DO: Google “Fred Armisen Commencement Speech.”
DOO-DOO: Not watch the video that comes up.
I recently watched a commencement speech delivered by Fred Armisen at Oregon Episcopal High School this past June. Fred Armisen is a comedian known for his roles on “Saturday Night Live” and “Portlandia” and is famous for being the most ethnically ambiguous person of all time. (Seriously, he’s played everyone from President Obama to Steve Jobs to Saddam Hussein to Nooni the Swedish husband of Nuni to a giggly Japanese schoolgirl to the glasses kid from Glee.)
If you’ve ever given a speech in public, you understand the difficult necessity of presenting virtuous substance in an entertaining and thought-provoking manner. Too much funny, and no one knows what you’re trying to say. Too much serious, and no one cares what you’re trying to say. (My high school graduation speech fell into the former, littered with short-people jokes and an extended reading and analysis of the song “I’m On A Boat” by The Lonely Island, feat. T-Pain.)
Armisen did a great job captivating the audience with advice and well-placed humor, but still managed to carry a bold thesis with his speech. “My message to you is this: no matter what happens, everything turns out great. I promise you. It all turns out great.” I wondered how responsible it was to tell high school seniors that. Sure, it sounds comforting and encouraging and gives that warm, happy millions-of-fireflies-let-loose-in-your-chest sort of feeling, but does it really help prepare them for real life? And most importantly, is it true?
It almost seems arrogant and self-absorbed. Oh sure, the successful comedian who made it to the big times is assuring me that everything will work out great. (It bugged me the way it bugs me when incredible singers assure people that “anyone can sing.”) But then Armisen continued on with a brief history of his life. He got rejected from NYU’s film school and ended up going to a small visual arts school, which changed the way he perceived art. He dropped out of that school to play drums in a band that watched so many other bands get their big break while he was stuck playing empty clubs.
As a diversion to his struggling music career and seemingly unattainable dreams, he began doing stand-up comedy…and it all turned out great.
I think I agree with Armisen. No matter what happens, everything turns out great. It is true if we allow it to be true. But I think it requires a shift in philosophy. So often we are concerned with where we are going in life and less concerned with whom we are becoming. (I don’t know if it’s who or whom in that last sentence, but the green squiggly on the screen went away with “whom.”)
There’s something commendable about desiring a specific goal and achieving it through dedication and perseverance. But we do ourselves a disservice if we are not open and willing to changing and re-evaluating what would be considered a worthy outcome for our lives. Tunnel vision that strips the definition of “great” down to one specific situation or scenario is doomed to failure from the start.
I dream of becoming a brilliant screenwriter, but the fact of the matter is that it may not happen for reasons beyond my control. No matter how talented or persistent I am and no matter how many dues I pay, the reality of the entertainment industry is that I may never get a break. But even if I can’t be a screenwriter in Hollywood, I’ll always be something to someone somewhere. Maybe a husband or a father or a neighbor or a son — whatever the case, there will always be a reality in front of me that deserves my attention and appreciation.
What would happen if instead of answering “a screenwriter,” I completed the statement “In 10 years, it would be great if I could be…” with character attributes? It would be great if I could be generous. Or patient. Appreciative. Loyal. Forgiving. Encouraging. Loving. Joyful. (Taller.) These are all things that I can control; I can actively and intentionally take steps towards becoming them every day (except the taller part. There’s nothing I can do about that…according to 50,000,000 Google search results.)
Things never go according to plan. Your future will never be perfect. But if you concern yourself less with what you’ll be in the future and more with how you’ll be in the future, then no matter what happens, I promise you, everything will turn out great.
But seriously, Chase really wants to get taller. Email him with tips at ninjaish “at” stanford “dot” edu.