Thursday, July 16, 2009

Commencement Speeches: Bradley Whitford at the University of Wisconsin

In the Spring of 2004, Bradley Whitford, an actor from the West Wing delivered a commencement address at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. The speech made the list of top 10 commencement speeches compiled by CNBC earlier this year - the lone representative from the entertainment industry amongst political and industrial luminaries such as Winston Churchill, JFK and Steve Jobs. I saved the link of the list- hoping to find time later in the year to track through each of them. I've read three so far, this being the funniest and most down to earth.

In retrospect though, his line: "Ominous threats seek to distract us from achieving our spectacular potential as individuals, as a nation and as a delicate, shrinking planet. We need you." seemed eerily prescient in the light of the asian tsunami. In May 2004, Mr Whitford - and countless others worrying about the delicate ecosystem - could not have forseen the devastation that the earth could muster up when roused.

I've excerpted my favourite parts of the transcript below.

"Now, you may think that I am inappropriately taking this opportunity to attack the president on a meaningless issue because of my particular political persuasion -- and you would be correct. But I hereby challenge the leader of the free world to swear under oath that he wrote every word of the commencement address that he delivered. It is not gonna happen.

Yes, friends, take solace in the fact that if you had actually paid me anything to come here today, you would be about to get your money's worth. For better or for worse, this horribly disappointing choice of a commencement speaker had to write his own speech. "

"It comes down to about six basic principles. I call them "Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned on My Way to a Humiliating Audition," and they go like this:

Number One: Fall in love with the process and the results will follow. You've got to want to act more than you want to be an actor. You've got to want to do whatever you want to do more than you want to be whatever you want to be, want to write more than you want to be a writer, want to heal more than you want to be a doctor, want to teach more than you want to be a teacher, want to serve more than you want to be a politician. Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.

Number Two: Very obvious - do your work. When faced with the terror of an opening night on Broadway, you can either dissolve in a puddle of fear or you can get yourself ready. Drown out your inevitable self-doubt with the work that needs to be done. Find joy in the process of preparation.

Number Three: Once you're prepared, throw your preparation in the trash. The most interesting acting and the most interesting living in this world has the element of surprise and of genuine, honest discovery. Be open to that. You've all spent the majority of your lives in school, where your work is assigned to you and you're supposed to please your teachers.

The pressure to get into wonderful institutions like this is threatening to create a generation of what I call hiney-kissing requirement-fulfillers. You are all so much more than that. You've reached the wonderful and terrifying moment where you must be your own guide. Listen to the whispers inside you. We have a lot of problems in this world and we're going to need you to think outside the box.

Number Four: You are capable of more than you think. If you've ever smashed a mosquito on your arm, there is a murderous Richard III inside you. If you've ever caught your breath at the sight of someone dipping their toes into Lake Mendota in the late afternoon sun over at the Union, you, too, have Romeo's fluttering heart. "

"Now, I'm not advocating that you all go out and bleach your hair so that you can play the jerk in a really stupid Adam Sandler movie. I don't know what kind of an idiot would think that is a worthwhile way to spend their life. But don't limit yourselves. Take it from the professional extrovert - the most gregarious among us are far more insecure than we would ever admit. We all go through life bristling at our external limitations, but the most difficult chains to break are inside us.

One of the few graduation speakers who will never be forgotten, Nelson Mandela, put it this way:

"Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world."

Let's just take a moment to hope that Nelson Mandela and Adam Sandler never again share a paragraph. "

"Number Five: Listen. It is the most difficult thing an actor can do and it is the most riveting. You can't afford to spend your life like a bad actor stumbling through a predetermined performance that is oblivious to the world around you. We can't afford it either. Listening isn't passive. It is an act of liberation that will connect you to the world with compassion and be your best guide as you navigate the choppy waters of love, work and citizenship.

And finally, Number Six: Take action. Every story you've ever connected with, every leader you've ever admired, every puny little thing that you've ever accomplished is the result of taking action. You have a choice. You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life. Action is the antidote to apathy and cynicism and despair. You will inevitably make mistakes. Learn what you can and move on. At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble. "

His parthian shaft:

"Let me be clear - I want you all to stay the hell out of show business. The last thing I need is a bunch of young people invading my job market.

But I do want you to be an actor in your own life. Infuse your life with action. Don't wait for it to happen. Make it happen. Make your own future. Make your own hope. Make your own love. And whatever your beliefs, honor your creator, not by passively waiting for grace to come down from upon high, but by doing what you can to make grace happen -- yourself, right now, right down here on Earth."

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