An inspiring, edited, Graduation Speech delivered by American actor, and filmmaker Denzel Hayes Washington, Jr
It’s always been great to be on the Penn campus. I’d always get a warm welcome when I come to Pennsylvania, when I come to Philadelphia. Still, I’ll be honest with you, I’m a little nervous. I’m not used to speaking at a graduation of this magnitude. It’s out of my comfort zone. And for those who say, “You’re a movie star; millions of people watch you speak all the time.” Yes, that’s technically true, but I’m not actually there in the theater, watching them watching me. I’m not there when they cough or fidget around or pull out their iPhone and text their boyfriend or scratch their behinds or whatever it is they’re doing in the movie theater. But from up here, I can see every single one of you. And that makes me uncomfortable.
So please, don’t pull out your iPhones and text your boyfriend until after I’m done, please.
But if you need to scratch your behind, I understand, go ahead. Thinking about the speech, I figured the best way to keep your attention would be to talk about something really, like, juicy Hollywood stuff.
I thought I could start with me and Russell Crowe getting into some arguments on the set of American Gangster, but no. You’re a group of high-minded intellectuals, you’re not interested in that or maybe not. I thought about a private moment I had backstage with Angelina Jolie half naked in her dressing room after the Oscars, but I said, “No I don’t think so this is an Ivy League school. This is Penn.
I was back to square one and feeling the pressure. So now you’re probably thinking if it was going be this difficult, why’d I even accept today’s invitation in the first place? Well, you know my son goes here. That’s a good reason and I always like to check to see how my money’s being spent. And I’m sure there’s some parents out there who can relate to what I’m talking about!
So I had to be here. I had to come, even though I was afraid I might make a fool of myself.
In fact, if you really want to know the truth, I had to come exactly because I might make a fool of myself. What am I talking about? Well, here it is, I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks, nothing.
Nelson Mandela said, “There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that’s less than the one you’re capable of living.” I’m sure in your experiences in school, in applying to college, in picking your major, in deciding what you want to do with life, people have told you to make sure you have something to “fall back on.” But I’ve never understood that concept, having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything except my faith. I want to fall forward.
At least I figure that way I’ll see what I’m about to hit.
Fall forward. This is what I mean; Reggie Jackson struck out twenty-six-hundred times in his career, the most in the history of baseball. But you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward. Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that?
I didn’t know that because the 1,001st was the light bulb. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success. You’ve got to take risks and I’m sure you’ve probably heard that before, but I want to talk about why it’s so important.
I’ve got three reasons—and then you can pick up your iPhones.
First, you will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it. That’s probably not a traditional message for a graduation ceremony, but hey, I’m telling you, embrace it because it’s inevitable. And I should know, in the acting business, you fail all the time. But, I didn’t quit. I didn’t fall back. I walked out from one to the next audition, and the next audition, and the next audition. I prayed and I prayed, but I continued to fail, and I failed, and failed, but it didn’t matter because you know what? There’s an old saying, you hang around a barbershop long enough, sooner or later you will get a haircut. You will catch a break.
Last year I did a play called Fences on Broadway and I won a Tony Award. And here’s the kicker, it was at the Court Theater; it was at the same theater where I failed my first audition thirty years prior. The point is, and I’ll pick up the pace, every graduate here today has the training and the talent to succeed but do you have guts to fail?
Here’s my second point about failure, if you don’t fail, you’re not even trying. My wife told me this great expression, “To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did.” Les Brown, a motivational speaker, made an analogy about this. Imagine you’re on your deathbed and standing around your death bed are the ghosts representing your unfilled potential. The ghosts of the ideas you never acted on. The ghosts of the talents you didn’t use. And they’re standing around your bed angry, disappointed and upset. They say, “We came to you because you could have brought us to life,” they say. “And now we go to the grave together.” So I ask you today, “How many ghosts are going to be around your bed when your time comes?” You’ve invested a lot in your education and people invested in you. And let me tell you, the world needs your talents, man, does it ever.
I just got back from Africa a couple of days ago. It’s a beautiful country, but there are places with terrible poverty that need help. And Africa is just the tip of the iceberg. The Middle East, Japan, and Philadelphia need your help. The world needs a lot and we need it from you, we really do, we need it from you the young people. So get out there. Give it everything you’ve got whether it’s your time, your talent, your prayers, or your treasures because remember this, you’ll never see a U-haul behind a hearse.
I’ll say it again. You will never see a U-haul behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you. The Ancient Egyptians tried it and all they got was robbed! So the question is, what are you going to do with what you have? Some of you are business majors. Some of you are theologians, nurses, sociologists. Some of you have money. Some of you have patience. Some have kindness. Some of you have love. Some of you have the gift of long suffering. Whatever it is, what are you going to do with what you have?
Now here’s my last point about failure, sometimes it’s the best way to figure out where you’re going. Your life will never be a straight path. I began at Fordham University as a pre-med student. That lasted until I took a course called “Cardiac Morphogenesis.” I couldn’t say it; I sure couldn’t pass it. Then I decided to go pre-law, then journalism. With no academic focus, my grades took off in their own direction down.
I was a, 1.8 GPA one semester, and the university very politely suggested it might be better to take some time off. I was 20 years old, at my lowest point. And then one day, and I remember the exact day, March 27th, 1975, I was helping out in the beauty shop my mother owned in Mount Vernon. An older woman who was considered one of the elders in town and I didn’t know her personally, but every time I looked in the mirror, she was staring at me and she just kept staring at me. Every time I looked at her, she just kept giving me these strange looks. She finally said something to me, I’ll never forget, first of all she said, “Someone give me a piece of paper.” She said, “Young boy, I have a spiritual prophecy. You are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people.” Keep in mind that I was 20 years old and flunked out of school and like a wise-ass, I’m thinking to myself: “Does she have anything in that crystal ball about me getting back into school?” But maybe she was on to something because later that summer, while working as a counselor at a YMCA camp in Connecticut; we put on a talent show for the campers. After that show, another counselor came up to me and asked, “Have you ever thought of acting? You should. You’re good at that.”
When I got back to Fordham that fall I changed my major once again, for the last time. And in the years that followed, just as that woman getting her hair done predicted, I have traveled the world and I have spoken to millions of people through my movies.
Let me conclude with one final point. And actually it has to do with the movie Philadelphia. Many years ago in 1993 we filmed some scenes right here on campus, when most of you were probably still in diapers, some of the professors, too. It’s about a man, played by Tom Hanks, who’s fired from his law firm because he has AIDS. He wants to sue the firm, but no one’s willing to represent him until a homophobic, ambulance-chasing lawyer, played by yours truly, takes on the case. In a way, if you watch the movie, you’ll see everything I’m talking about today.
You’ll see what I mean about taking risks or being willing to fail. Because taking a risk is not just about going for a job. It’s also about knowing what you know and what you don’t know. It’s about being open to people and ideas. In the course of the film, the character I play begins to take small steps, to take risks. He is very, very slowly overcomes his fears, and I feel ultimately his heart becomes flooded with love. And I can’t think of a better message as we send you off today, to not only take risks, but to be open to life, to accept new views and to be open to new opinions, to be willing to speak at commencement at one of the country’s best universities even though you’re scared stiff. While it may be frightening, it will also be rewarding because the chances you take, the people you meet, the people you love, the faith that you have that’s what’s going to define you.
So when you leave the friendly confines of Philly, never be discouraged. Never hold back. Give everything you’ve got. And when you fall throughout life and maybe even tonight after a few too many glasses of champagne, remember this, fall forward.