Here’s a copy of the speech that Bill Watterson gave at
Kenyon College,Gambier Ohio, to the 1990 graduating class.
Kenyon College Commencement
I have a recurring dream about Kenyon. In it, I’m walking to the postoffice on the way to my first class at the start of the school year.Suddenly it occurs to me that I don’t have my schedule memorized, andI’m not sure which classes I’m taking, or where exactly I’m supposed tobe going.
As I walk up the steps to the postoffice, I realize I don’t have my boxkey, and in fact, I can’t remember what my box number is. I’m certainthat everyone I know has written me a letter, but I can’t get them. Iget more flustered and annoyed by the minute. I head back to MiddlePath, racking my brains and asking myself, “How many more yearsuntil I graduate? …Wait, didn’t I graduate already?? How old AMI?” Then I wake up.
Experience is food for the brain. And four years at Kenyon is a richmeal. I suppose it should be no surprise that your brains will probablyburp up Kenyon for a long time. And I think the reason I keep having thedream is because its central image is a metaphor for a good part oflife: that is, not knowing where you’re going or what you’re doing.
I graduated exactly ten years ago. That doesn’t give me a great deal ofexperience to speak from, but I’m emboldened by the fact that I can’tremember a bit of MY commencement, and I trust that in half an hour, youwon’t remember of yours either.
In the middle of my sophomore year at Kenyon, I decided to paint a copyof Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapelon the ceiling of my dorm room. By standing on a chair, I could reachthe ceiling, and I taped off a section, made a grid, and started to copythe picture from my art history book.
Working with your arm over your head is hard work, so a few of my moreingenious friends rigged up a scaffold for me by stacking two chairs onmy bed, and laying the table from the hall lounge across the chairs andover to the top of my closet. By climbing up onto my bed and up thechairs, I could hoist myself onto the table, and lie in relative comforttwo feet under my painting. My roommate would then hand up my paints,and I could work for several hours at a stretch.
The picture took me months to do, and in fact, I didn’t finish the workuntil very near the end of the school year. I wasn’t much of a painterthen, but what the work lacked in color sense and technical flourish, itgained in the incongruity of having a High Renaissance masterpiece in acollege dorm that had the unmistakable odor of old beer cans and olderlaundry.
The painting lent an air of cosmic grandeur to my room, andit seemed to put life into a larger perspective. Those boring, floweryEnglish poets didn’t seem quite so important, when right above my headGod was transmitting the spark of life to man.
My friends and I liked the finished painting so much in fact, that wedecided I should ask permission to do it. As you might expect, thehousing director was curious to know why I wanted to paint this elaboratepicture on my ceiling a few weeks before school let out. Well, you don’tget to be a sophomore at Kenyon without learning how to fabricate ideasyou never had, but I guess it was obvious that my idea was being proposedretroactively. It ended up that I was allowed to paint the picture, solong as I painted over it and returned the ceiling to normal at the endof the year. And that’s what I did.
Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories ofcollege are times like these, where things were done out of someinexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work wasdemanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorizedart project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act ofvandalism.
It’s surprising how hard we’ll work when the work is done just forourselves. And with all due respect to John Stuart Mill, maybeutilitarianism is overrated. If I’ve learned one thing from being acartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness.My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year.
If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are,get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determineyour livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writingevery day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into newterritories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mentalplayfulness.
We’re not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to domore than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Ouridea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of thetelevision set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shuttingoff the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a carbattery-it recharges by running.
You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demandsof “just getting by: absorb your waking hours. You may be surprisedmatters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. You may be surprisedto find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people’sexpectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out howquickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.
At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world,you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on yourown. With any luck at all, you’ll never need to take an idea and squeezea punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you’ll be calledupon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mindplay is the best way to solve problems.
For me, it’s been liberating to put myself in the mind of a fictitioussix year-old each day, and rediscover my own curiosity. I’ve been amazedat how one ideas leads to others if I allow my mind to play and wander.I know a lot about dinosaurs now, and the information has helped me outof quite a few deadlines.
A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge yournatural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I thinkyou’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy roadahead.
So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, butbeyond that, I don’t recommend it.
I don’t look back on my first few years out of school with muchaffection, and if I could have talked to you six months ago, I’d haveencouraged you all to flunk some classes and postpone this moment aslong as possible. But now it’s too late.
Unfortunately, that was all the advice I really had. When I was sittingwhere you are, I was one ofthe lucky few who had a cushy job waiting for me. I’d drawn politicalcartoons for the Collegian for four years, and the Cincinnati Post hadhired me as an editorial cartoonist. All my friends were either dreadingthe infamous first year of law school, or despondent about their chancesof convincing anyone that a history degree had any real applicationoutside of academia.
Boy, was I smug.
As it turned out, my editor instantly regretted his decision to hire me.By the end of the summer, I’d been given notice; by the beginning ofwinter, I was in an unemployment line; and by the end of my first yearaway from Kenyon, I was broke and living with my parents again. You canimagine how upset my dad was when he learned that Kenyon doesn’t giverefunds.
Watching my career explode on the lauchpad caused some soulsearching. I eventually admitted that I didn’t have what it takes to bea good political cartoonist, that is, an interest in politics, and Ireturned to my firs love, comic strips.
For years I got nothing butrejection letters, and I was forced to accept a real job.
A REAL job is a job you hate. I designed car ads and grocery ads in thewindowless basement of a convenience store, and I hated every singleminute of the 4-1/2 million minutes I worked there. My fellow prisonersat work were basically concerned about how to punch the time clock atthe perfect second where they would earn another 20 cents without doingany work for it.
It was incredible: after every break, the entirestaff would stand around in the garage where the time clock was, andwait for that last click. And after my used car needed the head gasketreplaced twice, I waited in the garage too.
It’s funny how at Kenyon, you take for granted that the people aroundyou think about more than the last episode of Dynasty. I guess that’swhat it means to be in an ivory tower.
Anyway, after a few months at this job, I was starved for some life ofthe mind that, during my lunch break, I used to read those poli scibooks that I’d somehow never quite finished when I was here. Some ofthose books were actually kind of interesting. It was a rude shock tosee just how empty and robotic life can be when you don’t care aboutwhat you’re doing, and the only reason you’re there is to pay thebills.
“the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
That’s one of those dumbcocktail quotations that will strike fear in your heart as you getolder. Actually, I was leading a life of loud desperation.
When it seemed I would be writing about “Midnite MadnessSale-abrations” for the rest of my life, a friend used to consoleme that cream always rises to the top. I used to think, so do people whothrow themselves into the sea.
I tell you all this because it’s worth recognizing that there is no suchthing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate theresources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success orfailure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when wearrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviouslywhere I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy thescenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.
I still haven’t drawn the strip as long as it took me to get the job. Toendure five years of rejection to get a job requires either a faith inoneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work. I loved thework.
Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home thepoint that the fun of cartooning wasn’t in the money; it was in thework. This turned out to be an important realization when my breakfinally came.
Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn’t what I caught.I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist since I was old enough to read cartoons,and I never really thought about cartoons as being a business. It neveroccurred to me that a comic strip I created would be at the mercy of abloodsucking corporate parasite called a syndicate, and that I’d befaced with countless ethical decisions masquerading as simple businessdecisions.
To make a business decision, you don’t need muchphilosophy; all you need is greed, and maybe a little knowledge of howthe game works.
As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on thatpopularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as muchtime screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted apiece of that pie. But the more I though about what they wanted to dowith my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons Idraw cartoons.
Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in.Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values,rules and rewards.
The so-called “opportunity” I facedwould have meant giving up my individual voice for that of amoney-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writingwas to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would besacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work ofassistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity wouldbecome work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money wassupposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.
What the syndicatewanted to do, in other words, was turn my comic strip into everythingcalculated, empty and robotic that I hated about my old job. They wouldturn my characters into television hucksters and T-shirt sloganeers anddeprive me of characters that actually expressed my own thoughts.
On those terms, I found the offer easy to refuse. Unfortunately, thesyndicate also found my refusal easy to refuse, and we’ve been fightingfor over three years now. Such is American business, I guess, where thedesire for obscene profit mutes any discussion of conscience.
You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, bothpersonal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, butif we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for,we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are allasked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We defineourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and theworld who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, andrecognize that there are many kinds of success.
Many of you will begoing on to law school, business school, medical school, or othergraduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, withluck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your ownlifetime.
But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person isanother.
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is arare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice andexcess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usuallyconsidered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is onlyunderstood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder ofsuccess. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him thetime to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. Aperson who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children isconsidered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title andsalary are the sole measure of human worth.
You’ll be told in ahundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never besatisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. Thereare a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hearabout them.
To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed,and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.
Reading those turgidphilosophers here in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job,but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about whatmakes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have theSwiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it’s going to come in handy allthe time.
I think you’ll find that Kenyon touched a deep part of you. These havebeen formative years. Chances are, at least of your roommates has taughtyou everything ugly about human nature you ever wanted to know.
Withluck, you’ve also had a class that transmitted a spark of insight orinterest you’d never had before. Cultivate that interest, and you mayfind a deeper meaning in your life that feeds your soul and spirit. Yourpreparation for the real world is not in the answers you’ve learned, butin the questions you’ve learned how to ask yourself.
Graduating fromKenyon, I suspect you’ll find yourselves quite well prepared indeed.
I wish you all fulfillment and happiness. Congratulations on yourachievement.