standing before you today. Let’s face it, it’s because I’ve been on The Simpsons for at least 5 years longer than 95 percent of the graduating class has been alive. So in closing, I thought it’d be nice to let some of my Simpsons characters address you and give you their advice. Yes. When in doubt, always pull out the Simpsons voices. That’s my first bit of advice.
So let’s hear from Chief Wiggum first:
“Uh, thank you very much. Let’s see, advice, advice. Um, oh yeah, mmm. Kids, you didn’t hear this from me, but if a cop even thinks that you’re going to throw up in your backseat, they will immediately let you go. No crime is worth having to clean yak out of a seat-belt hole. Also, if you’re ever wearing a body camera, take it off when you go to the bathroom. That’ll end up on YouTube.”
Moe the bartender would like to say hi:
“Yeah, how you’s all doing out there? Uh, yeah, all right, I didn’t have the benefit of a fancy, highfalutin education. I, uh, I went to BU. Yeah, at least Tufts has a campus. I majored in not getting hit by cars on Commonwealth Avenue.”
Apu, the owner and proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart would also like to say hello:
“Uh, greetings to everybody here. Tufts students and myself, we have very much in common. We both worship an elephant. And there he is. It’s a tremendous honor for me to be staring at an elephant. Remember, please children, that in life, there is nothing that is not so disgusting that it cannot be sold on a heated roller at a nearly criminal mark-up.”
Uh, the old Sea Captain has something he’d like to say:
“Yar, kids remember, the sea is a cruel mistress, but Medford is worse, so you’ll be fine.”
Finally, Comic Book Guy would like to say:
“Hello. Life is like the Star Wars movies. Some of it is great, some of it sucks, but you have no choice but to sit through all of it. Very similar to the commencement speech you are listening to right now.”
You know, most of my Simpsons voices are either just good or bad impressions of people. I’m a mimic at heart. I became an actor as a result because I really wanted to be other people. I wanted to be anybody but myself, really. So imagine my shock and chagrin when I discovered that while doing impressions of people can be amusing and even hilarious, great actors, even great character actors, are willing to utterly be themselves, in front of an audience or a camera.
I didn’t realize it, but when I was your guys’ age, I had a belief that who I was and how I thought and how I felt was inherently uninteresting and flawed and not practical. Well maybe they were and maybe they still are. But it wasn’t until I embraced the person that I really was that my work as an actor got really interesting. I’m not suggesting that you ignore the laws of … The rules of society or the laws of common sense or the actual law or textbooks or manuals or your teachers or your advisors or the Internet or all the other sources that are happy to tell you the right and wrong way to go about doing almost everything. Just please be honest with yourself about what you think and how you feel about all of that, what you like and dislike, what angers you or scares you or saddens you or inspires you or delights you. Those feelings are called your instincts, and you ignore them at your own peril.
Or as Agador Spartacus would say it:
“Kids, just please be yourselves. And if you can’t be yourself, please be Judy Garland from that movie Meet Me in St. Louis. My God, she got to wear such cute outfits in that movie. Speaking of which, why do we have to be in these robes today? Uh, who is this flattering on? You can’t look good in this. I mean, maybe with shoulder pads and like a cinched belt it would all work. But I’m going to stop talking now, because the sooner we change out of these things the better, yes?”
Congratulations, Class of 2016. You did it.
Graduates, President Wagner, faculty, staff, parents, family — everyone who is here because these graduates are important to you: Welcome to a wonderful day for all of us. To the hundreds of public health students that I heard over here (cheers), ah, you came to the right school.
Why do we have commencement talks?
I’ll tell you. But first, a diversion. In science these days it’s expected that the speaker will start by listing conflicts of interest and then give some feeling that there will be transparency.
Well, my conflicts of interest? I love Emory. And I appreciate what Emory has done for me over the years. I appreciate the medical care Emory has given to President and Mrs. Carter, so that they’ve had a long and productive relationship. I appreciate the fact that Emory has made global health a university-wide priority. And I appreciate what Emory has done in the advancement of the treatment of Ebola and I appreciate what Tim Olsen’s team has done for eye care for people who survived Ebola in Africa.
As to transparency? I can tell you with great confidence that not a single syllable, not a single word, not a single thought that I give you today has not been plagiarized by me.
Now, why commencement talks? Well, 50 years ago, I was on the way to Africa with my family. We stopped for 10 days at the London School of Tropical Medicine to talk to teachers. One teacher was Dr. Robert Cochrane. He’d been the dean of the Vellore medical school in south India. He was the world’s authority on leprosy. And I had his book on leprosy and a list of questions. And I met with him, and after 20 minutes he stopped me. And he said, “My conscience would not permit me to allow you to go to Africa knowing as little about leprosy as you seem to know.”
And he took me to his house for three days and lectured and showed some of his 16,000 leprosy slides. And I tell you it was a thrill — at first. By the third day, I realized the passion to teach far surpasses the passion to learn.
And that is why we have commencement talks. The university can't stop. It tries to the end to teach.
G.K Chesterton said, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead.” Take awhile to think about that. We are all caught now in tradition today, and you for the next few minutes will have to pretend to learn and I have to pretend to teach.
But the difference is you are only going to invest minutes. It took me 80 years to write this talk. Eighty years, and I’m still big for my age. A talk entitled, “Lessons I am Still Desperately Trying to Learn.” I have fallen short in all of these categories, but I pass this on hoping you will do better. And I actually, I’m talking to myself because I hope I will do better.
Chapter 1: Obituaries
Hod Ogden was the head of health education at CDC — and he was a wordsmith, he had a way of putting words together. And he could write a poem or a song or a talk with very little effort. He wrote inspirational guides for other health educators, such as, “Remember always to be grateful for the millions of people everywhere whose despicable habits make health education necessary.” Another was, “He who lives by bread alone, needs sex education.”
On his deathbed he asked a colleague to write his obituary. He drifted into a coma and the word went forth that he had hours to live.
He surprised everyone by waking up the next morning and improving, and weeks later said it was such a joy to pick up old conversations. But he said the greatest joy of all was the chance to edit his obituary.
Every day we edit our obituaries. Sophocles said, “It’s not ‘til evening that you may know how good the day has been.” And it’s not until you get to be my age that you know how good a life has been. But consciously, daily edit your obituary so you realize that sooner. Edit with care and gusto.
Chapter 2: Life plans When my grandfather was born during the Civil War, over 150 years ago, everyone who knew the family knew his life plan the day he was born. He would be a farmer, like his father and his grandfather before him.
Times changed. When I was your age, everyone was telling me to develop a life plan. My advice? Avoid a life plan.
You cannot imagine what will be invented in the future. You cannot imagine the opportunities that will be presented.
You enter a world of infinite possibilities, confusing ideas, continuous changes. But a life plan will limit your future.
Chapter 3: Instead of a life plan, spend your time developing a life philosophy.
And then you will have tools to evaluate every fork in the road. What is truly important to you?
Tradition is the DNA of our beliefs. Question those traditions. Because we are slow to question traditions, we allowed slavery. Because we are slow to question traditions, we allowed gender inequities, a bias against sexual orientation, religious and cultural intolerance.
When this University was less than a decade old, the president of Emory chaired a committee that concluded it was okay for bishops to have slaves. So question the bias of traditions, the intolerance for other cultures; the fear of immigrants.
And question the certainty of those with a bias. The physicist Richard Feynman said, “Certainty is the Achilles heel of science" … and of religion and of politics.
Chapter 4: Integrate your world of knowledge.
E.O. Wilson, the biologist from Harvard, wrote a book called "Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge."
And he reminded us that the statement of C.P. Snow, that we would never bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities, he showed that it is not true. We do it every day. His definition of the word consilience is “the jumping together of knowledge” — I love that phrase, "the jumping together of knowledge."
The Earl of Shaftesbury also encouraged this harmony between the parts of knowledge and the whole of knowledge. He concluded that “good” is when you concentrated on the needs of the group, rather than your own needs. And he said the larger the group, the better you are. So you see why you want to be globalists. You can tell from what President Wagner said, this is a globalist institution. Einstein said nationalism is an infantile disease. He said it’s the measles of mankind.
Not just globalists, but be futurists. Be good ancestors. Remember that the children of the future have given you their proxy and they are asking desperately for you to make good decisions, to hope you will take climate change seriously. The opposition to climate change is not only fierce, but it’s powerful since many of them are in Congress.
Because each of us can do so little, it’s important that we do our part. If you follow basketball you may know the name Stacy King. His first year as a rookie in Chicago, he had a disastrous night where he made a single point. That night, Michael Jordan made 69 points. And after the game, a journalist needling Stacy King asked, “Could you comment on the game?” And Stacy King said, “I will always remember this as the night I combined with Michael Jordan for 70 points."
It may be a little contribution, but we each have to make that contribution.
The world will be confusing, making it hard to integrate knowledge. Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian, once told the story of someone breaking into a jewelry store — and stealing nothing. All they did was rearrange all the price tags.
And that’s the world you are going into — a world with distorted price tags. High prices for athletes, Wall Street bankers, CEOs; low prices for school teachers, public health workers, physical therapists.
The world keeps telling you to go for power, money, publicity. And they pass this off as wisdom. Resist it.
Years ago, Dr. Laney asked me to speak to the Emory Board of Trustees about what I hoped Emory would provide for my son, who was then a student at Emory.
The U.S. was about to go to war and that fervor was everyplace. It was hard to see a balance and the night before I was reading Kipling. And Kipling wrote:
And the talk slid North, and the talk slid South,
With the sliding puffs from the hookah-mouth,
Four things greater than all things are,
Women, and horses, and power, and war.
I knew it wasn’t right, I knew that was offensive, and I wondered. So that night I had the audacity to re-write Kipling, to what I wished he had said, to my son and to this school:
And the talk slid East, and the talk slid West,
And a student asked, "What life is best?"
Four things treasure, all else above,
Purpose, and Faith, and Wisdom, and Love.
Chapter 5: Actively seek mentors.
Identify people who have the traits and the ideas and the philosophies you want and get their help, always asking, “How best to live?” Borrow their wisdom.
I’m in my eighties. I still seek mentors. Many now are much younger than me. And last night I mentioned how I used to supervise Jim Curran and Jeff Koplan at CDC. And now they’ve turned the tables. They have become my mentors, both of them doing things I never could have imagined.
Chapter 6: The world is expanding.
The world is expanding in promise, in complexity, in the ability to enjoy it. For all of the problems in the world, I can tell you there has never been a better time to be alive and enjoy that.
Not only does your life expectancy increase six to seven hours a day — think of that, I used to wish I didn’t have to sleep and now I get the equivalent, six to seven hours a day. But what you can do in that hour or day or year or lifetime continues to increase.
So functional life expectancy goes up faster than calendar life expectancy.
An example: You have been exposed to as much knowledge in the last year at Emory as Aristotle was in his entire lifetime. Many of you will experience as many cultures in a year as Marco Polo encountered in a lifetime. And think what Shakespeare might have done with a word processor. He didn’t run out of ideas, he had a quill and a bottle of ink.
You will pack centuries into 80 calendar years.
Chapter 7: Seek equity.
I keep wondering why I was not born in a village in New Guinea. I am no self-made person. I was born in this country, urged on by family, traveled roads paid for by government, went to schools that required thousands of people to put together. (Schools that may seem antiquated to you: I went to a one-room schoolhouse. And I often tell students I was first in my class – in the slow group. And that’s funny if I tell you there were only three in my class.)
I avoided dying of tuberculosis, food poisoning, toxic water because of a government, rarely appreciated. Not because I deserved it but because of a coalition of government, religious institutions, and public and private groups, all conspiring to help me.
And your story is the same. So what can we do? Seek equity and justice so others can tell that story someday. And I’m going to place only one burden on you today, but it’s a big burden. The slavery of today is poverty and every one of us in this audience is a plantation owner, because people working at low wages subsidize the price of clothes and our food and our entertainment and our travel. And because I benefit it makes it so hard for me to want to change. But even $15 an hour — think of that — it’s a step forward, but it compromises life for millions of families.
Over 200 years ago, a bold figure in changing slavery was William Wilberforce, who worked for a quarter century until he finally got a bill through parliament that made it illegal to transport slaves. William Wilberforce was influenced, as a child, by the Wesley brothers.
We need William Wilberforces to combat poverty — and what a great thought to have graduates of Emory lead that the change. An institution also influenced by the Wesley brothers.
Gandhi said his idea of the Golden Rule was that he should not be able to enjoy what is denied to others, including education, health care and financial security. Can you even imagine what health care would look like in this country if Congress would be obligated to receive health care no better than the average?
Chapter 8: Seek serendipity.
We often think of serendipity as a random good fortune. The origin involves three princes and Serendip, the Persian name for Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.
A professor at Emory, Marion Creekmore, was once ambassador to Sri Lanka, or Serendip. The original story tells about a lost camel and how these three men, finding small clues that other people missed, figured out where the camel was. Today, this would be the equivalent of reading a Sherlock Holmes story. And I think this is the ability comedians have, to see things that we don’t see until they say them. Then suddenly, we realize they are funny.
We are told this can be learned by being in the moment and actually looking for connections. Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.”
Chapter 9: Civilization
We like to feel we are civilized. How do you measure that? The usual versions look at science, technology, wealth, education, happiness. Every measure fails, except one. But there is one measure of civilization and it comes down to how people treat each other.
Kindness is the basic ingredient:
At the request of a friend, I asked President Carter what his favorite Bible verse was and he sent back a verse from Ephesians: "Be ye kind one to another."
Five months ago we attended the funeral for my brother. And his son, Tom, related that when he went to college, he asked his dad, “What advice do you have?” And my brother said, “Be kind to people.”
Plato said, "Be kind to people, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
That is the ultimate measure of civilization: how people treat each other. It’s the measure of a civilized person, it’s the measure of a civilized university, it’s the measure of a civilized politician, the measure of a civilized state. And I am sad that in Georgia we’ve re-written Matthew 25 to say, “When, Lord, did we see you sick and not provide Medicaid?”
It is the measure of a civilized nation. The World Health Organization is criticized, correctly, for its response to Ebola. But you never hear people talk about how the United States and other countries every year reduce their budget.
We save more money in this country each year because of the eradication of smallpox than our dues to WHO, and yet we join countries to tell them to reduce their budget. One year, the U.S. was not going to pay its dues. I wrote an editorial and I quoted Dolly Parton, who said, “You would be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap.”
And then Ebola showed how much it cost to look this cheap.
How you treat people is the healing force in the world, and William Penn, the Quaker leader, said, “Healing the world is true religion.”
And finally, Chapter 10: Finding our way home.
In the book “Cutting for Stone,” there is an unforgettable line, and may this phrase stick with you forever: "Home is not where you are from. Home is where you are needed."
As I congratulate you on what you have done, I also hope we all find our way home.
15 May 2016, Annenberg School for Communication, UPenn, Pennsylvania, USA
I want to talk to you today about the soul. Not the soul as that immortal unit of religious mythology, for I am a nonbeliever. And not the soul as a pop-culture commodity, that voracious consumer of self-help chicken soup. I mean the soul simply as shorthand for the seismic core of personhood from which our beliefs, our values, and our actions radiate.
I live in New York, where something extraordinary happens every April. In the first days of spring, those days when the air turns from blistering to balmy, a certain gladness envelops the city — people actually look up from their screens while walking and strangers smile at each other. For a few short days, it’s like we remember how we can live and who we’re capable of being to one another.
I also practically live on my bike — that’s how I get everywhere — and the other week, on one of those first days of spring, I was riding from Brooklyn to Harlem. I had somewhere to be and was pedaling pretty fast — which I like doing and must admit I take a certain silly pride in — but I was also very much enjoying the ride and the river and the spring air that smelled of plum blossoms. And then, I sensed someone behind me in the bike path, catching up, going even faster than I was going. It suddenly felt somehow competitive. He was trying to overtake me. I pedaled faster, but he kept catching up. Eventually, he did overtake me — and I felt strangely defeated.
But as he cruised past me, I realized the guy was on an electric bike. I felt both a sort of redemption and a great sense of injustice — unfair motorized advantage, very demoralizing to the honest muscle-powered pedaler. But just as I was getting all self-righteously existential, I noticed something else — he had a restaurant’s name on his back. He was food delivery guy. He was rushing past me not because he was trying to slight me, or because he had some unfair competitive advantage in life, but because this was his daily strife — this is how this immigrant made his living.
My first response was to shame myself into gratitude for how fortunate I’ve been — because I too am an immigrant from a pretty poor country and it’s some miraculous confluence of choice and chance that has kept me from becoming a food delivery person on an electric bike in order to survive in New York City. And perhaps the guy has a more satisfying life than I do — perhaps he had a good mother and goes home to the love of his life and plays the violin at night. I don’t know, and I never will. But the point is that the second I begin comparing my pace to his, my life to his, I’m vacating my own experience of that spring day and ejecting myself into a sort of limbo of life that is neither mine nor his.
I grew up in Bulgaria and my early childhood was spent under a communist dictatorship. But for all its evils, communism had one silver lining — when everyone had very little, no one felt like somebody else was cruising past them motorized by privilege.
I came to Penn straight from Bulgaria, through that same confluence of chance and choice (and, yes, a lot of very, very hard work — I don’t want to minimize the importance of that, but I also don’t want to imply that people who end up on the underprivileged end of life haven’t worked hard enough, because this is one of our most oppressive cultural myth and reality is so much more complex). In any case: When I came to Penn, I had an experience very different from my childhood. Suddenly, as I was working four jobs to pay for school, I felt like everybody else was on an electric bike and I was just pedaling myself into the ground.
This, of course, is what happens in every environment densely populated by so-called peers — self-comparison becomes inevitable. Financial inequality was just my particular poison, but we do it along every imaginable axis of privilege and every dimension of identity — intelligence, beauty, athleticism, charisma that entrances the Van Pelt librarians into pardoning your late fees.
But here’s the thing about self-comparison: In addition to making you vacate your own experience, your own soul, your own life, in its extreme it breeds resignation. If we constantly feel that there is something more to be had — something that’s available to those with a certain advantage in life, but which remains out of reach for us — we come to feel helpless. And the most toxic byproduct of this helpless resignation is cynicism — that terrible habit of mind and orientation of spirit in which, out of hopelessness for our own situation, we grow embittered about how things are and about what’s possible in the world. Cynicism is a poverty of curiosity and imagination and ambition.
Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope — not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that.
In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater.
You are about to enter the ecosystem of cultural production. Most of you will go into journalism, media, policy, or some blurry blob of the increasingly amorphous Venn diagram of these forces that shape culture and public opinion. Whatever your specific vocation, your role as a creator of culture will be to help people discern what matters in the world and why by steering them away from the meaningless and toward the meaningful. E.B. White said that the role of the writer is to lift people up, not to lower them down, and I believe that’s the role of every journalist and artist and creator of culture.
Strive to be uncynical, to be a hope-giving force, to be a steward of substance. Choose to lift people up, not to lower them down — because it is a choice, always, and because in doing so you lift yourself up.
Develop an inner barometer for your own value. Resist pageviews and likes and retweets and all those silly-sounding quantification metrics that will be obsolete within the decade. Don’t hang the stability of your soul on them. They can’t tell you how much your work counts for and to whom. They can’t tell you who you are and what you’re worth. They are that demoralizing electric bike that makes you feel if only you could pedal faster — if only you could get more pageviews and likes and retweets — you’d be worthier of your own life.
You will enter a world where, whatever career you may choose or make for yourself — because never forget that there are jobs you can get and jobs you can invent — you will often face the choice of construction and destruction, of building up or tearing down.
Among our most universal human longings is to affect the world with our actions somehow, to leave an imprint with our existence. Both construction and destruction leave a mark and give us a sense of agency in the world. Now, destruction is necessary sometimes — damaged and damaging systems need to be demolished to clear the way for more enlivening ones. But destruction alone, without construction to follow it, is hapless and lazy. Construction is far more difficult, because it requires the capacity to imagine something new and better, and the willingness to exert ourselves toward building it, even at the risk of failure. But that is also far more satisfying in the end.
You may find your fate forked by construction and destruction frequently, in ways obvious or subtle. And you will have to choose between being the hammer-wielding vandal, who may attain more immediate results — more attention — by tearing things and people and ideas down, or the sculptor of culture, patiently chiseling at the bedrock of how things are to create something new and beautiful and imaginative following a nobler vision, your vision, of how things can and should be.
Some active forms of destruction are more obvious and therefore, to the moral and well-intentioned person, easier to resist. It’s hard not to notice that there’s a hammer before you and to refuse to pick it up. But there are passive forms of destruction far more difficult to detect and thus to safeguard against, and the most pernicious of them is cynicism.
Our culture has created a reward system in which you get points for tearing down rather than building up, and for besieging with criticism and derision those who dare to work and live from a place of constructive hope. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively, in yourself and in those you love and in the communication with which you shape culture. Cynicism, like all destruction, is easy, it’s lazy. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincere, active, constructive hope for the human spirit. This is the most potent antidote to cynicism, and it is an act of courage and resistance today.
It is also the most vitalizing sustenance for your soul.
But you — you — are in a very special position, leaving Annenberg, because your courage and resistance are to be enacted not only in the privacy of your inner life but in your outer contribution to public life. You are the creators of tomorrow’s ideas and ideals, the sculptors of public opinion and of culture. As long as we feed people buzz, we cannot expect their minds to produce symphonies. Never let the temptation of marketable mediocrity and easy cynicism rob you of the chance to ennoble public life and enlarge the human spirit — because we need that badly today, and because you need it badly for the survival of your soul.
So as you move through life, pedal hard — because that’s how you get places, and because it’s fun and so incredibly gratifying to propel yourself forward by your own will and power of intention. But make sure the pace of your pedaling answers only to your own standards of vigor. Remain uncynical and don’t waste any energy on those who pass you by on their electric bikes, because you never know what strife is driving them and, most of all, because the moment you focus on that, you vacate your own soul.
Instead, pedal forth — but also remember to breathe in the spring air and to smile at a stranger every once in a while. Because there is nothing more uncynical than being good to one another.
Thank you and congratulations.
6 May 2017, High Point University, North Carolina, USA
Highlights of Wolf Blitzer's speech. Video and transcript to come when available.
“As you will learn, graduates, life is about showing up day after day, week after week. People notice when you show up, when you put your head down, when you work hard. You won’t always succeed. You won’t always be the best. But nothing in life comes easy. So show up, be on time, be ready to work.”
“If you want to be a tennis player, you have to practice. If you want to be a cellist, you have to practice. And if you want to be a journalist, you have to go out there and practice. Go out and report and write and edit and learn all the critically important digital technology that you need to know. Indeed, whatever field you’re going into, practice, practice, practice.”
“You will meet people who are on their way up and on their way down as their careers begin to unfold. Treat them the same.”
“As Dr. Qubein just mentioned, I’m Wolf Blitzer and at least for the next few minutes, you’re in the situation room. I often joke that whatever room I’m in, there is a situation, and this is truly a wonderful situation for me to be in today, to be here with all of you, especially the graduating class of 2017. I am so, so very thrilled that you invited me to participate.”
“Whether you go on to become a lawyer or a landscaper or carpenter, congressman or congresswoman, find the things you’re passionate about and do them well.”
“My dad said, ‘Remember son, if you don’t promote yourself, no one else will.’ So don’t be shy, get out there and do what you need to do.”
“Here’s what I wish for you: That you find the passion that I’ve had and you pursue it; that you do what you love and you seek to make a difference in whatever career you pursue. And don’t forget, family is most important.”
“Stay strong. Stay focused. Stick to your principles even when your boss is tough on you. You have achieved great success already. And I am confident that you will do great things in the years to come.”
“My dad asked ‘Can you make a living being a journalist?’ and I didn’t really know the answer. But I decided at that moment to follow my passion, not because I thought it would bring me fame or success or rewards. It may be hard to believe, but before I was on CNN being Wolf Blitzer, before I had this silver beard, I was a clean shaven young man sheepishly introducing myself at the door of the Tel Aviv news agency at Reuters.”
“I didn’t even know the basics of reporting [when starting out], but I showed up, and that’s very, very important, graduates – to show up. I asked questions, and that’s also very, very important. Never be shy about asking questions. And I leaned on some very veteran journalists in the bureau to teach me the ropes, and they did. They were truly amazing, and, to this day, I am grateful to them for their help.”
“[My first boss] told me he didn’t think I had much of a future in journalism. He knew my dad was a home builder back in Buffalo, New York and suggested maybe I consider moving back to Buffalo and going into the family business. And understandably I was pretty devastated as I walked back to my tiny apartment, thousands of miles from him. I thought maybe journalism wasn’t for me. Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I should consider quitting. But you know what? The next morning I showed up for work and the next day and the next days after that. I didn’t give up.”
“But don’t believe everything you read. As you may have heard, there are people, there are countries actively trying to spread false information to affect elections, to change views, politicians and policies. So be curious but also be skeptical. Don’t be cynical – you can be skeptical without being cynical. Get your news from multiple trusted sources and not just your social media feed.”
“As serious journalists, we are always striving to be fair and responsible and you should as well. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly, equally and with kindness, no matter who they are.”
“We take our responsibility as journalists very seriously, and we do it because we want to make sure people like you are ready to take the mantle and lead our country. I mean that quite seriously. People like you, Class of 2017. Among you may sit future leaders, maybe presidents. Maybe members of Congress. School board members. City Council chairs. Our Democracy will not survive without you being very much involved and we won’t be our best without you showing up, working hard, practicing your craft and treating everyone fairly and with kindness.”
“None of the things I’ve told you so far would be possible if you don’t really love what you’re doing – if you dread getting up in the morning and going to work. Yes, there will be bad days. There will be bosses you dislike and tasks you don’t want to do. You will falter; you will make mistakes. All of us do. What will keep you going is if you truly love what you’re doing. It’s the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in my career, and as I said, I still get up every morning excited to go to work, excited to report the news, excited to learn something new. And can you imagine, graduates, if you can achieve the goal of getting paid and making a living doing something you truly love? That is such a blessing. That is such a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
20 June 2016, Burlington, Vermont,. USA
When I was preparing for this, I realise I had done a lot of talks. I'd even done a few keynotes speeches, but I thought this is special, this is different. I'm not talking to a bunch of musicians. I have to really be on my game, so I actually wrote a speech, first time ever in my life I wrote one. Until I had breakfast with Matt, and in talking to him I realised writing and saying speeches is not what I do. I just like to talk, and I like to play, so this won't quite be a commencement speech. It'll be a commencement talk. Is that all right?
As Matt said, I played music most of my whole life. I was born into it, and it's true. I've gotten a lot of awards. I've been praised. I say that anybody born in my situation would be just as good. I don't really look at that. I appreciate the fact that people love what I do because I would do it anyway, but the fact that my peers love it is a bonus, but as my parents always said, they weren't so concerned about what we did, but they were concerned with who we are, who we were as people. If what we did didn't make us better people and make those around us better people, they questioned whether it was worth doing.
When we were little kids and was getting awards, things like that, and getting praised because we were young when we were doing a lot of these cool things, and people always credit the parents and things. My parents will say "Well, as much as they play they should be good. We don't care about that. Who wouldn't be good, right? But it's who they are as people is what we're concerned at[inaudible 00:03:46]."
I want to start with a quote that my mom would always say to us boys. They would ask the five of us, they would say, "What does the world need with just another good musician?" Mom would say, "We have plenty. What the world need is good people." They would say if we're going to spend all these hours in the practise room, all this time at school studying, don't stop doing it just make sure it's making you good people.
I'd asked you the same thing. What does the world need with just another Rubenstein graduate? There's been over 4,000, right? What the world needs are good people. What the world needs is you, right? When you were born and everybody here knows what it took to become born, I don't have to go through that, right? But if you realise, we've already won the most amazing race we will ever win, the most amazing race we will ever enter into. We've already won it. We're already born special. We're born winners.
You have a fingerprint that's never been here on the planet in the existence of the history of humankind. Your fingerprint has never been here and will never be here again. That's special. Cool thing is no one can take that away from you. Your job is to improve on that specialness and present it to the world. Now we present it to the world by what we do, but it always comes back to who you are, how you relate to people because when you leave here believe it or not the people more than likely you're going to associate with some of them are sitting right next to you, so it's how they see you today might determine how they see you tomorrow.
In your journeys as you leave here, this is a happy moment, but all the moments that come forth may not be that happy. The bad things will happen in life, but I want you to look it maybe in a different way. When bad things happen in life, they jump out at us, they grab us, they grab our attention. The press and the world would make us think that everything is bad, but the bad things jump out at us because they're not normal, right? We have to remember that the world is a beautiful place and we are beautiful people.
Because the bad things jump out at us, that is proof. This is kind of hard to do and play at the same time. But because the bad things jump out at us, you think about the news. Think about this. Let me put it this way. I just drove in from Boston last night, and I drove into Burlington. Just imagine, I'm going to make up a story, imagine that three people cut me off as soon as I get into Burlington. What do I do? I do what everybody does. I curse the whole city.
I say, "None of these people in Burlington can drive," when it was only three. Those three stand out because the thousands of others did it right, but we don't bless the ones that do it right. We forget about them because it's normal. It may be up to us to remind the world of what it really is. I love the fact that I get to speak to you because I'm usually speaking to musicians that know nothing about the outdoors and to me you guys are the liaison. You are like nature's voice. You are the ones that are speaking to us that don't listen, that don't hear nature. Maybe we'll listen to you.
Many of us won't speak back to nature, but you will. You are that middle ground, and I appreciate and thank you for doing what you do. When I was younger in the early nineties, I read a book by a man named Tom Brown, Jr. The book changed my life, changed my viewpoint I would say, so I went to go take a class with Tom Brown. I didn't know what this nature thing was about. At least I didn't think I did.
Tom Brown started talking about awareness, wide angle vision and tracking. Tom was drawing tracks on the board, and he showing me about the gates, and he was drawing these little circles. In my mind because I was thinking musical, I took these little tracks and put little stems on them. In my mind I made them into musical notes. It made sense right away. It was that time that I realised that for me music and nature were the same thing.
To me nature, what you guys are doing, is the bridge between all of life. Back then and not long after, a few years after that I started running a musical camp where we combined music and nature. It literally is changing people's lives, literally is changing people's lives. I'm saying that not to talk about me but to say that that's what your world is. You get to change people's lives in a good way.
I've been working with a man named Bela Fleck for over 20 years. I learned a lot about leadership from him. I always felt that music is a good way to address the world's issues. The best bands I've ever played in all the instruments were different. We don't curse those differences. We bless them. That's why I think the whole world should learn to play music. Then we might understand that differences are a blessing, not a curse.
Bela Fleck always said that he was a leader among equals. Even though the band had his name in it twice, he still treated us as equals. Whenever he would bring a new song to the table, he would never tell us what to play. He would just play his part and allow us to hear the song fresh. Bela recognised that I would probably come up with a better bass part than him. I've never written a banjo part for him, so he would let me hear the song and come up with my own part.
As simple as that was, I realised that's the way to lead. He lead in a way that brought out the best in us. If he had just told us what to play, he would have gotten his idea across, but I wouldn't have grown from it as much. As you guys go out and become world leaders, which many of you will, lead in a way that brings out the best in people and be a leader among equals.
Just a couple of ideas to leave with you. You're going to need a lot of guts to get out there and do what you do. For some of you when I was getting an explanation of what a lot of you are going to be doing after you graduate, a lot of your jobs I would say are a thankless job. You won't get the awards that I've gotten for just plucking on some strings, but I hope you are like me and not do your jobs for awards but to do it because it's right because that's what the world needs.
My aunt told me a story recently when she was at my house for a family reunion. Back in the seventies, we were all young. Actually I'm sorry, in the eighties. My aunt said my mom was up pacing in the middle of the night, and she asked my mom what was going on. My mom was agitated. She said my mom said, "All my friends are getting on me because I didn't go see my son's play at the coliseum, and they think 'Well, you don't care about your son.'" She said, "I don't need to see them. I know my sons. I've been knowing them my whole life. I've been seeing them play everyday. I don't need to go see them at the coliseum."
She said, "My friends think my sons are special because they play at the coliseum." The thing I didn't say is at this family reunion we had probably 60 people. One of my brothers was sleeping under the kitchen table. Another one was in the chair. Another one was sleeping in the garage. My mom said, "I don't care that they're getting awards and the fact that they're playing at the coliseum." She said, "I care about the fact that they'll play at the coliseum and then come home and sleep on the floor."
If my mom was here right now, she'd say, "That's what I'm talking about." It's who you are as people. You bring who you are to what you do. You going to have to get creative. You guys are the future and a lot of what you're going to need to do hadn't even been invented yet. I'm just going to pose one idea about creativity and inspiration. A lot of times when you get inspired you get creative. You feel a certain way. It's like being happy. There's a tingle. For me my body starts to tingle.
I say the next time it happens you feel creative or maybe like today, remember this feeling, put it in a data bank somewhere and remembers what it feels like because one of the things I have learned to do through a lot of training with people like Matt and my other nature friends I've learned the creative process, the inspiration process in reverse. When I need an idea, I create the feeling. I remember what inspiration feels like, and I can create the feeling and the inspiration arrives. It shows up, so practise it. It might work.
In parting I just want you to imagine that as a graduation gift each of you was awarded $36,525. Not bad, but here's the catch, you're not going to get anymore for the rest of your lives. Think about it, $36,525. You have cash, but you're not getting anymore. Thank about it. How would you treat that money? How would you handle it? I'm sure some of you would take very good care of it, spend it wisely, spend it on things that mattered, maybe invest, give to people in need, $36,525.
Well, if you lived to be 100, if you lived to be a hundred, that's 36,525 days including leap years. A dollar a day and you can probably not buy a house. That's if you live to be a hundred. If you're a male, cut off a bunch of years. If you're a person of colour, cut off a bunch more years. First few years of your life you don't even make your own decisions. They tell us to sleep eight hours a day. That's a year every three years. Time spent playing Candy Crush. How many days are actually left?
There's a saying that says the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now. The best time to start living your life was 20 years ago. The next best time is now. The world is in the palm of your hands. You can create whatever you want. I just say do it wisely and do it with others in your mind. Because when you include others as yourself, then it's okay to be selfish.
My name is Victor Wooten, and I congratulate you guys. I thank you in advance for all the beautiful work you're going to do.
What does the world need with just another musician? What the world needs is good people. Thank you Mom. When the going gets tough, that's a positive signal to keep charging. Thank you Daddy. Thank you all. Thank you all. Y'all are graduates. I love you. Thank you very much.
May 2013, Virginia Commonwealth University of the Arts, Richmond, Virginia, USA
Teresita Fernández is an acclaimed sculptor and recipient of the Macarthur Fellowship. She was appointed to Barack Obama's Commission of Fine Arts in 2011. Speakola acknowledges Brainpickings for championing this amazing speech. It is also on Genius.com
I am deeply honored to be speaking to all of you today.
I have given countless lectures and speeches in my lifetime but never a commencement speech. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write, so I speak to you today with great humility and as an expert in absolutely nothing.
I prepared this speech with the only guiding factor being that I would be really honest, and that I would not use the word “journey” even once. And that I would avoid any condescending saccharine descriptions of the wonderful future that all of you have ahead of you, out of respect for your sophistication, but also out of an acknowledgement for the fact that life is too exquisitely messy and complex and layered to be reduced to a series of commencement metaphors. So, no paths, roads, journeys, adventures, world oysters, or seizing of anything will be mentioned today.
Instead, I would like to talk to you about amnesia and broken pottery and how forms have both an inside and an outside.
Twenty-one years ago I was sitting where all of you are now and I have to honestly say that I remember very little of it. Parents, my apologies for being so sincere, but you all know exactly what I mean. There are certain moments from those years that I remember lucidly and that have contributed significantly to my foundation and my development as both a person and an artist. Remembering is a funny thing because you never remember the whole of it but rather that burning significant disjointed detail that becomes ingrained in you, a phrase or an expression or a peripheral image or the way someone made you feel. For the most part these small events will seem insignificant in the moment and yet will be loaded as a subjective personal narrative that wakes something up in you, that causes a reaction that only you can identity with. Indeed life experiences are like that—entirely non transferrable. And it is precisely those oddly shaped personal experiences that are the cathartic ones that will stay with you.
Here are some of the things I do remember from graduate school. When I came up for my big midterm review, I had made a collection of chunky wooden sculptures, a lot of them, I think to prove that I could make things. I painted them with a can of something that I had found at the government surplus store, a color that I’d safely describe as “rust” or “curry”, reminiscent of the color of the buildings in Siena, but chosen for no other reason than because it was available in industrial quantities at the government surplus on that particular trip. The entire faculty listened patiently as I gave the obligatory oral presentation. And then there was a long silence, until one of my professors, Joe Seipel, now Dean Seipel (who in those days wore jeans with a little pocketknife attached to the belt) solemnly and very respectfully announced that it all looked like something that I had bought at Crate and Barrel. It was devastating. I died a little that day, but he was so very right… And my agony made me react wholeheartedly and passionately because right there and then I decided with great conviction that there was no way I was going to be the Crate and Barrel artist. To this day I will be working on something in the studio and a tiny little Joe voice will pop up into my mind and cheerfully say “hey that looks like such and such”. And it makes me make better art. Not because of Joe, but because his words sparked an emotional response in me that is at the core of how I make decisions for myself in the studio. It pushed me to recognize how to desperately transform something into a unique gesture that assertively resists being read as generic.
I also remember being perpetually in awe of almost everything Elizabeth King said; she was my only female professor, and the toughest one to impress. I am forever grateful to have learned from how relentlessly demanding she was of her work. Oftentimes, but not at the same time as Joe’s, her high-pitched voice will also pop up when I’m in my studio… and I still have to run to the dictionary sometimes. Thanks to Liz I learned the fine art of curiosity, as well as how to use the words flummoxed, homunculus, vivisect and rhinocone. If you have been her student you know I’m not making any of this up. I also distinctly remember Liz once whispering to me, as if it were a secret, that “the specific is infinitely more difficult to name than the general” and I use this simple truism constantly as a way of gauging where I’m at, and I know I make much better art when I demand that specificity from myself. I remember what I was eating the afternoon she mentioned I needed to read Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, a book that to this day, forms part of how I see the world and was a kind of cornerstone to my creative practice. I remember reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in a graduate seminar with the revealing line “there are many different kinds of stupidity and cleverness is one of the worst kind”. Those fifteen words still ring loudly for me. I remember the singular, eerie thrill of being alone in my VCU studio once, at 3AM and realizing that I had broken through an idea, an elusive, haunting feeling that I have spent the rest my life pursuing, and which I have experienced only a handful of times.
And it’s not just that I only remember the small details from the college years. The amnesia kept happening.
Eight years ago when I got a call from the MacArthur Foundation telling me I’d won, I was watching my toddler son while nursing my newborn daughter. And the only thing I can remember from that morning was the theme song from Scooby-Doo that was playing in the background. To this day whenever I hear it I fully expect it to herald good news.
I’m telling you all of this so that you are not surprised if you start forgetting things after graduation, so that you’re not shocked when you don’t necessarily know where to start. Because for some inexplicable reason, we seem to believe most strongly not in the actual formal lessons, but rather in those details that get into our heads without our knowing exactly how they got there. Those pivotal lessons in our lives continue to work on us in subtle, subterranean ways.
This kind of amnesia is life’s built in way of making sure you filter out what’s not very important. You graduate today after years of hard work, immersive years of learning, absorbing, processing, accumulating, cramming, finishing, focusing. There are no more reasons, really, to even make art unless you really truly want to. Of all you learned you probably don’t need to remember most of the technical or theoretical information, as that’s all easily accessible with a quick search. And what you will remember will have less to do with the past and more to do with how it triggers reactions for you in the present. Oddly enough what we involuntarily do retain is meant to help us move forward. This forthcoming amnesia that awaits you is just another kind of graduation, another step in a lifetime of many graduations.
You are about to enter the much more difficult phase of unlearning everything you have learned in college, of questioning it, redefining it, challenging it, and reinventing it to call it your own. More than in any other vocation, being an artist means always starting from nothing. Our work as artists is courageous and scary. There is no brief that comes along with it, no problem solving that’s given as a task. What matters now is not the response or the answer you offer in a class setting, but rather the unique shape you each give to your questions. An artist’s work is almost entirely inquiry based and self-regulated. It is a fragile process of teaching oneself to work alone, and focusing on how to hone your quirky creative obsessions so that they eventually become so oddly specific that they can only be your own.
The other day I was walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I was fascinated by an ancient Greek ostracon from 487 BC. An ostracon is piece of broken pottery or stone, which was used to write short notes or messages on. This one in particular caught my eye because it was covered entirely with a speech that was written in tiny ancient Greek letters. Ostracons were also the way ancient Greek citizens would vote, you’d simply choose a broken piece of irregular pottery scrap, write the name of your candidate of choice on it and literally cast your vote by throwing it in the heap to be counted. You could also vote for whomever you wanted to get rid of, which is where we get the word ostracize…
I kept looking at the small irregular shard and was taken by how specific it was, how one’s first decision would surely be choosing a particularly shaped shard, followed by the decision of your choice written on its surface. I was enamored with the idea of how what seemed broken, discarded, useless was transformed into a meaningful gesture. How a generic piece of discarded pottery would essentially build up a cacophony of personal expressions, but only in its brokenness, in its sense of having that specific shape because it diverted from the original, whole structure. Of how like a found object, one’s will upon is what would create meaning.
We are conditioned to think that what is broken is lost, or useless or a setback, and so when we set out with big ambitions we don’t necessarily recognize what the next graduation is supposed to look like. Unlearning everything you learned in college is just an exercise in learning to recognize how the fragments and small bits lead to something that is much more than the sum of its parts.
In Japan there is a kind of reverence for the art of mending. In the context of the tea ceremony there is no such thing as failure or success in the way we are accustomed to using those words. A broken bowl would be valued precisely because of the exquisite nature of how it was repaired, a distinctly Japanese tradition of kintsugi, meaning to “to patch with gold”. Often, we try to repair broken things in such a way as to conceal the repair and make it “good as new.” But the tea masters understood that by repairing the broken bowl with the distinct beauty of radiant gold, they could create an alternative to “good as new” and instead employ a “better than new” aesthetic. They understood that a conspicuous, artful repair actually adds value. Because after mending, the bowl’s unique fault lines were transformed into little rivers of gold that post repair were even more special because the bowl could then resemble nothing but itself. Here lies that radical physical transformation from useless to priceless, from failure to success. All of the fumbling and awkward moments you will go through, all of the failed attempts, all of the near misses, all of the spontaneous curiosity will eventually start to steer you in exactly the right direction.
In those moments when you feel discouraged or lost in the studio, or when you experience rejection, rest completely assured that what you don’t know about something is also a form of knowledge, though much harder to understand. In many ways, making art is like blindly trying to see the shape of what you don’t yet know. Whenever you catch a little a glimpse of that blind spot, of your ignorance, of your vulnerability, of that unknown, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to stare at it. Instead, try to relish in its profound mystery. Art is about taking the risk of engaging in something somewhat ridiculous and irrational simply because you need to get a closer look at it, you simply need to break it open to see what’s inside. I’ve always loved that line in Leonard Cohen’s song that says, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
We live in a meritocratic society, where accomplishments are constantly being measured externally, where forms are always read from the outside, where comfort and lifestyle are often mistaken for success, or even happiness. Don’t be fooled. Our ideas regarding success should be our own, and I urge you to pursue it simultaneously from both the inside and the outside. I agree completely with Georgia O’Keefe, who thought that “whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing.”
As artists, it will be especially difficult to measure these ideas of what success may be because you have chosen a practice that is entirely dependent on being willing to possibly fail, over and over again regardless of any successes that do come your way.
Success is just another form, with both an inside and outside.
For the most part people are aware of what the outside of success looks like. This is often measured by how long your resume is, where you’ve shown your work, what gallery represents you, what kind of review your show got, how much someone pays for your work, and even what university you graduated from.
Outside success always seems to look terribly glamorous, and every once in a while it can be… But it still never means all that much, and it still never makes the work of the work any easier, if anything it makes it a little harder because the stakes get higher, the possible humble failures become less private and more visible and more cruelly judged.
The day after a successful opening or the completion of a body of work is something I have always likened to a hangover. There is a need to have a big greasy breakfast and get all of people’s celebratory compliments out of your bloodstream. A kind of panic sets in the very next day, an urge to get into the studio because you know you have to start all over again, building something from nothing, seeking the company of those trusted beneficial failures, waiting for those absurd internal dialogues with your own gang of voices. It’s not a very glamorous scenario. But this is precisely what internal success looks like. It is visible only to yourself and while you can trick the rest of the world into thinking you are a good artist, you can never really convince yourself, which is why you keep trying. If you’re lucky and motivated enough to keep making art, life is quiet, you get to work at what you love doing, happily chipping away at something, constructing something, adjusting to a cycle of highs and lows and in betweens, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve been doing it for two years or 50 years, the patterns remain exactly the same. The anxiety continues to set in, the doubts creep in, the baby steps towards mending fragments starts all over again, the cautious urge to peek between the cracks is there. When you find yourself in that place, that’s when you’ll know that the inside is driving the outside.
Both the inside and the outside aspects of success have one thing in common: they both happen only if you’re paying very close attention. Neither one happens casually. There is a kind of will, a hunger, a deep-seated ability to focus that successful people have. As Susan Sontag said, “Be clenched, be curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention.”
As you move away from the structures and comforts of a university setting, with built in responses and scheduled deadlines for completion of work and a captive audience of classmates and teachers indulging in your art in a controlled setting know that you will have to create an alternative support structure for yourself from now on. Those of you that are paying closest attention will do well, those of you who are listening attentively to your real needs will become sensitive and receptive to recognizing a good idea, those of you who are willing to engage in an intimate relationship with possible failure, and risk taking will go very, very far.
That hunger, that desire for success is nothing more than a fear of failure, just like when I had that decisive reaction in my graduate review. And the odd thing is that when you are actually succeeding, it tends to be quiet and comes always quite unannounced and without a lot of fanfare. You will, in fact, be the only person who ever really grasps or recognizes the internal successes. The work of the work is visible only to yourself.
The most rewarding triumphs always seems to dangle just on the either side of the potentially devastating, awkward catastrophes, the embarrassing clichés, the self conscious doubting. As though the biggest leap can only come as a relentless gamble. A self directed “you go first” attitude… a dare to oneself.
While you’ll have to figure it all out for yourselves, I also wanted to give all of you some practical information on a few things that have helped me along the way.
1. Art requires time, there’s a reason it’s called a studio practice. Contrary to popular belief moving to Bushwick, Brooklyn this summer does not make you an artist. If in order to do this you have to share a space with five roommates and wait on tables, you will probably not make much art. What worked for me was spending five years building a body of work in a city where it was cheapest for me to live, and that allowed me the precious time and space I needed after grad school.
2. Learn to write well and get into the habit of systematically applying for every grant you can find. If you don’t get it, keep applying. I lived from grant money for four years when I first graduated.
3. Nobody reads artist’s statements. Learn to tell an interesting story about your work that people can relate to on a personal level.
4. Not every project will survive. Purge regularly, destroying is intimately connected to creating. This will save you time.
5. Edit privately. As much as I believe in stumbling, I also think nobody else needs to watch you do it.
6. When people say your work is good do two things. First, don’t believe them. Second, ask them WHY? If they can convince you of why they think your work is good, accept the compliment. If they can’t convince you (and most people can’t) dismiss it as superficial and recognize that most bad consensus is made by people simply repeating that they “like” something.
7. Don’t ever feel like you have to give anything up in order to be an artist… I had babies and made art and traveled and still have a million things I’d like to do.
8. You don’t need a lot of friends or curators or patrons or a huge following, just a few that really believe in you.
9. Remind yourself to be gracious to everyone, whether they can help you or not. It will draw people to you over and over again and help build trust in professional relationships.
10. And lastly, when other things in life get tough, when you’re going through family troubles, when you’re heartbroken, when you’re frustrated with money problems, focus on your work. It has saved me through every single difficult thing I have ever had to do, like a scaffolding that goes far beyond any traditional notions of a career.
I would like to leave you with a quote from my dear friend Félix González-Torres, who was an extraordinary and generous artist.
“Above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that’s why I made works of art.”
If there is a single thing that you remember from what I’ve said today let it be that being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio. The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth, the size of the world you make for yourselves, your ability to influence the things you believe in, your obsessions, your failures, ALL of these components will also become the raw material for the art you make.
Graduates, I wish you all conviction, patience, and a sense of joy in your work. May you each come up with your own “good purpose”, and may it drive you to leave indelible marks.
12 June 2008, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, India
I was the last child of a small-time government servant, in a family of five brothers. My earliest memory of my father is as that of a District Employment Officer in Koraput, Orissa. It was, and remains as back of beyond as you can imagine. There was no electricity; no primary school nearby and water did not flow out of a tap. As a result, I did not go to school until the age of eight; I was home-schooled. My father used to get transferred every year. The family belongings fit into the back of a jeep – so the family moved from place to place and without any trouble, my Mother would set up an establishment and get us going. Raised by a widow who had come as a refugee from the then East Bengal, she was a matriculate when she married my Father.
My parents set the foundation of my life and the value system, which makes me what I am today and largely, defines what success means to me today.
As District Employment Officer, my father was given a jeep by the government. There was no garage in the Office, so the jeep was parked in our house. My father refused to use it to commute to the office. He told us that the jeep is an expensive resource given by the government- he reiterated to us that it was not ”his jeep” but the government’s jeep. Insisting that he would use it only to tour the interiors, he would walk to his office on normal days. He also made sure that we never sat in the government jeep – we could sit in it only when it was stationary.
That was our early childhood lesson in governance – a lesson that corporate managers learn the hard way, some never do.
The driver of the jeep was treated with respect due to any other member of my Father’s office. As small children, we were taught not to call him by his name. We had to use the suffix ‘dada’ whenever we were to refer to him in public or private. When I grew up to own a car and a driver by the name of Raju was appointed – I repeated the lesson to my two small daughters. They have, as a result, grown up to call Raju, ‘Raju Uncle’ – very different from many of their friends who refer to their family driver, as ‘my driver’. When I hear that term from a school- or college-going person, I cringe.
To me, the lesson was significant – you treat small people with more respect than how you treat big people. It is more important to respect your subordinates than your superiors.
Our day used to start with the family huddling around my Mother’s chulha – an earthen fire place she would build at each place of posting where she would cook for the family. There was neither gas, nor electrical stoves.The morning routine started with tea. As the brew was served, Father would ask us to read aloud the editorial page of The Statesman’s ‘muffosil’ edition – delivered one day late. We did not understand much of what we were reading. But the ritual was meant for us to know that the world was larger than Koraput district and the English I speak today, despite having studied in an Oriya medium school, has to do with that routine. After reading the newspaper aloud, we were told to fold it neatly. Father taught us a simple lesson.
He used to say, “You should leave your newspaper and your toilet, the way you expect to find it”. That lesson was about showing consideration to others. Business begins and ends with that simple precept.
Being small children, we were always enamored with advertisements in the newspaper for transistor radios – we did not have one. We saw other people having radios in their homes and each time there was an advertisement of Philips, Murphy or Bush radios, we would ask Father when we could get one. Each time, my Father would reply that we did not need one because he already had five radios – alluding to his five sons.
We also did not have a house of our own and would occasionally ask Father as to when, like others, we would live in our own house. He would give a similar reply,” We do not need a house of our own. I already own five houses”. His replies did not gladden our hearts in that instant.
Nonetheless, we learnt that it is important not to measure personal success and sense of well being through material possessions.
Government houses seldom came with fences. Mother and I collected twigs and built a small fence. After lunch, my Mother would never sleep. She would take her kitchen utensils and with those she and I would dig the rocky, white ant infested surrounding. We planted flowering bushes. The white ants destroyed them. My mother brought ash from her chulha and mixed it in the earth and we planted the seedlings all over again. This time, they bloomed. At that time, my father’s transfer order came. A few neighbors told my mother why she was taking so much pain to beautify a government house, why she was planting seeds that would only benefit the next occupant. My mother replied that it did not matter to her that she would not see the flowers in full bloom. She said, “I have to create a bloom in a desert and whenever I am given a new place, I must leave it more beautiful than what I had inherited”.
That was my first lesson in success. It is not about what you create for yourself, it is what you leave behind that defines success.
My mother began developing a cataract in her eyes when I was very small. At that time, the eldest among my brothers got a teaching job at the University in Bhubaneswar and had to prepare for the civil services examination. So, it was decided that my Mother would move to cook for him and, as her appendage, I had to move too. For the first time in my life I saw electricity in homes and water coming out of a tap. It was around 1965 and the country was going to war with Pakistan. My mother was having problems reading and in any case, being Bengali, she did not know the Oriya script. So, in addition to my daily chores, my job was to read her the local newspaper – end to end. That created in me a sense of connectedness with a larger world. I began taking interest in many different things. While reading out news about the war, I felt that I was fighting the war myself. She and I discussed the daily news and built a bond with the larger universe. In it, we became part of a larger reality. Till date, I measure my success in terms of that sense of larger connectedness. Meanwhile, the war raged and India was fighting on both fronts. Lal Bahadur Shastri, the then Prime Minster, coined the term “Jai Jawan, Jai Kishan” and galvanized the nation in to patriotic fervor. Other than reading out the newspaper to my mother, I had no clue about how I could be part of the action. So, after reading her the newspaper, every day I would land up near the University’s water tank, which served the community. I would spend hours under it, imagining that there could be spies who would come to poison the water and I had to watch for them. I would daydream about catching one and how the next day, I would be featured in the newspaper. Unfortunately for me, the spies at war ignored the sleepy town of Bhubaneswar and I never got a chance to catch one in action. Yet, that act unlocked my imagination.
Imagination is everything. If we can imagine a future, we can create it, if we can create that future, others will live in it. That is the essence of success.
Over the next few years, my mother’s eyesight dimmed but in me she created a larger vision, a vision with which I continue to see the world and, I sense, through my eyes, she was seeing too. As the next few years unfolded, her vision deteriorated and she was operated for cataract. I remember, when she returned after her operation and she saw my face clearly for the first time, she was astonished. She said, “Oh my God, I did not know you were so fair”. I remain mighty pleased with that adulation even till date. Within weeks of getting her sight back, she developed a corneal ulcer and, overnight, became blind in both eyes. That was 1969. She died in 2002. In all those 32 years of living with blindness, she never complained about her fate even once. Curious to know what she saw with blind eyes, I asked her once if she sees darkness. She replied, “No, I do not see darkness. I only see light even with my eyes closed”. Until she was eighty years of age, she did her morning yoga everyday, swept her own room and washed her own clothes.
To me, success is about the sense of independence; it is about not seeing the world but seeing the light.
Over the many intervening years, I grew up, studied, joined the industry and began to carve my life’s own journey. I began my life as a clerk in a government office, went on to become a Management Trainee with the DCM group and eventually found my life’s calling with the IT industry when fourth generation computers came to India in 1981. Life took me places – I worked with outstanding people, challenging assignments and traveled all over the world.
In 1992, while I was posted in the US, I learnt that my father, living a retired life with my eldest brother, had suffered a third degree burn injury and was admitted in the Safderjung Hospital in Delhi. I flew back to attend to him – he remained for a few days in critical stage, bandaged from neck to toe. The Safderjung Hospital is a cockroach infested, dirty, inhuman place. The overworked, under-resourced sisters in the burn ward are both victims and perpetrators of dehumanized life at its worst. One morning, while attending to my Father, I realized that the blood bottle was empty and fearing that air would go into his vein, I asked the attending nurse to change it. She bluntly told me to do it myself. In that horrible theater of death, I was in pain and frustration and anger. Finally when she relented and came, my Father opened his eyes and murmured to her, “Why have you not gone home yet?” Here was a man on his deathbed but more concerned about the overworked nurse than his own state. I was stunned at his stoic self.
There I learnt that there is no limit to how concerned you can be for another human being and what the limit of inclusion is you can create.
My father died the next day. He was a man whose success was defined by his principles, his frugality, his universalism and his sense of inclusion.
Above all, he taught me that success is your ability to rise above your discomfort, whatever may be your current state. You can, if you want, raise your consciousness above your immediate surroundings. Success is not about building material comforts – the transistor that he never could buy or the house that he never owned. His success was about the legacy he left, the memetic continuity of his ideals that grew beyond the smallness of a ill-paid, unrecognized government servant’s world.
My father was a fervent believer in the British Raj. He sincerely doubted the capability of the post-independence Indian political parties to govern the country. To him, the lowering of the Union Jack was a sad event. My Mother was the exact opposite. When Subhash Bose quit the Indian National Congress and came to Dacca, my mother, then a schoolgirl, garlanded him. She learnt to spin khadi and joined an underground movement that trained her in using daggers and swords. Consequently, our household saw diversity in the political outlook of the two. On major issues concerning the world, the Old Man and the Old Lady had differing opinions.
In them, we learnt the power of disagreements, of dialogue and the essence of living with diversity in thinking.
Success is not about the ability to create a definitive dogmatic end state; it is about the unfolding of thought processes, of dialogue and continuum.
Two years back, at the age of eighty-two, Mother had a paralytic stroke and was lying in a government hospital in Bhubaneswar. I flew down from the US where I was serving my second stint, to see her. I spent two weeks with her in the hospital as she remained in a paralytic state. She was neither getting better nor moving on. Eventually I had to return to work. While leaving her behind, I kissed her face. In that paralytic state and a garbled voice, she said,
“Why are you kissing me, go kiss the world.” Her river was nearing its journey, at the confluence of life and death, this woman who came to India as a refugee, raised by a widowed Mother, no more educated than high school, married to an anonymous government servant whose last salary was Rupees Three Hundred, robbed of her eyesight by fate and crowned by adversity was telling me to go and kiss the world!
Success to me is about Vision. It is the ability to rise above the immediacy of pain. It is about imagination. It is about sensitivity to small people. It is about building inclusion. It is about connectedness to a larger world existence. It is about personal tenacity. It is about giving back more to life than you take out of it. It is about creating extra-ordinary success with ordinary lives.
Thank you very much; I wish you good luck and God’s speed. Go! kiss the world.
30 May 2016, Bandra East, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Thank you, David and thank you everyone for inviting me here. This is a huge privilege, not because I’m the chief guest. I think it’s a privilege mainly because I’m one of the parents who have had the opportunity. And I’ll take this opportunity on behalf of all of you to put my hands together and thank Dhirubhai Ambani International School for doing what they’re doing to our children. So, I want to thank all the teachers, all the heads of departments, Zarine and Fareeda, I mean, you’re the people I used to come to, when I have trouble I come and look at your faces and go away, and I’m calm; everything will be sorted out. Kava sir was fantastic at cricket matches and shouts louder than anyone else in the world can, all the staff members, the management, the gentleman who man the security outside; so wonderful and so even the guy who does the parking back there, everyone for the last 13 to 14 years that I have been here. And especially my friend, Mrs. Nita Ambani. Thank you so much for looking after our children. Thank you very very much.
Ok, so good evening boys and girls. Exams are over, if I may say so, darn school is over, which seemed an impossibility just a few years back. That horrible math or physics, or whoever your least favorite teacher is, you will never have to see again. That PE coach who was all about to get you is done and dusted now. I know everybody is looking there! You want to party now, relax, hang out with the beautiful friends you’ve made in the last 13 years, 14 or some, less. The last thing you really want to do is sit here and listen to someone give you advice on life lessons and what the future holds for you. And to top it, my qualification to be doing this is zilch, nada, not at all, nothing. Really, apart from the fact that Nita and I are friends and thus, I have some benefits. My reason to be here is the same as that of your elder brother or your sister being allowed to do things that you’re not allowed to do at home. I’m like them, older! That’s all. So if you think that I have had a successful career, as I was getting very embarrassed when David was recounting because also it’s been so many years since I’ve got an award. Got to work harder! Also if you think I’ve had a successful career, a great past performance and my experiences of it; are no assurance that it will work in the future for you, or work for you at all. And anyway, none of what I say today, you will remember as soon as you’re out of here or maybe even earlier, because you’re still sleeping from the big party you guys had last night.
What I say may make sense to your mom or dad, who will remember It some years down the line, and they will also remember it for the inappropriate things that I’m going to say tonight. But you are here, and so am I, so I promise to keep this extremely crisp and sharp, about twenty minutes tops. But be rest assured, I understand if some of you walk out in the middle of my speech for bladder control reasons. Feel free to do that. Feel free, because that’s what essentially my talk is about; feeling free.
The freedom to be yourself, to listen to your inner voice, and never let anyone tell you who you are, who you ought to be, including me. These are the only years of your life in which will be allowed to make regret-free mistakes. As you do so, you will chance upon your dreams. And hopefully make a happy life out of their fulfillment. When you get to be 50, as some of your parents are, none of the mothers, they all look 35. They’re all looking extremely hot. Some of your parents are, and like I am. You will know that the bulk of your regrets are from not having done what you wished to do. So don’t hold it against your over diligent father who’s telling you to study extra, even post the exams, your annoying mother, who is still depressed that your handwriting is bad. You know she doesn’t understand if it was bad five years ago, chances are that your handwriting is not going to improve for the rest of your life, ever! Mam, get that clear, it’s not going to happen. But, let me assure you, squiggles and ants and mosquitos on paper won’t kill your career. Any doctor here will tell you, indecipherable hieroglyphics may actually be a career booster. Don’t be angry that your parents tell you that friend of yours is not good company, he is spoiling you. And please don’t hold it against them when they tell you he’s a movie star son and will become a hero what about you? Let me assure you, movie stars’ sons and daughters also have to work. Basically just don’t grudge the old man and the old bag, ever. All we parents try to do is to make you happy with your choices, by annoying you with ours, that are actually your choices anyway, but you just don’t know it yet. Your hormone levels are too high for you to understand this confusing logic. All you want to be is yourselves and you’re quite sure you know what that is. And I’m here tonight on your side only to confirm your convictions, as you set forth into the big bad world, from the loving shelter of Mrs. Nita Ambani and all these wonderful and beautiful and warm teachers and faculty who have nurtured you to embark on your own journey through life.
I was talking about parents, because I think tonight is about parents so I’m going to tell you something about my parents. My mother was top class, she was really cool, she loved me and cared unconditionally, was beautiful like all mothers and believed that I will be the most famous man in the world, and I could do no wrong. In Delhi they say, “Humaara bachha na, is the apple of my eye”. Some Punjabi ladies make it bigger, like, “the pineapple of my eye”. So I was the pineapple of my mother’s eye. My father was a gentle man, he was very educated, Masters in Law; extremely intelligent, knew seven languages, had traveled the world, knew his politics, fought for the freedom of our country, India, and excelled at sports like hockey, swimming and polo. He could cook and recite poems and knew the capital of every country in the world. My father was also very poor, he was unemployed and struggling to make ends meet for 15 years of my life, that I had the privilege of knowing him. From when I was 10 to when I was 15. Not being able to afford fancy gifts for me, he would wrap up something old that belonged to him, in newspapers and declare it as a birthday gift when my birthday came along. In the next eleven and a half minutes left, that I have, is the story of the five gifts my father gave me and how they helped me become what I am today.
When I was ten my father gave me an old chess set. Chess is a reflection of life, they say, and as cliched as it sounds, it’s probably true. The first thing it teaches you is that every move has a consequence, whether you perceive that it does or does not, nothing you do, not a single moment is empty of living. So think of things through, not always, but often enough. Often enough, so your life does not feel as black and white and as uniform as the squares on a chessboard.
Sometimes in order to move forward you might need to take a few steps back and there’s no loss in doing something that hurts in the short run but proves worthwhile and time. Sometimes the Queen might seem sexier, they always do, but if she gets taken by an advisory straight after you save her, then you might be better off saving your castle or the bald Bishop, instead. So don’t always choose that which seems more desirable, if something tells you that it is going to get you into a whole lot of trouble. What I mean is also about tonight, drive home while your wits are about, instead of staying and getting stoned senseless after the party here. You can’t get anywhere in chess, if you don’t look out for the little ones around you, the small pawns. Life is like that too, if you forget the smallest of your people, or become foolish enough to imagine that the little grades you are given are of no value, you end up nowhere. When you look around, you learn to notice all the tiny little things that make your existence privileged and special. Just the fact that you are here, in this very moment, at this fantastic school in the company of such adoring parents, is the product of immense love, hard work and sacrifice on the part of many people present here. Taking your blessings for granted is the most ungracious stupidity, both in chess and in life.
Then, there’s what they call, don’t know how to pronounce it, but sounds very cool, the zugzwang (German for “compulsion to move”) the zugzwang is a really cool word, it sounds like a Chinese aphrodisiac, but it actually is German for, ok I will tone this down, “Oh! Fish I got to get out of here”. Anyway, for those of you who have never played the game, it’s when you get so stuck, that whichever move you make is a bad move. It will happen to each and everyone of you, at some point in your lives. For sure, a moment will come when it will look like there isn’t anything going right and nothing you can do to prevent disaster. Ask me, I just finished Dilwale and followed it up with fan! So, when you are in zugzwang, kids, don’t panic. Whenever there is trouble and you know there is no way out, or disaster, don’t panic. With a little embarrassment you will survive it. Trust me all you have to do is make a move. All you have to do is move on a bit. As the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland said, when Alice came to the fork in the road, “If you don’t know where you’re going it doesn’t matter which road you take”. I will add to it, as long as you take one road and don’t keep standing in the middle of the fork until a truck runs you over. Often in zugzwang, your enemy wins that particular move, but mostly you end up winning the game.
There were no computers when I was a kid, and nor were there i-phones for us to google pornography on, while our parents were busy checking the selfie, likes on Instagram. One of the most precious gifts my father gave me was an Italian typewriter. I learned how to use it from him, how to roll paper into the roller and press the lever. I don’t know if you guys have seen a typewriter. It’s…Google it. I’d hear the clicking sound of the letters as I pressed them with my fingers, forming words on blank pages fascinated me. To use a typewriter well, you needed diligence; one wrong letter and the whole exercise had to be started all over again. We used something called typeX to erase our mistakes in those days, not to sniff out during math classes. But too much typesX in math classes or in typewriting is unacceptable. So we had to learn how to move your fingers accurately to make words out of thoughts with efficiency and do it over and over again till we got it just right. As an adult I have come to understand that there is nothing of more value, than your capacity for diligence and your ability to work hard. If you can outwork adversaries and your employees, you can ensure your own success. And whatever it is you choose to do, whatever you’re doing, do it once then do it one more time, even more carefully. Practice will make everything seem easier. Be diligent, be thorough. Think of every job you do as the first one, so you have to get it right or you won’t be able to impress everyone. And at the same time do it as your last job as if you will not get a chance to do it again ever. Don’t just workout, outwork yourself. Only parents clapping! In fact you can outwork yourself, if you cannot work yourself, then pretty much nothing can prevent you from learning.
My father gave me a camera, and the most beautiful thing about it was that it did not work. I learned that things don’t always have to be functional, to fulfill a need, that sometimes when things are broken, the greatest creativity emanates from the fragments. I found myself looking at my world magically through the unusable lens. And the fact that there was never any actual photograph to see, taught me my most important lesson yet; that creativity is a process of the soul. It does not need an outcome or a product for the world to accept. It needs only the truth of its own expression. It comes from within. And makes of your world, whatever you wish it to make. So don’t be afraid of your own creativity. Honor it. It doesn’t always have to be seen or approved by those around you. It is an expression of your deepest selves and it belongs as much to you as it does to the universe. That nurtures and inspires it. All creativity is not for everyone to like or understand. All art is not up for sale. Some creativity has a bigger role to play. It is to keep you company when you’re alone, when you need a friend, when the world doesn’t seem to understand you. Your creativity, whatever that may be, you know, I know a friend of mine who makes a dolls out of barf bags from airplanes. Whatever your creativity is, your creative will be the only thing that will keep you inspired and satisfied. Honour it to the end, whatever it may be. Mine is poetry. I write rubbish poetry. it’s so bad that sometimes I cringe to read it myself. it’s crap, but I write it, it’s my secret place. It is mine to make me feel free and happy. So you find yours and if the world loves it good, if it doesn’t, even better, because now you will truly have a friend to keep your creativity intact.
My father was a funny guy. He had the capacity to turn any kind of serious situation in a way that it seemed less stress filled, with a bit of humor. Without a sense of humor the world will always be a dull and greedy place. No darkness of despair should ever be beyond a good and a hearty laugh. I’m going to tell you a few incidents, if you’re not bored! I have got about seven and a half minutes left. We used to live on the third floor of an apartment building, and as people on third floor tend to do, my friends and I used to throw things down from the balcony; you know, wrappers, tit bits, dog shit wrapped in newspapers, the usual stuff. One day the old gentleman on the ground floor, for there’s always an old senile gentleman on the ground floor. He had had enough of our daily droppings. He charged at us yelling at the top of his voice “bhaisahaab, bhaisahaab, upar se cheezen neeche aati hai, upar se ceezen neeche aati hai” and you know the whole colony emerged to witness the spectacle. My father was there. I was mortified. And he kept screaming, “Upar se cheezen neeche aati hai“. My father calmly looked calmly at him and said, “Chacha ji, upar se cheezen neeche aati hain, ye Newton ne boht saalon pehle bataya tha. Aap koie nayi baat batao. Andar baith ke, chai peeke baat krte hai”, and it instantly diffused the situation. The old man smiled, went into the apartment, worked out how dog shit needs to be disposed of properly, over a cup of tea in life was back to normal again.
And there was another incident I’m going to relate. I had been eyeing this attractive, dusky girl who lived in our building. As smooth as I have always been with ladies, for some reason, it occurred to me that if I blew up her letter box with a Diwali cracker called, atom bomb, she’d be very impressed with me. I’ve always been good with girls like that, ya. I know things about girls. In this insanely romantic belief of mine, her letterbox soon exploded before her eyes. And I still don’t know why the desired effect of her running into my arms in slow-motion was replaced with a screaming drama in which he flew up the stairs screaming, “amma inge vaa, amma inge vaa”. I took my chance and as all macho men should do, I fled the scene. Few hours later the doorbell rang. I looked through the magic eye and the mother of the love of my life was standing outside looking incensed. I found a place to hide. My father opened the door. The lady began to rattle off a complaint; your son this, your son that (speaks in Tamil), my Tamil is not good! And he listened patiently and then responded, “You know ma’am, as you were speaking, I was getting angry with my son. But then I suddenly realized how beautiful you are. And I can imagine if your daughter looks anything like you, how can my son be blamed for falling in love with her and behaving so stupidly?” The lady went silent as my father continued telling her how beautiful she was, and then she became a little quiet. Another cup of tea was had and she said to me sweetly, “Beta, just because my daughter is so beautiful you shouldn’t behave badly with her. You should come home, sit with us, and be friends”. So not only did my dad get me off the hook, for blowing up the girls letter box, he actually got me in-roads to a long satisfying relationship with the love of her life that lasted six days. Because then I realize that dating beautiful girls has its downside. Every boy in the colony made advances at her. So I was regularly beaten up in my attempts to offer her some boy friendly protection. But that’s another story. The point being, learn to laugh at yourselves, every chance you get. If you can manage not to take yourself too seriously, no matter how big a shot you become or how lowly, useless, trivial you feel, you will instantly disarm life’s power to beat you down. It makes you braver to face ugliness, because it changes your perspective. Humor is actually the deftness to see the world, the reality, for the transient farce it really is. It’s like a talisman for survival. Cultivate it and allow it to lighten every heavy moment. Wear it like a vulgar tattoo, if you don’t already have one. Don’t ever let it get washed away in the turbulently beautiful seas of life. It’s your ticket to staying young and childlike forever. And you will realize why it matters to stay childlike when you’re my age. And you’ll watch this speech on YouTube with your children. I’ll probably have kicked the bucket by then, having smoked enough cigarettes to light up a forest. But I certainly hope that you will have understood what I understand now. No, not that smoking kills, but that part is ok.
Well, what I am referring to is, what counts as the most beautiful and final gift that my father gave me. I only realized it was a gift on the day he died, when I was 15 years old. A gift your parents have given to you already. Yes, the singularly most exquisite gift, you and I have been given is the gift of life itself. There is nothing that marks a man or a woman out from the ordinary, more perfectly than grace. Grace is the consciousness, that life is bigger than we are and therefore gratitude for it must match its vastness. It is the understanding, that everyone we encounter, whether they are loving towards us, or offensively abrasive, is a human like we are. It is knowing that experiences shape human beings and no matter how good we are at something, or successful we may become, we are never better than the other person. If you can live your life with grace towards those around you, you’ll accomplish more than you could if you became the president of America. That came out wrong, knowing that Donald Trump is so close to becoming the president of America! I didn’t mean that I’ll rephrase that guys. If you can live your life with grace towards those around you, “ok actually what the hell”, because I came and told you a secret that I like rubbish poetry I am going to read out a poem and end this. This this is the most rubbish poem you will hear. But keep it in the heart because I’m the damned chief guest tonight. If you’re after part, EDM. I thought it would be very cool if I use the word EDM. Is EDM still cool? Class of 2016 is it cool? No? Okay.
“If you’re after party EDM, stoned sunrise has found you,
with dark ship, wrappings, and friends that will not confound you.
And you start on this journey with a brave heart about you,
If you live life at grace towards those around you.
You’ll get where you have to and it won’t astound you.
If it isn’t Ferraris and a white house that downed you,
You won’t need an entourage to always surround you.
It’s your truth, you will have, that will shelter and ground you,
And you remember this day, as the day that unbound you.
From the walls of this beautiful school, and the teachers,
Exams and all the rules that sometimes seem to hound you, and let me tell you,
All will be successful let me remound you.”
So boys and girls, go forth, be free, have fun, make wrong choices, make mistakes. You will still succeed because the gift of education you have from this wonderful institution called Dhirubhai Ambani International School. The love meter has given you, and the genes that your parents have provided you with, will always look after you. And when you succeed don’t forget to thank your least favorite teacher, because he or she actually cared for you the most. Love you all and be happy.
18 May 2013, University of Virginia, Virginia, USA
Good morning, good morning. I am Stephen Colbert and I want to thank the class of 2013 for inviting me here today. Thank you very much, it’s an honor.
This is way more than I expected. This is incredibly generous, I would have done it for free; it’s incredibly generous. Thank you.
Now before we get started, I just want a little bit of business, ah, out of courtesy, If anyone here has a cell phone, please take a moment to make sure it's