Ian Brennan gave this commencement speech at Loyola University Chicago+ READ ARTICLE
Very few people get to give a commencement address at their alma mater. And in fact this is my very first Loyola graduation, because I didn’t attend my own 15 years ago. I was doing a play at Navy Pier, and I guess I figured I definitely couldn’t miss a performance. (And looking back, I definitely could have missed a performance, because I had like 4 lines that were the Shakespeare equivalent of “Everybody, get in here!” I could have missed a performance and the other actors on stage wouldn’t have noticed.)
At any rate I’m very happy to be here and very humbled. And nervous, because these things are all about sharing pearls of wisdom that has one as accumulated and sage pieces of advice. Well what advice to give a stranger, let alone 600 of them? You all have different dreams than I do, different skill sets, different backgrounds, different sensibilities, different ambitions – you’re different people. And to give advice to a group of people as diffuse as that, you’d have to say something so toothless and so vague, it would have to be like “Go be good!” Which is also what you say to a dog when you want it to pee.
And what good is advice anyway? Everyone’s path is so different, and so dependent on chance. Advice that helped me in my life wouldn’t necessarily help you in yours. And it would be nonsensical to advise anybody to follow my path, because you wouldn’t end up in the same place. My path standing here before you this morning involved yes, a lot of hard work and planning, but also a lot of chance, a lot of bizarre chance events, a lot of strange coincidences.
Case in point, I’m here presumably because I created a TV show. That TV show, “Glee”, began its life as a screenplay, which was yes, based on my own experiences in show choir (which I hated — really didn’t enjoy it, still having anxiety dreams about it), but it didn’t occur to me to write about show choir until I met a girl I was in a play with in New York, and we ended up dating, and she had been in show choir, too, and then we would talk about it, laugh about it, watch old video tapes of it, and it’s then I realized, oh my God, no one’s ever written about a glee club. That’s hilarious. Such a funny setting for a movie. So then I sat down and wrote a screenplay about it. That screenplay was called “Glee.”
Now: that girl I dated, I met during this play, a play I had to fly to New York from Seattle to audition for, because I was doing a play in Seattle. I had to catch a red eye or I’d miss the whole thing entirely. I kid you not, I was 15 seconds away from missing that flight. It was like a Tom Hanks movie, I was in Sea-Tac airport, running through screaming to the gate agents, just as the doors were closing they let me on the plane. Barely made the flight, got to the audition, booked the play, met the girl that inspired the screenplay that became the TV show. If I was 15 seconds later I would have missed the flight, not gotten cast, never met the girl who showed me the videotapes that inspired the screenplay that became the TV show. And someone else would be here talking to you.
I don’t say that to exaggerate my abilities or to denigrate them, I just say that to illustrate the randomness that dictates every one of our lives. And in the face of such randomness what advice can you give, beyond Good luck. Buckle up. Enjoy the ride. To say anything else would just be hackneyed platitudes, and I do have hackneyed platitudes for you all. But before I get to that, I would like to speak a little bit about this institution we can now all say we share bachelors’ degrees from.
So confession – My whole life I really wanted to go to Northwestern. I just always thought it was going to happen. I was born in Evanston, it seemed symmetrical. They had a good theater program. I could stay in Chicago, my parents could watch Ohio State beat them at football. I just always thought it would happen.
And then, it didn’t happen. I didn’t get in. I’m still furious about it. I was like, how could this – you know, you get the little envelope, and I was like, but the whole plan was… and then your mind starts going, “What did I do wrong?” And in my case I totally knew what it was, and it was show choir. GLEE CLUB, ARGH. I felt obligated to do it because I knew I wanted to be an actor, and you sort of had to do it to be in the musicals, and I wanted to be a theater major and I dropped AP Euro so I could do it. And it made me too busy, it was literally the extracurricular activity that broke the camel’s back. It made me grades suffer, in junior year I got a bunch of B’s that should have been A’s. Dropped me out of the top 10% of my class. And then the person I asked to my write college recommendation to Northwestern was the show choir director! And it wasn’t even a good recommendation, because all he wrote about was how I was good at show choir! So dumb! And I didn’t even really enjoy it, with the sequins and the smiles and the show tunes. For our final show choir event, for the whole school, I was forced to perform in something called “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Concert.”
Looking back on it now, A) It all worked out. B) Sort of glad I was in Glee Club… and C) I am very glad I did not go to Northwestern, because if I had I could not have gone to Loyola.
I’m so proud of this institution, I’m so proud of the Jesuits, I think they represent just the absolute best of Catholicism. I’m so proud of the pope, the first Jesuit pope ever. Watching this man be pope is like watching Michael Jordan play basketball. I literally had T-shirts made with his face on it, waving, that said “This Pope is Dope.” Not making that up.
And I’m so grateful to have gone to Loyola, a school that, as you will learn as you go out into the world, no one really knows where it is. You say “I went to Loyola”, people are like “Oh, I love New Orleans.” Nope. Or they’re like, “Oh, I’ve never been to Baltimore, what’s Baltimore like?” I don’t know. Or they say, “Great view of Los Angeles, really really convenient to LAX.” You go, Nope, that’s Loyola Marymount. I went to Loyola in Chicago, where there’s a Loyola.
I’m so grateful to have gone to a place where there’s sort of no fraternities—apologies to any of you that are in a fraternity. When I was here, they didn’t really even have houses, they had lunch tables. I don’t know if they still have that? And the lunch tables, they looked like dollhouses, they had these little mailboxes on them with letter slots which presumably you could drop letters into. Fifty percent of the letters had to say just like, Nice lunch table.
And I’m so grateful to have spent four years in this weird little pocket of Chicago called Rogers Park. It’s such an amazing place, it’s one of the most diverse places in the world, it’s a place where everyone is technically a minority. It’s amazing. It’s true. A place where if you throw a party, actual street people will show up. Like, urchins will wander in with an empty milk jug, head to the keg, fill it up, and then just hang out. You’d always be like, strong street urchin component at this party, Bravo.
And I’m so grateful for this Jesuit education. When you go here, that’s a phrase you hear a lot. For those who don’t know – and most of you should, because you paid for it – it’s a lot of classes over the broad range of the liberal arts, most of which you can’t use AP credit to pass out of, so you have to take them, with a heavy concentration in theology and philosophy. Such a heavy concentration that when I was here at least you only had to take three more courses in either philosophy or theology and you’d have a minor.
So let me tell you, this Jesuit education sticks with you. There’s still five or six classes that I still talk about on a weekly basis and bore people with at parties.
I took a class, it was a theology class, an astronomy professor my astronomy professor, wandered in one day, and he gave this lecture, and it was about how Hebrew tradition was really confused by the beginning, in the beginning, the first phrase in the book of Genesis begins with the letter Bet instead of Aleph, the letter B instead of A. Hebrew scholars were freaking out like for millenia, This perfect document, why does it start with B? Why wouldn’t it start with the first letter of the alphabet?
And what they came up with is, the letter Bet, it’s shaped like a bracket, and that that shape was itself a message, that it was pointing you that way, into the text. It was essentially saying Don’t worry about what happened before “in the beginning”. All this, by an astronomy professor…there’s no other institution in the world where that would happen, an astronomy professor wanders in and gives you a lecture in Hebrew theology.
I learned so much there. So much of any of my success I can trace to this place. And you’re like, Hold on, Wait, didn’t you have that high school teacher that inspired you? And yes, his name is John Marquette, he totally encouraged a small cadre of classmates of mine to go into a career in theater, he taught speech team, he directed all of the plays, and he want to Loyola.
It was here at Loyola that I took my first acting class, taught by that woman right there. It was here I was in my first new play, a play that had never been directed before, also by that woman right there. It was where I wrote my first play, saw it produced, realized it was the worst play ever written. I couldn’t even tell you the title of this play, such is my embarrassment. If any of you had read this play you would stand up right now and just go Shame! Shame! It’s that bad.
This is where I directed a play for the first time, learned about 60% of what you need to know about directing. So I can’t say I learned everything at Loyola, but a big chunk of what I learned, I learned at this place.
So, that having been said, what have I learned? What are my sage kernels of advice for 600 strangers? Here they are in no particular order.
Piece of Advice Number One: Work hard. Work hard. Be the hardest working person you know. Because if you’re not, someone else will be. And you can’t control how smart you are, how funny you are, how good-looking you are. The one thing you can control in your life is how hard you work. Make it a thing that people say about you, you know, “Man, he’s ugly, but he sure works hard.”
If you’ve got the lazy gene, you’re in trouble, because there is literally no successful person in history who people look back on and say, “Yeah, she was a really amazing person, accomplished so much, super lazy.”
It doesn’t mean you have to be obsessive type A maniac, because for 8 hours a day you can just pretend that you are and then you can go home and be as lazy as you want. Work hard.
Piece of Advice Number Two: Sounds obvious, but find a job that you love. And don’t stop searching until you do. Find a career you can get obsessed with. A career is like a mattress, you spend a third of your life on it, so make sure it’s comfortable. Take it from me, if you love your job, you will never work a day in your life.
Piece of Advice Number Three: Don’t follow money. Money is not your friend. Happiness in America – they’ve done studies about this, the happiest people in America are the middle class. The sweet spot is like between eighty thousand dollars a year and one hundred and twenty thousand a year. I’m not saying that easy, but less than that and you’re miserable, and more than that, and you’re miserable. (It’s sort of true.)
Money is good in that it gives you the freedom to continue to do the things you love. But it’s not an end in itself. It will not make you happy. Ask any Powerball winner.
Piece of Advice Number Four: Foster your creativity. And then, protect it. Your creativity is the greatest gift you will ever be given, and it’s the source of the greatest things you will achieve. It’s the part of you that is the most you. So care for it, the way you would a child or a beloved pet. Be firm, don’t let it just sit around. Make it do things. Toilet train it, be patient with it and it will grow and mature and get better and better and better. It will become the part of your life that you enjoy the most.
And more specifically, with regard to the two professions with which I can speak with some authority – to any actors out there, Act already. Start yesterday. Audition for everything. They say it takes ten years to get truly good at something? Well get up there and start being bad. Because once you stop being bad you’re going to start being good.
To writers: Write. That’s the one thing you have to do. Write for an hour every day. I remember I was told that once, and I thought, That sounds horrible. And it sort of is. But it doesn’t matter what you write, just write for an hour a day. Two at most. Nobody is creative for more than two hours a day, and if they say they are, they’re lying to you. Stephen King sort of was, but he did loads of cocaine.
Just let the world around you quiet down, and listen to your mind. Earplugs help for me. And when you get stuck, there’s a book to read, it’s called “Bird by Bird.” It’s by a writer named Anne Lamott. “Bird by Bird” – it’s the single best book on the writing process I’ve ever read.
Writing is lonely and difficult. Every time I sit down to write the first 45 minutes consists of 90% of my brain that is critical telling the 10% that’s creative that what it’s doing is absolutely horrible. It’s a job of the writer to not get up from the chair until that critical brain gets tired. And as soon as it does that creative part will start creating. Writing is hard until it isn’t, but when it comes flying out, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.
And my final piece of advice, sort of my only piece of advice, begins with an anecdote. When I was here at Loyola, the theater department brought in a very successful Chicago actor to give a seminar on acting. And I won’t say who his name is, I want to protect his anonymity, but his name is Bill Norris. He’s a great actor, he’s had a great career in Chicago theater for like 40 years.
Anyway I was like a freshman or sophomore, I can’t remember, but at the end of the seminar he asked if we had any questions. And my hand shot up, and I was like, What advice would you give someone like me who wants to do this as a career? What would you advise?
And his advice was one word. He said, Quit.
Now: I understood what he was getting at, and he was probably half joking. And maybe some people in that room needed to hear that. But it stands as the single worst piece of advice I have ever received. I am only standing here because I didn’t take it. So my only real advice to you is the opposite: Don’t Quit. Never quit. If you’ve been blessed to know the thing you want to do, do not give up on it. It doesn’t matter how hard it is.
The one way to guarantee you’re not going to be successful at something is to give up on it. Yes, some dreams are harder to achieve than others. But there is not one that is impossible. I’m telling you. Really ambitious goals – starting a theater company, running for Congress, starting your own business, opening an art gallery in Prague. These things are hard. But even the hardest goal is not that hard. The hardest part is admitting to yourself that that’s what you really want to do.
Dare to say out loud the thing that you actually want and the hard part is actually over. Because then you’ll start to make a plan, and when you have a plan, then you’ll start to make that plan real. And before you know it, you’re just doing the thing that you always wanted to do.
And when you’re busting your hump, following your dream, and someone asks you the question, What do you have to fall back on? Slap them. Don’t worry about Plan B. You know what your Plan B should be? Plan A. You’re young. The world is full of possibilities for every one of you. Don’t second guess yourself. Don’t plant the seed of failure right next to the seed of success. You may not end up twenty years from now exactly where you thought you would be, but it’s going to feel like you did, because you followed your truest, deepest desires. You honored your truest, deepest self.
So that’s my advice. So Go be good. You’re 600 strangers, you have your whole lives ahead of you, and I’m already in wonder of what you’re going to accomplish. Congratulations, Class of 2015.
Read more 2015 commencement speeches: