With my own graduation two weeks away, I thought it appropriate to share Stephen Colbert’s 2011 commencement speech to the graduating class at Northwestern University. Here’s the excerpt from the speech, about life and improvisation:
After I graduated from here, I moved down to Chicago and did improv. Now there are very few rules about improvisation, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv.
And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life. Even when it might look like you’re winning…
In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love, because, as the prophet says, service is love made visible. If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself, and you will have only yourself.
It’s a really wonderful message for all young people, especially those about to enter a world filled with frustration, hardship, and competition. In talking with my peers also set to graduate, many tell me that they just want to be successful, or happy, or financially secure. And I think we inherently want those things for the comfort they bring, the sense of accomplishment and self-determination they heighten. But it’s so crucial, like Colbert says, to remember that along the way, life is at some points a calm, inviting ocean and at others a stormy, dangerous sea. You never know what life will throw at you, but to live your life in service to others, to goodness, and to honesty, love will do the rest.