Headmaster Hill, members of the board, alumni, teachers, staff, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, great-great grandparents, friends of the school, that guy who just wandered in thinking this was a wedding with an open bar, and of course graduating students of the class of 2015; it’s an honor to speak to you all on this auspicious day, a day that I have been dreading since Headmaster Hill invited me to speak.
Being asked by the Headmaster of your high school to do what’s basically an oral report is a nightmare for me—and I mean that literally. For DECADES I’ve had a recurring nightmare about returning to Williston to give a report and nobody tells me what it’s supposed to be about. So, thanks for making my most horrible dream come true. At least I am wearing clothes, because in the nightmare I am often naked — though sometimes I am dressed as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader. Oh, God—I AM dressed like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, so perhaps the nightmare is coming true; which is good news for you, because that means you’ll all get to meet Sofia Vergara in a minute, and believe me, SHE won’t be dressed like Ruth Bader Ginsberg…
So, you did it, class of 2015! You are graduating! You have been looking forward to this day, your High School graduation day, for at least 13 years. That’s how long you’ve been going to school. Can you believe that? Thirteen years, for nine months a year, five days a week—or in some cruel, barbaric institutions six days a week.
Well, now it’s over. You are through with school forever. Congratulations. You will never again have to attend another class, read another book, or write another paper ot get up before noon.
Oh—wait a second. That’s right. You’re just graduating from high school. Now you’ve got to go to college. And then graduate school. And then post-graduate school. And then prison, which is seven days a week unless you get one of these cool ankle bracelets…
Can we go back and talk about Saturday classes for second? Guys, I know you’re used to it, and some of you like it, but that’s insane. I know I went to school here a long time ago, and most things have gotten MUCH better, but at least we didn’t have Saturday classes. We didn’t have Monday classes either. Or Wednesday or Friday. We had classes Tuesday mornings and then for a few minutes on Thursday. That was the Williston way.
But, I guess a LOT has changed since I was here. Your football team played in the championship game this year, right? Wow, congratulations. We had a football team. I was on it. But we weren’t as tough as you guys. In fact, more than half of our team was killed during the Wilbraham-Monson game. It was a rougher game, then. And you’ve got this beautiful campus. My God: your gorgeous library and the athletic center – that new 194 building? I went here so long ago — there were no buildings. We built crude teepees out on the glacier where Sawyer Field is now, and in the winter we’d go into the woods and kill wild animals with our bare hands for food, burn their hides for warmth, and then trade their tusks for slices at Antonio’s.
Things really have changed.
I think the kids were different then, too. You seem so… clean. You’re well mannered. You’re serious, and focused.
We weren’t like that.
We were—what’s the word?—awful.
We really were. We were awful people.
We were selfish, and hedonistic, and arrogant.
But you seem to actually appreciate the gifts you’ve been given. Like coming to a place as diverse and special as Williston. You have a real sense of community now, and your relationships with each other and the school are so lovely that for the first time I realize exactly how crappy everything was back in my day. So I am now totally depressed about my youth. Thanks a lot.
The truth is – I think you guys really are MUCH better people than we were. You should be giving ME advice, not the other way around.
What am I supposed to tell you about the future? I mean, you ARE the future.
Speaking of the future: I found something awesome in my old Williston file. When I was at here, I had an English class, it had something to do with Utopian Fiction or visions of Utopia, I can’t really remember, but, I wrote a paper that was full of predictions for the future—for 2015, in fact. So, I dug the paper out to see if any of my old predictions came had come true.
After the usual flying car stuff (by the way will never happen, there will never be a flying car) I actually made a couple of pretty good predictions:
I predicted that there would be an African American President…. And that she would be gay.
I predicted that there would be a terrible recession, and in its wake Right Wing Zombie Warlords would take control of the nation…. We’ll have to wait for the 2016 election results to see if that one comes true.
I predicted that Williston Northampton would tighten its admissions requirements so that only super geniuses, athletic superstars, and prodigies in the arts and music would be admitted. So, the classes would get smaller and smaller every year until the class of 2015 would just be Marie Innarelli and Curt McLeod. Are those real people? I was just taking a shot…
I’ll make another prediction now:
No matter what you decide to pursue in college and beyond, you’ll look back and look back and think, oh, man! I am SO glad I tried that at Williston. For me it was Theatre, Football and Caterwaulers —I guess I was trying to be the John Kay of my era —but, think of the things that you were brave enough to try at Williston! Writer’s Workshop, Crew, Dance, Student Council, or reading minds like Anthony Leung. Side note: I really didn’t know what I was going to say today, so I had Anthony read my mind and then wrote down what he said I was going to say and that’s what I’m saying now. Cool, right? He also stole my watch.
Williston will loom large in your lives, as it has in mine.
I’ve been an actor and writer, director, and musician for a long, long time. I was interested in all of that at Williston, and after Williston I did some serious training—but it was here, in the Caterwaulers with Dick Gregory and especially on the Williston stage, under the loving and skilled direction of Ellis Baker that I gained the confidence to go out and do something REALLY important:
And that’s what I want to talk to you about today: Failure.
I wish all of you guys tremendous success in the things that you are passionate about. I hope that you work hard to good and to do well. I hope you have happy marriages, beautiful divorces and darling children.
And I hope you fail. I hope that each and every one of you is a great, big, classy, fabulous failure.
Why on earth would I wish such a thing on gentle youths like you?
Failure is painful, and hard.
And I don’t believe that there is any virtue in hardship just for the sake of hardship. I worked the graveyard shift at a Taco Bell and it wasn’t even marginally character building, believe me, and my hair still smells like Cheesy Gorditas.
David Brooks, the NYT columnist, with whom I rarely agree, but I do on this, once wrote that there is. “… nothing intrinsically ennobling about failure or suffering.”
I think he’s right. There are 3 Billion people in the world without access to clean water. They aren’t ennobled by their suffering.
But sometimes, on a personal level—a little suffering, a little hardship, a little failure can have big value.
In a lot of ways, from now on, your life will be spent evaluating risks versus rewards. Generally, if you risk nothing, you will gain nothing. And every time that you take risks—real risks with something on the line—there is a possibility that you will fail. In fact, it’s a certainty. Even those of us lucky enough to receive a Williston Education will, at some point, fail. So, really, I’m not wishing that you fail, I am merely pointing out that you will.
When I took the stage here at Williston playing Hamlet at the ridiculously young age of 16, I really had no idea what I was doing. But EB Baker took a risk on me, and I learned, over the space of just a few weeks of rehearsal and 9 or 10 performances, so much. I learned about speaking verse, I learned about understanding and loving Shakespeare.
More important, I became confident. A little voice in my head was saying, yeah, if you work hard enough you can learn all these lines, you can make some old ladies from Easthampton cry, you can even wear black tights in front of your fellow Williston students.
Lucky for me, I didn’t fail at that critical moment of my youth. The show went well, and is still a highlight of my life.
But I failed later—many times. In bigger venues. On bigger stages. In front of cameras. As an actor, as a writer, as a director. And it was sometimes brutal. Oh, man, I directed a show in New York once that failed completely. It got such horrible reviews that just mentioning it to you now makes my feet sweat.
The crazy thing is, it is often been failure, even more than success, that has made me work harder the next time out or taught me some valuable lesson. In the case of the play in New York the lesson was don’t put on a crappy show.
When that play got panned in the New York Times, and our investors lost all of their money, l felt so humiliated and I wanted to crawl into a hole. One thing I learned from that failure was who my friends really were – who would stick with me through thick and thin.
I learned that I had to keep plugging away at what I loved. In the end failure wasn’t going to make me quit.
It’s not fashionable to quote Rudyard Kipling, I guess ‘cause he was a racist, misogynistic imperialist, but I have always thought that of the really bad poets, he’s one of the best. In his hacky but wonderful poem “IF” he says it is a tremendous virtue to be able to:
“watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:”
Failing isn’t the end. You can start all over again—if you’re either desperate, or really love what you’re doing.
So, here’s a free commencement cliché: Find your passion, make that your purpose then pursue it like a crazy person. Here’s the part that’s NOT a cliché: make that PURSUIT its own reward. Don’t do it for money or recognition. And be careful what you choose. That which is deeply satisfying, that goes beyond earthly rewards to reward your soul? It’ll always involve service, selflessness and collaboration. These are the things worth failing at again and again until you finally succeed.
Failure can also teach us the limits of our own power; some things are simply out of our control.
I couldn’t control what that critic, was going to say about our play in New York. And you guys won’t be able to control what the professor in your Freshman American Lit Class is going to say about your first college English paper next year. That’s up to her. What’s up to you, is doing the work. Blowing off that party to re-write the paper AGAIN. Proofing it for the thousandth time. Sending it here to Headmaster Hill for his comments—he’s just the Headmaster. He has plenty of time. YOU control all of that. And if you’ve done all of that and you STILL fail?
Get back on your horse, do it again and do it better
And if we’re still talking about that English paper, get off your horse, Why are you trying to write an English paper on a horse? That’s NOT going to work.
So failure can teach us a little bit about how to get better at what we do, but it has more important lessons to teach us about who we are.
Failure, if we’re willing to learn from it, can teach us a whole lot about humility.
And in the end its deepest lesson is about compassion. You see; we all fail. And when we do, we are hurt and angry and it is very easy to let that harden us, both to our own real feelings, and to the feelings of others. The difficult thing, and the thing that I would ask you to try to do, is to discipline yourself to look around and see that pain and the hurt in others. And not just in your friends. The people you see around you every day and everywhere. The easy thing is not to pay attention. To be unaware. Caring about other people takes practice. Start that practice now, while you are young and hopeful, and it will give you comfort when you are neither.
Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this speech, I was telling a pal that I was gonna talk to you about failure, and he said, oh yeah, I heard a commencement talk by JK Rowling about failure, and I thought, oh, hell. JK Rowling already did this? My failure talk is a failure! But I watched a youtube of her speech, and as it turns out it’s quite a different talk—she talks much more about Wizards that I do. But, she did say one thing about failure that I thought was interesting – Failure, she said, is the “stripping away of the inessential”—when you really thoroughly fail, you can start clean.
Well, you certainly haven’t failed by getting through and successfully graduating from Williston, but you DO have the chance to “start clean” on the next chapter of your life, the one that starts when you get your hard-won diploma today.
So, I leave you looking forward to a string of beautiful failures that make you, a more resilient, more powerful and more compassionate success.
And I want to give you just one other little bit of advice—I think I’ll deliver this musically. It is deeply, deeply important, and often overlooked in traditional commencement addresses. If you remember nothing else that I say today, and believe me, you will remember nothing, remember this. It’s a little off color, so I apologize to the parents.
Listen carefully, and sing along if you know the tune, which would be remarkable since I wrote it last night.
(IN KEY OF C)
DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE
DON’T BEE A JERK
DON’T BE A SON OF A BITCH
ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAPPEN TO GET RICH
DON”T BE AN A-A-A-A-HOLE!
DON’T BE A SLIMEBALL, A DIRTBAG OR WEASEL
AND PUT YOUR PHONE DOWN ONCE IN A WHILE;
SAY HELLO TO PEOPLE (OOO!) (SING IT!)
DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE
DON’T BE A JERK
DON’T BE A SON OF A BITCH
ESPECIALLY IF YOU HAPPEN TO GET RICH
DON”T BE AN A-A-A-ASSHOLE!
NO, NO, NO, NO NO!