Things One Might Say to a Class of Graduating Seniors.


They gave me a cap and gown. I looked like this. Approximately.

A couple weeks ago, I was asked to give the commencement address at the Oregon Episcopal School here in Portland.

Here’s the audio version of my comments:

And here’s the wordy word version:

Hey Overachievers! Try Failing!

Graduating class, faculty, parents and friends. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you here today – I’m so honored at the opportunity, and also curious as to whether the internet was broken the day I was asked, because I have a lot of incriminating tweets out there. I also appreciate the cap and gown, and that you chose to give me one of the black ones. Black is super slimming. The giant tent shape, however, less so.

I’d like to start off with a huge congratulations to the OES graduating class of 2012. I’ve heard from your college counselors that your class has 100% college acceptance this year, which is a tremendous accomplishment, and one you should be very proud of. But it also brings me to my first advice for tonight, and that’s that no one likes a showoff. Think about maybe 99% next time around, just not to seem so flashy.

So now you’re off to college. 100% of you. What sort of knowledge can I impart that will help you survive?

First off, the Freshman 15 does exist. It was actually the Freshman 40 for me, but don’t be intimidated by that because I’ve always been an overachiever. Just don’t beat yourself up if you gain a little weight in college. Your weight doesn’t define you. And the world is a rough place, so just think of it as building up your protective shell, like a tortoise or IronMan.

Secondly, there has never been, in the history of mankind, a person who did a series of Jagerbombs, and thought the next morning, “I’m so proud of the choices I made last night. I really feel like I’m growing as a person.”

Third, college is possibly the only time in your life when it’s not only okay to be terrible at things, it’s advisable.

Let me clarify, before your parents rush the stage and tackle me.

Ira Glass, the host of This American Life said a great thing about creative pursuits. He talked about this gap that happens when you start your first project. This gap between your taste, which is probably impeccable, and your talent, which is raw, and sometimes, in the beginning, nonexistent. It’s that period where you know good work when you see it, but you’re not making it yet.

It’s an uncomfortable gap, filled with self-doubt and frustration, but if you find something you love, you’ll endure it. For instance, maybe you’ve always thought structural engineering was your thing but in college, you discover a love for robotics. So you take a class, and you make a robot. And for no discernable reason you can point to, your robot starts spouting expletives at inopportune moments (I don’t know when an opportune moment to spout expletives is. A Wu Tang Clan concert?). First of all, that’s a pretty cool mistake, but second of all, GOOD. Wear that failure like a badge of honor. That failure says “I’ve been brave enough to be horrible at something, and to trust myself enough to know that won’t always be true. I’ve reached beyond my comfort zone, and look what I’ve found: a completely profane robot. I rule.”

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing a day that scares you.”

I say, “Shut up, Eleanor Roosevelt. Do you have any idea how many things scare me already?” Double dip recession, people eating other people’s faces off, the fact that leg warmers were fashionable not once, but twice in this country – I don’t know who’s in charge of this stuff, but it’s terrifying. So no, don’t do one thing a day that scares you. Do one thing, say, every two weeks that scares you.

That’s the schedule I’m on. I’ve been hosting a radio variety show in front of a live audience for eight years now, and every single show, every single time I stand beside that stage waiting to go on, I’m petrified. Of what? You name it. Will I ask a dumb question? Will my monologue bomb? Is my skirt tucked into my underwear? Will one of my castmates eat my face off?

Here’s something I didn’t know until just a few years ago that I wish I knew when I was your age.

Everyone is scared. No one has it figured out.

We all look at people at the top of their game, and we’re envious. We wonder what it would be like to be that successful, that self-assured, that certain of every choice that we make.

But let’s take one of those top-of-their-game people as an example – Judd Apatow. Judd is the director of The 40 Year-old Virgin and Knocked Up; and the producer of Bridesmaids…let’s call him the Francois Truffaut of movies with awkward lead characters and uncomfortable bathroom scenes that make a basquillion dollars.

Here’s what Judd said in an interview just last year:

“In every situation I walk into, I feel like the weirdo. The awkward guy…I feel that way on the set of my own movies. I never feel like I own the moment, even when I’m everyone’s boss.”

Every time you struggle, and you think you should be skating along, you think you should be smooth, and unflappable and full of nothing but self-assurance, remember this: if you’re not afraid, you’re not doing anything interesting. And b: Everyone is afraid.

And remembering that part is a good thing – it’ll help give you empathy when you run into people in your first job out of college who try to make you feel small – that’s just fear telling them that making you tiny somehow embiggens them. I may have just made that word up. But it doesn’t. Embiggen them.

In fact, here’s a secret for when that person is eventually fired and you get their job. It’s yet another piece of advice that’s going feel scary: always surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Hire them. Befriend them. In college, ask them to work on projects with you.

It will be uncomfortable. It will make you feel not-so-smart. Fight that feeling, because in fact, hiring people who are smarter than you proves that, at least when it comes to hiring people, you are smarter than them.

When we first started Live Wire, I asked my friend Stacy Bolt, who I knew was a better writer than me at the time, to be on the show. And there was a hesitation, of course, because we have this strange, uniquely human fear that if someone around us looks good, that automatically makes us look bad. But it’s really just the opposite. Stacy became a huge fan favorite, and just sharing the stage with her made me, and the show, look smarter and funnier (and because she has an incredibly impressive shoe collection, almost 37% more stylish!).

But it wasn’t just her presence that made all that happen, it was the fact that creativity is a lot like sports—our game rises to match the game of those around us. Sometimes, if we work hard enough, we can even surpass them. So if you keep surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you, eventually, you’ll be the smartest one in the room. But don’t get comfortable in there. As the saying goes, if you’re always the smartest person in the room, you need to find a better room. Preferably one with a comfy couch and a 100% employer-matched 401k.

And another thing – while it’s important to be aware of where you stand educationally and professionally, don’t spend a lot of time on those comparisons. Comparing your life to other people’s lives is the most immediate path to unhappiness you can take. The only life you should ever use as a comparison is your own ideal life. The question isn’t, “Am I as happy as she is?,” it’s simply, “Am I happy?”

Because you will never truly know how happy anyone is. Life is like Facebook – we all project an image of our best selves and leave out the parts where we feel awkward, or lonely, or wonder if we’ve chosen the right college, or life partner, or toilet paper. Are you happy with it, regardless of how it looks in comparison to your friend’s thicker, more luxurious toilet paper? Then yes. You made the right choice. (Although I hope it’s recycled, because this is Portland and if it’s not, the police may show up at your house.)

It’s just about time for you to get your diplomas and start partying like the rock stars that you are, but just a few more things before I go:

Be kind whenever possible, because you will always remember, and always regret the times when you were not.

Think of your life as a story, and ask yourself, “Is this a story I’d like to read? Do I like the protagonist? And which parts do I want to edit out?”

When you fall in love, be the one who loves more at least once. It will feel like a position of weakness, but it is not. You’re the brave one.

After college, you are going to go through a period in life where you wonder what the point of it all is, and whether or not you’ve made a huge mistake. That period is known as “adulthood.” Embrace it.

Yes, it’s all been done before. It just hasn’t been done by you, and that will make all the difference.

And this might be the most important thing I say tonight, so please remember it: don’t get a duvet cover for your bed. The only time the corners of the duvet and the corners of the comforter will ever line up is the very first time you put the comforter in, and after that you’ll be constantly fighting to keep the comforter from bunching up into one side of the duvet and you can get those metal clips that supposedly keep it in place, but inevitably those will annoy you too, so…y’know, just get a bedspread and be done with it.

In closing, I wish you luck, I wish you patience and happiness, and the bravery to ask the world for what you want from it and give it what it needs at every turn. And I’ll end with words from someone far more eloquent than myself, e.e. cummings:

“To be nobody but yourself in a world that’s doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight. Never stop fighting.”

5 thoughts on “Things One Might Say to a Class of Graduating Seniors.

  1. this is one of the best commencement speeches i have ever read. Having just dropped off my youngest sister for her first year of college and being a recent graduate, i wish i had heard this first hand, and i truly believe that what you said here is amazing.

    • Thank you, Lucy! They’re great kids, so I tried not to say anything that would screw them up for the rest of their lives. =)

  2. This was really inspiring to me. I was freaking out about this paper I am trudging through (English major) and this class that is making me endlessly frustrated, and I feel better now. I feel that I have permission to be better at some things than others, and to fail spectacularly at writing like Michel de Montaigne. Thanks for being petrified and putting yourself out there. You’re great on “Welcome to That Whole Thing” by the way.

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