From Stephen Colbert's Commencement address at Knox College
Last year I shared part of Doug Marlette's commencement address to my son Zed's high school graduating class. Here's part of a good one given this year at Knox College. The whole text is here.
2006 Commencement Address
Stephen Colbert, June 3, 2006
Today is about you—you who have worked so hard to pack your heads with learning until your skulls are all plump like—sausage of knowledge. It's an apt metaphor, don't question it. But now your time at college is at an end. Now you are leaving here. And this leads me to a question that just isn't asked enough at commencements. Why are you leaving here?
This seems like a very nice place. They have a lovely Web site. Besides, have you seen the world outside lately? They are playing for KEEPS out there, folks. My God, I couldn't wait to get here today just so I could take a breather from the real world. I don't know if they told you what's happened while you've matriculated here for the past four years. The world is waiting for you people with a club.
... globalization, e-mail, cell phones interconnect our nations like never before. It is possible for even the most insulated American to have friends from all over the world. For instance, I recently received an e-mail asking me to help a deposed Nigerian prince who is looking for a business partner to recuperate his fortune. Thanks to the flexibility of global banking, a Swiss bank account is ready and waiting for my share of his money. I know, because I just e-mailed him my Social Security number.
There are so many challenges facing this next generation, and as they said earlier, you are up for these challenges. And I agree, except that I don't think you are. I don't know if you're tough enough to handle this. You are the most cuddled generation in history. I belong to the last generation that did not have to be in a car seat. You had to be in car seats. I did not have to wear a helmet when I rode my bike. You do. You have to wear helmets when you go swimming, right? In case you bump your head against the side of the pool. Oh, by the way, I should have said, my speech today may contain some peanut products.
My mother had 11 children: Jimmy, Eddie, Mary, Billy, Morgan, Tommy, Jay, Lou, Paul, Peter, Stephen. ... She could never protect us the way you all have been protected. She couldn't fit 11 car seats. She would just open the back of her Town & Country—stack us like cord wood: four this way, four that way. And she put crushed glass in the empty spaces to keep it steady. Then she would roll up all the windows in the winter time and light up a cigarette. When I die I will not need to be embalmed, because as a child my mother hickory-smoked me.
I mean even these ceremonies are too safe. I mean this mortarboard ... look, it's padded. When I graduated from college, we had the edges sharpened. When we threw ours up in the air, we knew some of us weren't coming home.
But you seem nice enough, so I'll try to give you some advice. First of all, when you go to apply for your first job, don't wear these robes. Medieval garb does not instill confidence in future employers—unless you're applying to be a scrivener. And if someone does offer you a job, say yes. You can always quit later. Then at least you'll be one of the unemployed as opposed to one of the never-employed. Nothing looks worse on a resume than nothing.
So, say "yes." In fact, say "yes" as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, "yes-and." In this case, "yes-and" is a verb. To "yes-and." I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what's going to happen, maybe with someone you've never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you're doctors—you're doctors. And then, you add to that: We're doctors and we're trapped in an ice cave. That's the "-and." And then hopefully they "yes-and" you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other's lead, neither of you are really in control. It's more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.
Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what's going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say "yes." And if you're lucky, you'll find people who will say "yes" back.
Now will saying "yes" get you in trouble at times? Will saying "yes" lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don't be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying "yes" begins things. Saying "yes" is how things grow. Saying "yes" leads to knowledge. "Yes" is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say "yes."
I have two last pieces of advice. First, being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it. And lastly, the best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.
Congratulations to the class of 2006.