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Wild Is the Wind! A UT Commencement Address

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When I opened the snail mail letter and read an invitation to be the commencement speaker at UT-Austin's College of Fine Arts, my first thought was to wonder who they meant to invite. This seemed an unusual honor for someone whose instinct on life advice is to say, "Go back kids! it's a trap!" I hope my speech below will be an improvement on that sentiment. If you're an attendee on Friday, May 17 at UT's Bass Concert Hall, thanks for not falling asleep.

Thank you Dean for that glowing commencement speaker introduction. I don't know who that guy is, but until he shows up, I'll fill in the best I can.

Congratulations, 2013 Graduates of the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. You made it. Or I should say, you've almost made it. For the past four years, maybe five, the number of ways you could blow it have grown smaller and smaller, and you're now down to just a couple of small steps between you and your diploma. My main advice to you is, don't trip up now.

I'm honored to be here. My wife Christy and I are part of a long UT tradition. Between us, we've had 25 members of our immediate families who've attended UT. That's three generations over 80 years that went on to become doctors, professors, lawyers, bankers, educators, artists and filmmakers -- we've spanned it all.

It's traditional to offer words of wisdom for your moral compasses and strategic life planning, but when it comes to commencement addresses, there are two radically different strategies. One approach is built around the theory that the world is just 'hunky dory' and is waiting with open arms for your ideas and passion; that opportunity abounds and must only be recognized and seized. Though it's been forty years since I came to UT and beautiful Austin, I remember quite well that in my youth in West Texas, that 'hunky dory' world philosophy would have been considered a giant pile of bull flop, and better not stepped in.

"Once the shit is out of the bull," Governor Ann once advised me, "it's hard to put it back again."

The alternate commencement philosophy centers on the idea that the world is completely messed up, and only you -- yes you -- can save the world from the avarice, greed, pollution, short-sighted politics and countless evil bastards that have come before you. In other words, the world needs you!

To help us avoid stepping in either pile of bull flop, I'd like to propose that the world doesn't know much more about you than you do about it. That's not to say you didn't pay attention in your world history, politics and contemporary culture classes. What I'm saying is, this great day of celebration doesn't mark the end of your studies. In contrast, it marks the beginning.

After all, life is an endless series of questions. There always have been and always will be more questions than answers, and that's okay.

I had a wonderful English professor at the University of Texas. Best class I ever took. My professor offered a vast array of insights but I didn't remember his specifics on character development and interwoven plots until I was far away from UT and struggling to write my first novel, then rewriting it, copy-editing, critiquing it and writing it again. "You want to write?" he had told me. "Then write. Every day. Unless you're rewriting." A dozen books and ten thousand pages of television and film scripts later, the best thing I learned from that wonderful UT professor was his confidence that I could be a writer. I don't know about you, but what I learned at the University of Texas was to believe in me.

As I look out on your faces today -- I see quite a few graduating students I know, including my daughter who I believe in with all my heart. And many more I do not know, but who I also believe in with all my heart.

I believe in your talents and skills as artists, musicians, dancers, curators, critics, and yes, as world-changers. I believe in your paintings, your music and writing, your movement and your voices. I believe in your futures. But what I believe is not all that important. What matters now -- what will always matter -- is for you to believe in yourselves, in your voice, your heart, in your mind.

Once you believe, all else falls into place. The vision of where you can go and what you can achieve is a starting point that allows you to learn how to do anything, how to overcome everything, to go from those last few steps at the side of the stage into a journey of learning and doing that starts today.

From the moment we are born, every day and every moment of our lives is a learning opportunity. To walk, to talk, to run, to fly, day after day, year after year, as long as you can... Taking advantage of it while you can, because our time on this earth -- though it may not seem that way now -- is more limited than you know. Learn while you can, because when you stop learning, it all begins to slip away.

The day you stop learning, is the day you start on the long path to hiding your own Easter eggs.
The easiest thing in the world is to waste your life. The hardest thing is to remember not to take yourself -- or the State Legislature -- too seriously.

My current favorite phrase that encompasses the idea of art is just four words. "Wild is the wind." Artists are burdened and blessed with the Sisyphean task of harnessing the wild wind without ever diminishing it.

So if you're contemplating how to achieve your goals or, as your parents would put it, to turn fine arts into a career path -- it can sometimes be helpful to see how someone else has made their way. Or this could be the point at which you text your friends and say, "margaritas at Scholz's".

I've had a pretty good run of learning. I learned to make people laugh and spent quite a few years doing it. I learned to write and hope to spend many more years doing that. I learned how to be 6'7" and not look completely out-of-place in films where everyone else is 5'5". But the last ten years have been something more interesting, something I could never have done without the skills and knowledge from the all years that came before.

I wanted to make films about global problems and solutions, but I suspected the general public might not be all that interested in the global views of an actor who played that idiot narcoleptic guy on The Sopranos.

So I began to film interviews with a group of brilliant Nobel laureates. (After all, receiving the Nobel Prize is a little like being made in the mob -- no matter how honest you are about that not-so-hunky-dory world, they still can't take away your prize -- you've been made!)
What I learned from the Nobelists I worked with -- and these have been physicists, doctors, activists, environmentalists and religious leaders -- is that the problems of the world were even bigger than I'd thought. AND that the solutions were much more available than I'd ever dreamed.

The sea is made up of drops of water, Desmond Tutu told me. What you do, where you are, is of significance. He was talking me and he was talking about all of you.

As The Nobelity Project took these many insights and put them in action in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and right here in Austin, Texas -- I learned from a long line of great community leaders that believing in me was just the beginning. That no one does anything on their on. We need our parents, our professors, our friends, our associates. We need our neighbors across town and across the world.

Want to build schools in Kenya? You'll need Kenyans to build them with you. Want to paint a canvas with a thousand artists? Buy a thousand brushes and place them in a thousand hands. Want to plant a million trees? There are a million kids who will help you.

Whatever you do -- do it with another. Do it for fun. Do it for knowledge. Do it for money if it makes your parents happy. But whatever you do, do it for love.

All the learning leads to love because love is what we are made for.

There's a common image of an artist as a person alone. And that's an image I'd like to banish forever. If you think you're alone, wait till you see how long it takes for the Dean to call out your name and get that diploma in your hand. So one quick story and I'm out of here.

A guy is all alone, and he's walking along a river. He wants to cross but the river is wide he can't find a bridge. Finally he sees someone on the far bank, and he yells to them, "How do I get to the other side?"

The guy on the other bank cups his hands, yells back and says, "You're ON the other side."

Congratulations, Graduates of the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. Now that you're on the other side, don't forget that wild is the wind. And watch that last step.