Author, drama and cultural critic for The Wall Street Journal
Commencement Address at the Hamilton Holt School May 7, 2011
I know that luck has a way of happening to people who shoot high, who never sell themselves short.
Iím supposed to keep it short, and I approve of that. Being a drama critic, I know, or at least Iím supposed to know, that you should leave íem wanting more. So Iíll be briefóand, I hope, to the point.
I donít know any of you, but I already know something about you, and itís this: you are remarkable. Remarkable by definition, because you have done something remarkable. You got a college degree at night, and if I know anything about American life today, I know that you didnít have much time to spare. You came to Rollins after putting in a full dayís work. You did your homework at night or early in the morning or on weekends. That tells me everything about you, and it fills me with admiration. You have a right to be proud. Youíve earned it. So enjoy itótoday.
And after that? Well, Iím thinking of a scene from a movie I like, Bull Durham. Tim Robbins, the hot young rookie pitcher, trots into the dugout after pitching a fantastic inning. He says, ďI was great, huh?Ē
But Kevin Costner, the veteran catcher whoís trying to get him ready for the big leagues, isnít having any of it. He says, ďYour fastball was up and your curveball was hanging. In the show they wouldíve ripped you.Ē
Robbins says, ďCanít you let me enjoy the moment?Ē
And Costner says, ďThe momentís over.Ē
Well, folks, the moment isnít over yet, but itíll be ending shortly after lunch. Yes, be proud for all the days of your lifeóbut after lunch, remember that youíve got to go back to work on Monday. And thatís what the rest of my speech is about: itís about what to do on Monday morning.
Graduation addresses are usually given by persons of a certain age who are assumed, usually wrongly, to have acquired great wisdom to go with their gray hairs, and who are charged to pass that wisdom on to a captive audience of men and women in robes and funny hats. Believe me, I donít claim to be wise, but I do have plenty of gray hair. Iíve also learned a few things about life and work in my fifty-five years on this planet, and Iím going to share two of themójust twoówith you. Theyíre the two best pieces of advice I know. Iím going to tell you what the world wants from you, and Iím going to tell you what you should want from the world.
Hereís what the world wants from you: it wants you to be professional. Show up on time. Be a good colleague. Get the job done, and do it well enough that nobody has to clean up your mess.
Why is that good advice? Because the world is full to the brim of unprofessional people, many of whom are very smart and a few of whom are geniuses. Youíve known folks like that, folks who are always saying incredibly clever things off the top of their head, and I bet that sometimes theyíve made you feel small and inadequate.
But hereís the secret of life. If youíre professional and theyíre notóif you show up on time every morning and get the job done and they show up two hours later and start spouting clever excuses for being late the second they walk through the dooróthen nine times out of ten, you will win and they will lose.
The world is hungry for professionalism. Be a professional and youíll never have to look for work, at least not for very long.
Now, hereís what you should want from the world. When I was a boy, I noticed that my father didnít really like what he did for a living. It didnít suit him. He hadnít set his heights high enough as a young man, and so he spent most of the rest of his life working at a job that didnít engage enough of his brain to keep him satisfied. And I said to myself: I donít know what I want to do when I grow up, but whatever it is, I donít want to be bored.
And thatís my second piece of advice to you: whatever you end up doing in this life, make sure above all that itís interesting. Because most likely youíre going to spend a third of the rest of your life, eight hours out of twenty-four, working for a living. And if what you do bores you, that means youíre going to spend a third of the rest of your life being bored. And believe me, friends, that is no way to live.
Now Iím a very lucky man. I get paid to see plays and write about them. I wonít lie to you: sometimes thatís boring. But not very often. Most of the time I sit down in my aisle seat on Broadway or in Chicago or San Diego or Orlando, and I smile and say, ďI have the best job in the world.Ē Iím not foolish enough to think that luck had absolutely nothing to do with it. But I also know that luck has a way of happening to people who shoot high, who never sell themselves short. I didnít, and now Iím a happy manóso long as the play is good.
One more story and Iím done. Since Iím a drama critic, Iíll make it a Broadway story. Itís about Leland Hayward, who used to be a big Broadway producer. He was going to put on a play by Maxwell Anderson called Anne of the Thousand Days, and he asked Anderson who should play Henry VIII. Anderson gave it some thought, then he played it safe and suggested a good, solid actor with no flair, no panache.
Hayward got red in the face, banged on the desk, and said, ďNo, no, Max! Suppose there were absolutely no problems in getting anyone in the world you wanted. Who would you pick?Ē
Anderson didnít hesitate for a moment. He said, ďRex Harrisonóbut youíll never get him.Ē
And Hayward grinned and said, ďWhy not ask him?Ē He picked up the phone and started placing calls, and an hour later, Rex Harrison had agreed to play Henry VIII.
Then Hayward hung up, grinned, and said, ďThereís a lesson in this, Max. Never start out asking for someone youíd eventually settle for.Ē
You see the point. If thereís ever a time in life for you to shoot high, itís now. So take a long, cool look at yourself and say, What do I really want out of life? What would keep me interested until the day I die? Do I have a realistic chance to get it? And if you think you do, then go for it. Work as hard to get it as you worked to get your degree here. Settle later, if you mustóbut donít spend the rest of your life eating your heart out because you didnít give it your very best shot right now.
And thatís that. I congratulate you, members of the Class of 2011, for doing something truly remarkable. Remember: be proud. Be professional. Donít be bored. Enjoy the moment. And be sure to get a good lunch.
Posted on: 05.19.2011