This speech was given at the induction ceremony for the Society of Jacob Albright Scholars at Albright College on May 23, 2015.
Tomorrow you officially become adults. Legally this happened at least four years ago, but if we’re being honest, c’mon – 18 year old you wasn’t really an adult. 18 year old you drank Mountain Dew and thought Two & A Half Men was the best sitcom in television history. 18 year old you knew what was what and secretly posted it to MySpace. I’ll give you a second to think about all of the stupid things you’ve done in the last four years. Right? Don’t take it so hard. Look, I’m still not an adult. Just the other day I put my pajama pants in the toilet because for some reason I couldn’t tell the difference between a hamper and a toilet. And then I stood there like a child with no idea what to do next. And then I closed my eyes and tried to wish it away. And then I closed the door and walked away…because then it didn’t happen.
None of us are really adults. I think that’s a key to lifelong learning. That intellectual curiosity we have as children to know and understand the world around us is magic. 4 year old you was amazing and amazed by the world. You wanted to know everything. And best of all? You weren’t ashamed. You asked questions all the time. You had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. The danger is forgetting 4 year old you, is forgetting that thirst and being embarrassed by it. One of the great things about college is that we encourage you to be 4 years old again. College is a safe place to be intellectually curious. We won’t make fun of you. In fact, we’ll give you awards for it.
Once you think you have the answers you stop learning and questioning and the next thing you know you’re sad and alone…ordering a Pizza Hut family box just so the delivery guy thinks you aren’t cripplingly depressed by your own loneliness, which of course he sees right through…but you still exchange the obligatory small talk about your non-existent wife and kids and he plays along and seems appropriately shocked by the fact that your wife and kids just left to go to the store to get some…"Nachos and pantyhose?...I know, I can’t believe it either – that’s the third time this week you’ve missed them."…but the sadness in your eyes gives you both away…which makes you even more depressed so you over-tip him to try and buy his approval…which doesn’t work because he’s seen your soul…so you eat everything by yourself the whole while telling yourself that you’ll save some for lunch the next day when you full well know that you’ll eat the whole thing without leaving the couch so you justify it by binge watching “Mad Men”…which makes you equally excited and depressed that you’re exactly like and nothing like Don Draper – -- -- -- -- so keep that curiosity of youth, celebrate 4 year old you but mix it with the wisdom of experience. That’s adulthood. For instance, those of you planning to wear 6 inch heels tomorrow – it’s a mistake. Change your footwear plan now. If you take nothing else from today, the right shoes for the right occasion will take you far.
Tomorrow you will leave these hallowed halls – the air conditioners in Masters running in the middle of winter will be but a memory. This majestic dining hall, the one JK Rowling probably modeled the great hall of Hogwarts after will waft into the past. White Chapel…is being torn down. So go take a picture with your parents after this. Your life can no longer be summed up or explained away by simply saying “I’m a college student.” Gone are the days of sleeping in until 2pm – “I’m a college student.” Gone are the days of splitting your $12 check between 8 friends because George got an appetizer and I’m not paying for his cheese fries when he drank half of my orange juice from the fridge sophomore year – “I’m a college student.” Gone are the days of dozens of highly trained, beautiful, and articulate people challenging and championing you every single day while you complain about having an ‘early’ 9am class – “I’m a college student.” But just because you can no longer justify day-drinking – “I’m a college student” – does not mean that you should leave the lessons you’ve learned behind. The most important, of course, being that your education has only just begun.
To help you navigate this change, I have nine words of advice...
Have Fun. Risk Failure. Be Nice to One Another. How many of you counted?
And since I'm a professor and I like to hear myself talk, I'm going to expand on those nine words.
Have Fun. I cannot stress this enough. You will look back on these four years and remember them fondly because you had fun. You will be paying back your student loans for thirty years, so you better make sure your time here counted. So keep having fun.
You are sitting in this room tonight because you think learning is fun…or you’re very proud of your son or daughter…or you’re a professor trying to score a free meal…or you thought that tonight the dining hall was just having a fancy dinner. However you got here – you are now part of a society of knowledge. Think about that for a minute. Think about all of the things we didn’t know one hundred years ago, or fifty, or ten, or even yesterday. Humanity’s thirst for knowledge is fun. So enjoy it. Engage in it. Be a part of it. What’s your contribution going to be? Think about the things we don’t even know that we need to know. The problems of 2025 are amazingly fascinating. We need you to solve problems that don’t even exist yet. We need you to ask questions. We need you to dig into humanity’s body of knowledge and help it take another step forward. There aren’t grades anymore, but we need you to be college students.
Have fun being intellectually challenged. Have fun learning something new. Have fun grappling with issues that will challenge your beliefs. Have fun learning. We live in a society of anti-intellectualism. And you know why? Because…the more you know… knowledge is power. The ability to learn is your strongest asset. You are here to learn. You are here to expand your worldview. You are here to think, to question, to grapple, to debate. That doesn’t stop tomorrow. The last four years have been preparation in the act of learning. Have fun doing it. Trust me, once you are out of school you will realize how much fun learning can be. Knowledge and education are all around you at every step – open your eyes and take advantage. You only get one life. Follow your bliss.
Learning and questioning is what it means to be an adult. Give yourself the power to make choices - give yourself the opportunity to make mistakes. Which leads us to point 2:
Risk Failure. You've probably spent the last sixteen years of your education avoiding failure at all costs. That was a mistake. For we only truly learn, truly progress and move forward when we fail. Yes, grades are important. You’ve spent four years getting really good at college. Look at you, you’re a Jacob Albright Scholar. And now you’ve got to do something new. This dinner is really a nice way of kicking you out. You can be afraid or you can be opportunistic. Be proud of your achievements. Celebrate your success. Now go fail.
I'm not saying move into mom’s basement and lose touch with sunlight. I'm saying take risks. Expose yourself to new ideas. Try new approaches. Stretch yourself. Push yourself. Test your limits, your beliefs, and your world view. Give yourself permission to fail. Go ahead. Tell the gentleman or lady in your head to relax. Turn off that critic. Give yourself permission to think that you're going to be a doctor but discover that you hate blood and love theatre. You'll never know who you are, what you are capable of, and what you truly believe if you are afraid to fail.
Improv guru Del Close urged his students to “Follow the fear.” As kids we have to face our fears all the time…mostly because we don’t have any choice. We face and conquer our fears because we are put in situations where there’s no turning back. We have to jump off the high dive because if we don’t our mother will push us off. We follow the fear and are better for it. As adults we avoid fear. We put ourselves in safe boxes, afraid of anything new or unfamiliar. We’re afraid to fail. Close urged his students to do what made them uneasy – step onstage and do the thing that scares you most. There, Close argued, is where you discover new worlds.
The answers to life’s big questions aren’t on a multiple choice test. You aren’t going to get everything right. You know why? Because there aren’t right or wrong answers. Embrace that failure. Failing means you are one step closer. Failure is the best part of the process. Start asking more questions and stop clinging to right answers. You guys, without failure we wouldn’t have Corn Flakes, Microwave Ovens, the Slinky, Penicillin, Post-It-Notes, the implantable Pace Maker, Viagra, and Coca-Cola – that’s failure. Follow the fear and Risk Failure.
Which leads me to my last point.
Be Nice to One Another. You won't remember most of the facts you learned over the last four years, but hopefully enough that you'll be an interesting dinner party guest. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, because why quote someone with a gift for words directly, You will remember how other people treated you, how other people made you feel. And since you're the cream of the academic crop, you've put two and two together and have realized that other people will remember how you treated them. It takes surprisingly little energy to be nice to people. People remark all the time about how Albright is so nice and welcoming. “It just felt like home.” is a common refrain of students when they step on campus for the first time…or 100% need…not for your class, but, you know. Don’t leave this environment behind. You are in control of the environments you inhabit. You bring energy into every single interaction – it’s up to you to bring the type of energy you want in the world. People work very hard to make this school feel like it does – it isn’t an accident or a coincidence. You can make your world the type of place where people support one another, respect each other, where people help each other take risks, where people look out for one another.
Yes-And, people. Say yes. It’s so simple and so powerful. People are used to saying No – to others and to themselves. Try saying Yes. It will open up your world. It will brighten the people around you. It will help you risk failure. It will allow you to follow the fear and then conquer the fear. Every single one of you will fall down. I hope that every single one of you will pick somebody up.
So congratulations on an amazing four years. Continue to feed the curious toddler inside of you with his or her never ending thirst for knowledge and remember:
Be nice to one another.
Matt Fotis is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Albright College. He is the author of Long Form Improvisation and American Comedy - The Harold, The Comedy Improv Handbook, and "My Fragile Family Tree: Stories of Fathers & Sons."