I was asked to give the commencement speech at Laurel Springs, the high school I went to. This Saturday was the big day. Thirty Eight students were graduating and their family and friends were assembled. Below is my speech.
When I was first invited to come here and speak to you I thought, what do I have to say to you?
What words of wisdom can I give you that will inspire you as you move forward into the next momentus step of your lives and at the same time keep you all from yawning?
Only recently it seems that I, like you was sitting here at my own graduation from Laurel Springs. A much smaller class, maybe 12, were receiving their diplomas.
I remember that I felt excited but nervous about what was going to happen next. I felt full of myself. I felt that I knew so much; I was ancient with knowledge.
I was the know it all of know it all’s!
I was sixteen years old so of course I knew everything.
I did have a little anxiety about the future but I ignored it. I thought to myself “I have decades, I have an ocean of time to figure things out”. I felt comforted by the thought that I knew everything and that which I didn’t know, I would quickly figure out.
But now as I look back, I can see there is one crucial piece of information that if I had known, would have saved me from many years of heart ache.
So I decided to come here and accept the invitation to speak to you in order to say…
What is courage? To be fearless? No. Courage is the ability to do something that frightens you.
Courage is having strength in the face of pain or grief. Courage is having fears, being in danger and being willing to face it. To stand up to it. To believe in yourself in THIS moment.
Right here. Having courage is being fully you. Outrageous, contagious, vivacious, courageous.
Who among you has the courage to follow your dreams?
And if you do not yet know what your dreams are, who among you will have the courage to follow your instincts…?
And for those of you who don’t yet have instincts, who will follow their inner voice?
Some of you may think, ‘I don’t have an inner voice’. Or, ‘I have multiple inner voices, all of them shouting at me to go in different directions, like a room of four year olds headed for the playground.’ “I don’t know what I want to “be” or where I want to go”.
That’s okay. As long as you have the courage to go. To explore, investigate, travel, fall in love, create, fall out of love, be alone. Believe in yourself.
We are raised to live and conform in society. There is a reason for that. There is a reason that we need to follow rules. To listen to others. To value people’s opinions. Our parent’s, our friends, our community.
For one it keeps us safe. “Don’t touch the flame”. Okay – that’s a good one to keep from getting burned, right?
Having other people agree with our choices and our thoughts makes us feel good. Gives us confidence.
When we are young and we draw a picture, we show it to our mother. Our mother says “Beautiful.” She is proud and we feel good. Soon we draw more and carry every picture to her to hear those words. It feels good to have her approval.
It feels good to have other people’s approval.
When we are older we get dressed, we go out into the world, a friend says, “I like your shoes”. “I like your shirt”. This feels good.
Having other people approve of us becomes not only nice but also ingrained.
When we write a story, paint a picture, have an idea, we look to others to validate what we are doing or creating. It becomes a necessity.
Is it? What happens when the inevitable occurs?
That idea we had, that song we wrote, picture we drew, clothes we designed, isn’t smothered with affection. Perhaps it is rejected entirely as being a total failure?
Then what? Are other people right?
What would happen if we didn’t care what other people thought of what we did or who we were?
No. Creative courage. The willingness to create and DO because YOU believe it is right even when others may not.
Let me go off topic for a moment.
Imagine me, sitting in this room, one of you graduating from high school. I knew from the age of sixteen years old that I wanted to direct films. I knew what I was meant to do. I would be a director.
My inner voice was telling me that I was on the planet to inspire and motivate people. I realized early on that the best way for me to do this was through film. This was, and is, my purpose.
I was like an arrow headed for a target. I was like a beam of light at night, illuminating the road. I was so full of my purpose. I was lucky.
I knew what I wanted to do for my career and soon I was actually getting paid to do it. I directed my first music video, then a commercial and soon I was a successful director. For the past fifteen years since I graduated college I’ve been steadily working as a commercial and music video director, making a living.
How wonderful, right?
I’ll share something with you that not many people know… and I didn’t know until a few months ago…
I’ve been miserable. Why? Through it all, from the very beginning, I’ve always wanted other people’s approval.
I’ve always cared about what other people thought of my work and me. Whether I was directing a commercial, a music video, or most recently my first feature film — what people thought of my work meant everything.
Whenever I set out to make something I was concerned with whether people would like it. What if they didn’t like it?
As the years went by, I might hear the whisper of disapproval in my ear about a music video I had directed. And I would allow that to climb on my shoulder, like a little monkey. Then I would be told by a producer at a company, to direct this so-so commercial or that mediocre commercial because it will make me money or introduce me to new people who might hire me, and soon I had those people on my shoulder. Then I poured my heart into making a feature film and many reviewers hated it! Rejected it even. Now, I had about a hundred little monkeys on my back weighing me down. The chattering in my ear was a roar. I thought for a moment… Maybe I shouldn’t be a director. Maybe I’m not a good director. Other people don’t like everything I’m doing.
Maybe I should stop.
Other people’s viewpoints, and my concerns about other people’s thoughts about my work, about me had shaped and molded my decisions my whole life. I was not living my full potential.
This was not true success. I wouldn’t stop. I would push forward. I would listen to my own heart. I would love my work whether anyone else did or not.
This is what I wish someone had told me when I was your age: Have the courage to love yourself and what you make no matter what other people might think or say.
Have the courage to believe your choices are right even when others doubt you.
Have the courage to follow your bliss wherever it might lead you, whether to college, a career, a family or the mountains of Tibet.
Have the courage to make decisions that are not based on financial gain but are based on what your inner voice tells you are right for you.
How do you do this you might ask? I have four pieces of wisdom to impart as you go out into the world trying to be courageous.
Number 1. Keep your overhead low. Many of us think I’ll be happy when… When what? When I get the new iPhone. When I get a job. When I get a car. When I get a house. When you get that thing does it actually make you happy? Sure, maybe for a fleeting moment but then you want the next thing, the newer one. On and on it goes.
Put yourself, your ideas, your creation ahead of the accumulation of more stuff.
Stuff is meaningless. Keep your expenses low and save your money.
I am telling you all this because if you don’t need things, and you don’t acquire debt but live simply, then you can always have the freedom to have courage and make choices.
The courage to believe in yourself, unapologetically and confidently believe in your ideas, your voice, your truth.
Courage to say no to one path and yes to another and then stand on that road, see dead ends and have the courage to dig the new way through.
You can’t have courage if you’re worried about paying off credit card debt.
Number 2. Find a mentor. A mentor is an adviser, a counselor, and a tutor, someone who can advise you.
I’ve learned that it’s best if they are a little older and have experience in the area you are interested in but not always. Sometimes they are just smart.
I had one when I was fourteen. He was the father of a good friend of mine. I told him I wanted to direct but couldn’t because I didn’t have a camera. He knew nothing about filmmaking but he yelled at me “That’s a dumb excuse! Go find a camera”.
When I told him I wanted to make films, he told me to go out and make one. When I told him again that I didn’t have a camera, he scoffed and said – ‘stop complaining and go find one’. This made me mad.
I wanted him to give me a camera. I wanted a little more help. But I sat and I thought about this instruction. That was great mentoring. I listened to him. I looked everywhere I could for a camera and eventually, a year or so later found my next mentor.
…A film director who was making a small movie in my hometown. I snuck on set, he didn’t kick me off. I spent my days bringing him water, watching his every move and asking him for advice. Within a month, he had leant me a camera. Taught me how to use it. Soon I was making my own little films.
As I grew up, started my career and hit roadblocks, I would find a mentor who had already figured their way through and had something I needed to learn.
Find a mentor and then ask them for advice, bring them home cooked meals, write them hand written notes to thank them, listen to what they have to say but above all else follow your inner voice.
Even now, I always look for mentors. Before I made my movie and after. Especially after when I was faced with the notion that not everyone loved my movie. I needed a mentor. So I called a very experienced, well-known commercial and feature director, at the top of the industry.
I asked him “Sensei, how did you do it? How do you survive the reviewers, how do you go on and make such great work?” He told me… he says “no” to anything he doesn’t love. He only works on projects he’s passionate about. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He knows he is right. He always, always believes in himself.
Number 3. Do it. Go out and do it. Whatever IT is. No excuses. No laziness. You can sleep-in when you’re old. Now is the moment to DO. Whether you choose college or a different tract. Don’t waste your youth. Don’t let it slip by. Travel. See the world. Fulfill your purpose by actually creating, doing.
As the writer and poet, Charles Bukowski said:
if you’re going to try, go all the
way. otherwise, don’t even start.
if you’re going to try, go all the
way. this could mean losing girlfriends,
boyfriends, jobs and maybe your mind.
go all the way. it could mean not eating for 3 or 4 days.
it could mean freezing on a mountain in the middle of the Himalayas
it could mean derision, mockery, isolation.
isolation is a gift, all the others are a test of your
endurance, of how much you really want to do it.
despite rejection and the worst odds. do it and it will be better than
anything else you can imagine.
if you’re going to try, go all the way. there is no other feeling like that.
you will be alone with the gods and the nights will flame with fire.
do it, do it, do it. do it.
all the way. all the way. you will ride life straight to perfect laughter, its the only good fight there is.
Number 4. The final bit.
Everyone close your eyes. Go ahead please. Imagine yourself 10 years from now. What do you want to be doing? No matter how outrageous or unlikely.
Have the courage to dream big. See yourself there doing it. Really picture yourself. See the vision.
Whether you are a cook at your own restaurant, an actor on a big movie, a parent with your child in your home, a politician on stage, a teacher with students.
Now pretend you’re holding a fishing pole – at the end of it is an anchor with your vision of yourself 10 years from now, your precious dream.
As hard as you can, cast out that line into the future, as if casting a line into a large pond.
Do it now. The anchor will sail through the sky and land into the future.
So strong is your dream, so courageous are you that you will pull yourself to it. Pulled to your destiny…
Now open your eyes…..