Brad Falchuk '93, L.H.D.'14
May 18, 2014
Good morning. I want to thank President Gearan for inviting me to speak with you guys today. This is a particular kind of an honor. It’s personal. It’s the rare day when you are given the opportunity to measure the passage of time. As I walked through campus yesterday I was struck by the flashbacks. Like some kind of emotional time machine. I could feel my college aged self walking beside me, reminding me of who I was then, how I’ve changed, the journey of choices that has led me back here. There was a powerful healing. It’s a great gift you have all given me – the gift of perspective and memory and acknowledgment of a life well lived – so far. And I want to thank my parents and my nieces for making the trek to share this with me.
There really are only like ten commencement speeches. You got your, “follow your passion,” your “be the change you want to see in the world,” your “don’t be mean” and your “the future belongs to you.” Life isn’t that complicated. Tell the truth, be kind to people and make sure not to do anything too stupid with your body and things tend to work themselves out. In my experience, you get to be twenty-one years old and it’s not about learning anything new – it’s about learning it again for the first time over and over again until you finally really understand it.
And if I look back on the twenty or so years since I sat where you are sitting and ask myself - what I would have liked to tell myself knowing what I know now? Which platitude on the commencement speech wheel of fortune would I have liked to have really gotten before I tossed my hat in the air? If I could leave one bogeyman behind which would it be?
Failure. I have spent my life in a panic about it. That I’m not good enough, that I’m a fraud, that worth is measured in wins and losses. But here is the thing - I hope you fail. All of you. I hope you fail miserably. I hope you crash and burn. I hope you get fired. I hope someone breaks your heart in the most awful way. I hope you find yourself one day on the floor – metaphorically bloody, hopeless, sobbing over a dream that didn’t come true. This would be my graduation gift to you. I’m a storyteller. My job is to create heroes. And heroes are not born out of glory and success. Heroes can only come to life in the dark heart of failure.
When I first got to Hobart I was not the sturdy, worldly man about town that stands before you today. I had a unibrow. I wore my hair in a bizarre blow-dried pompadour. I was terrified. I charmed my way through but it was a life lived through molasses. I learned so much from the amazing professors like Liz Lyon and Robert Gross. But in terms of my social life I spent most of the year in these little rooms in the library where they had VHS players, watching movies alone in the dark. I didn’t know I wanted to be a filmmaker yet – or at least I wasn’t willing to admit it. I wasn’t looking to learn craft – I was looking to learn how to be. Hoping the leading men on the screen would give me the answers - How to be smarter. More confident. How to get girls. Mostly how to get girls. But Cary Grant’s lines didn’t sound as cool coming out of my mouth and there was no costume designer in my closet to find me a pair of jeans that actually fit.
So I looked around for some role models on campus. I said to myself, who are the coolest guys here? The ones who clearly have it figured it out. If I can be like them, surely the world will reveal itself to me in all its glory. I quickly identified two groups – athletes and fraternity brothers. Now, it was very clear to me that my lack of speed, strength or athletic ability – God given or otherwise was going to keep me off the lacrosse team. But a fraternity appeared to be within my reach. Now if you know me you know that fraternity life is not my scene at all. But at the time this seemed like a brilliant plan.
I chose the house I just knew would be right for me. Sigma Chi. Those dudes were the smoothest. They wore their baseball caps down real low. They were always talking to the cutest girls, they made Steely Dan feel cool and they had the magical ability to drink as much alcohol as they wanted and still make it to class the next morning with zero apparent physical impairment. They also had the best house on campus. A big Victorian at 775 South Main with a huge lawn and a view of the lake from almost every room. It was mount Olympus and they were Gods. And I was going to join their club and then the world would know who I was. Finally there would someone and something to define me.
I was listening to a Springsteen bootleg a month or so ago and he said that before you pick up your first guitar, before you write your first song, before you sign your first record deal you have to lay awake in bed at night “dream yourself to be.” This is how we relate to the world. Back then I had dreamed myself to be a ghost. An extra in some larger movie. A shell that needed to be filled to be worthwhile. One that could only be defined by some outside force. If I could just get into that fraternity I could finally be confident. Be sexy. Be important. Be REAL. And it’s not like that need to find the right external definition stopped once I left school – that’s Hollywood’s specialty.
But it’s not just Hollywood - You’re all going to be faced with the invitation to create yourselves. And the world will tell you that you need to wait. That you need permission to be the hero you dream yourself to be. Not until you get that job, not until you get that engagement ring, not until you have those kids, not until you buy that house, not until you get asked to speak at your alma mater’s commencement.
It’s a lie. You all have goals in your minds. Your version of getting into that fraternity. And they all seem super important and urgent and you know if you don’t get them you can’t see why you should go on living. And you know if you do get them that that will be when life can really start. When you can breathe. An imaginary finish line. Take a second to step back from those goals. Because it’s not the goals you want – it’s how you think attaining them is going to make you feel about yourself. But you don’t need the goals to feel that way. Dream yourself to be the hero you see yourself as once those goals are achieved. Be confident. Be sexy. Be important. Don’t believe the voice that tells you you need to have something to be something.
I didn’t get into the fraternity. It was crushing. I was destroyed. If I had had the emotional maturity to cry I would have. I mean, what was the point of staying in school when my fate was to remain an invisible outsider? And this was clearly not just a one time thing – this rejection was my destiny. It was going to keep happening. And so, at this place of total despair. When I had nothing left to lose I decided to tell the world a secret I had been carrying. The thing I had been hiding away for fear of ridicule or rejection. Some sense that my dream was for other people and not for me. But I was already in pieces on the ground. It’s not like it could get any worse. I was shameless.
So I did something I always wanted to do but was afraid to admit – I took an acting class with Professor Gross. That acting class led to a second, which led to another, which led to a playwriting class, which led to a play I wrote and produced which led to a short film I made which got me into film school, which took me out to LA, which led to a whole bunch of other cool stuff that has been well chronicled. Which led me to yesterday.
I was greeted at the airport by the handsome and charming Bob O’Connor and brought to campus as a guest of honor. I ate with President Gearan and some amazing students. I was toured around campus a returning hero.
And then, I found out where the Colleges put up distinguished guests who are visiting campus. A few years back some alumni bought this big Victorian that used to be a fraternity house and gave it as a gift to the Colleges. Yes, at the end of my day yesterday I was handed the keys to my home for the night …wait for it…the Sigma Chi suite at 775 South Main street.
I have a wonderful doctor in LA. Dr. Sadeghi. The other day he sent me a picture of an archer. The idea being that when you pull the string of a bow the potential energy is created in the bending of the bow itself. The more the bow is bent, the more potential energy you create. Failure, challenges, they are just a bending of that bow. The bigger the failure, the more potential energy you have created. And then you have a choice. What arrow will you dream to be to put in that bow? Will it be one of resentment, anger, self-loathing, negativity? Or will you dream yourself to be an arrow of opportunity and confidence and hope and wisdom and generosity? The choice is yours.
So, yes, I hope you all fail miserably. I hope you lose out on the love of your life and don’t get your dream job. I hope you buy a haunted house – or at least one with a bad mold problem and I hope you sprain your ankle right before that climb you have been training six months for. This is my message to you – go forth and fail. Dream yourself to be the heroes your teachers, friends and family know you already are. I think I speak for all of them when I say that I cannot wait to see the dreams your dreams dream to life in the world. Thank you all so much. I hope all of you get a chance to come back here and do this too.