When we were asked to give the commencement address for a nearby college, we wanted to do something a little different, so we decided to take some of the “life lessons” from some celebrity graduation speeches and debate their merit. Here’s the transcript.
Who do you think won the debate?
Josh: And now comes the moment you’ve all been dreading…just minutes before you’re finally free to finally free to start leading your own life, someone a bajillion years older than you shows up to give you advice on how you should live it.
Brent: In preparation for today, Josh and I studied dozens of commencement speeches. We read the words of presidents and business magnates. Of Nobel Prize-winning scientists and Oscar-winning actors. We spent weeks trying to find a theme and advice we could both agree on.
Josh: It comes as no surprise to anyone who knows us that we couldn’t.
Brent: So today we’re going to try something that, as far as we know, has never been attempted before. We’re not going to give you a commencement address. We’re going to give you a commencement debate. And we want you to pay close attention, because at the end, you, the class of 2015, will choose which of us has presented the best ideas by which to lead the rest of your life.
And to help us moderate our debate, please welcome the Acting President of SUNY Cobleskill, Dr. Debra H Thatcher.
Dr Thatcher: Thank you. And may the most “Fabulous” man win.
Brent and Josh…In 2001, upon receiving his Honorary Doctorate of Humanities, singer Jon Bon Jovi told the graduating class of Monmouth College: “Nothing is as important as passion. No matter what you want to do with your life, be passionate. The world doesn’t need any more gray.” We’ll begin with Brent…do you agree or disagree?
Brent: Wait, Jon Bon Jovi is a Dr.? Really? Next thing you know they’ll be giving honorary doctorates to reality TV personalities.
As odd as it feels to say, I completely agree with Dr. Jovi’s advice. Passion should always be your driving force. After high school, I chose to pursue a career in medicine. I spent 8 years pursuing my MD degree, and after working in medicine for only three years, I realized that it wasn’t my passion. I’d chosen medicine as a career because it felt safe. “I’d always have a job,” I thought to myself.
And it was safe. So safe that I was bored to tears every day. While I loved my patients, the vast majority of my time was filling out paperwork and attending meetings. At the end of each day I never felt like I’d accomplished anything.
I realized that my real passion was entrepreneurship – creating something from nothing. Growing it and nurturing it. So, I went back to school for another 3 years to earn my MBA. Everyone thought I was crazy. That the time and money I’d spent getting my medical degree had been wasted.
But looking back, whatever price I paid to become a doctor was actually a bargain. Because it made me realize that “Safe” wasn’t actually better than “Sorry.”
“Sorry” is only a temporary moment on the path to something better.
“Safe” is an eternity of “what if’s.”
Dr. Thatcher: Josh, you have two minutes for your rebuttal…is anything more important than passion?
Josh: Well, to begin, I’d like to quote another passage from Dr. Jovi:
“Woah, We’re halfway there.
Woah, living on a prayer,
Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear,
Woah, livin’ on a prayer.”
For the last several generations, society has taught us that chasing our passions is our most noble pursuit. But you know what else is honorable? What our grandfathers’ did. They worked a steady job to keep a roof over their family’s heads and decent shoes on their kids’ feet. They paid their mortgages on time. And if one boring job wasn’t enough to cover the bills, they worked two boring jobs.
They did this because they dreamed that their children and their grandchildren – like many of you getting your degrees today – might lead slightly easier lives. Lives that might be a little more fulfilling than theirs. With a little more leisure time. And yes, maybe a little time chasing one’s passion.
But I don’t believe our grandparents put in those long hours so that we could do nothing but chase our passions. I don’t believe they thought we should skip a rent payment or pass over a decent paying job because we were too busy trying to become YouTube-lebrities or Kardashians-by-marriage.
Passion is just one ingredient of a successful life. Sacrifice, compromise, and yes, occasionally tedium are equally valuable and equally rewarding. Single-mindedly chasing your passion does not insure that you will catch it. In fact it might mean that you spend the remaining 70 or so years of your life living only on a prayer.
Dr. Thatcher: In 2013, Oprah Winfrey spoke to the graduating class of Harvard University. She stated: “There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us into another direction.” Josh, do you agree?
Josh: A quick look into my own college transcripts would prove that failure is certainly a viable option. In fact, not only does failure exist, it will follow you around until the day you fail to keep breathing.
It’s sort of trendy to believe that bad things don’t happen to us. That every problem is an opportunity. That every failure is just God pumping the brakes for our own good.
But not acknowledging failure is like cheating at life and getting away with it. Sure you can do it, but what does it get you? There’s no reward in sugar-coating defeat. Falling on your face can instead be called “reverse standing up,” but you’ll still have a bloody nose. If you are the type of person who can find purpose in a 19th-place ribbon, you are never going to try to win an 18th place ribbon, let alone 1st.
Failure isn’t a life lesson. It’s a life fact. When you fail, and you will, I urge you to fail hard. Own it. Be chastised, be ashamed, be embarrassed, and be humbled. The real lesson failure should teach you is to get better and to try again.
Dr. Thatcher: Brent, do you, like Oprah, believe that there is no such thing as failure?
Brent: Yes. In general, I believe it’s always a good idea to agree with billionaires who own their own TV networks.
But I don’t believe failure doesn’t exist because life is trying to teach us something instead. I believe failure doesn’t exist for anyone who works hard enough.
If you competently prepare, adequately train, and intelligently strategize for any challenge, and yet you still don’t succeed, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you’ve created an interesting new puzzle. You now need to discover why what should have worked, didn’t work. And eventually you’ll succeed.
But I also believe that failure also doesn’t exist for the lazy, either. For people who don’t prepare, train, and strategize, failure still isn’t failure. For lazy people….failure is regret. Regret that they didn’t try harder. And that stings even worse than failure.
Dr. Thatcher: In 2013 Actress Kerry Washington advised the graduates of George Washington University: “…don’t follow the path prescribed by someone else. Don’t give in to fear. Continue to define your unique path.” Josh…your thoughts?
Josh: Oh, that old cliche. “March to the beat of your own drum.” “Think Different.” “You are the you only you can be.”
We’re currently living in a culture that celebrates personal independence. Personally, I think we’ve gone overboard.
Human beings are herd animals. Nowhere on earth do individual humans exist outside of some sort of society. And having lived amongst goats for several years now, I’ve noticed a lot about herd behavior. For instance, whenever one goat hears a branch snap, or a dog bark, it takes off running back to the safety of the barn. And almost instantaneously all the rest of the goats – even if they were out of earshot of the sudden noise – begin stampeding right along with the first one.
99.99999% of the time, there is no good reason to bolt, but they still do. There’s not one single goat who hangs back thinking “you know what? I’m gonna do my own thing here and head in the opposite direction towards that strange loud sound, because I’m a special and unique goat.” No, they all run back to the barn together. And you know what? .00001% of the time, they’ve avoided a coyote slaughter.
So herds exist for a reason. Including the human herd. Our herd exists because there is no good reason to repeat the same mistakes billions of other people have already made.
There are many of you out there who dream of a relatively predictable life. You’d like a stable job, a good marriage, an decent home, and healthy children. You find the idea of forging a brand new path, or “going where no man has gone before” a bit scary.
And to you I say: “Bravo.” You are supposed to be afraid of fear, because fear is the result of the herd’s past failures. Listen to your fears, examine why they exist, and then if you still want to be that goat facing down the coyote, give it a shot. But don’t feel bad about running back to the barn either.
Dr. Thatcher: Brent, should our graduates follow the path prescribed by someone else, or define their own unique path?
Brent: You path will be unique whether you want it to be or not, because everyone one of you is 100% completely unique.
But don’t take that as a compliment.
But being unique and different is not an accomplishment, it’s simply a fact. It is what you do with your uniqueness that determines your merit.
For instance, Josh and I were the first gay couple to have a reality show about their lives on a national television channel. Some people in the media felt that was what the show would be about. Before the show had even aired, it was being called the “gay Green Acres.”
(That’s an old TV show, for all you students out there.)
But rather than use the show to highlight how unique we two gay city boys were in the middle of Schoharie County, we decided to never mention it. You never heard a word on the show about us having any issues about being gay in a small rural community.
We knew that we were in a unique position as the first gay couple on TV. So why should we trumpet it? Who would that serve? Instead, we tried to figure out how to use that position to help others. So instead of a show about us, we morphed the show into showing how one small, down-on-its-luck village could band together and create something wonderful and special. Together.
We’re all unique. That’s a given. Simply being unique doesn’t make you wonderful. But being wonderful can make you unique.
Dr. Thatcher: Thank you both for your perspectives. And now, we’d like the students to determine which of these two men gave the best life advice. We’ll judge based on audience applause.
Those who thought Brent offered superior guidance, please applaud now.
Those who thought Josh presented better life lessons, please applaud now.
Brent: Okay. So you just heard us give a lot of conflicting life lessons. And now we want to share with you the real secret to a long, successful, and rewarding life.
Josh: Actually. You just spent the last half hour learning it.
Brent: There is no such thing as one right way to live your life. The secret is to seek out different opinions and find a better path that incorporates both. Even though Josh and I usually have diametrically opposed opinions, we have accomplished much more in our lives together than we ever could have separately.
Josh: In your future lives and careers, you will always encounter people who think, believe, and act differently than yourself. If you’re a Democrat, you will work alongside Republicans. If you’re Jewish, you will have a Moslem neighbor. If you’re gay, your daughter’s boyfriend will have fundamentalist Christian parents. If you only watch Fox News, your doctor’s waiting room will be tuned to MSNBC.
You will never escape this fact. In fact, you should embrace it. Because you’ll find that people who hold the opposite viewpoints as your own somehow, amazingly, wind up being right exactly as often as you are. Your only chance at succeeding more often than failing is by working together to come up with even greater solutions.
Brent: As SUNY Cobleskill graduates, we can confidently declare that you’re better prepared than most other college graduates across the country to live this life lesson and become successful. Truly. We’ve always remarked that this campus is one of the most diverse campuses we’ve ever been on. From rurally-raised Animal Science students, to Communications majors from urban backgrounds. From Culinary & Business majors to Wildlife & Early Childhood Development students…this university’s diverse programs draw students from all over the world with more varied racial, socio-economic, religious and cultural backgrounds than we’ve experienced anywhere.
Think back to the day you first arrived on this campus. Had you ever seen more strange people in your life?
And somehow in the intervening years, you have grown together to become the Class of 2015, and each of you are far stronger than the day you arrived as a party of one.
Josh: Try to always remember the different kinds of students and faculty you met here. And remember how you forged friendships and mentorships with people you thought you had nothing in common with. Don’t ever forget what happened here. Because that is the secret to finding success and happiness as you move on.
Brent: Class of 2015…Josh and I are confident in your future success, and we’re immensely proud to have been your neighbors. Congratulations.