2019 Commencement Address

May 26, 2019

Speaker: David E. Kelley


David E. Kelley Addresses the Class of 2019 from Colby College on Vimeo.


Thank you! It’s such a privilege to be back. As President Greene just said, I’m from Waterville, learned to skate in Alfond Arena, started my hockey career, and it’s nice to come home. So President Greene, faculty, trustees, Class of 2019, I’m happy to be with you. I’m also going to admit, I’m a bit humbled, even daunted, or if not, intimidated. The commencement speaker—there are so many people out there doing extraordinary things. You heard from one yesterday, Mary Bonauto. People who really make a difference in the world and make a difference in other people’s lives.

But today, you’ve got a storyteller. And I did bring my legal pad, and I did bring notes because I’m intimidated, and I may lose my place. But since you did invite a storyteller, I figure the story you shall get, I guess it should be mine. You can draw from it if you choose, or not. You don’t have to take notes. You don’t have to think there’ll be an assignment at the end of it. You don’t even have to listen. If you’re done, you’re done. That’s the good part. The bad part about being done is you will inevitably be confronted with the most invasive, offensive, and personally repugnant question known to man which is: “What now? What comes next?”

I remember my own graduation day. It was a grand day, sunny, warm. And a grandmother of a classmate of mine—innocently enough-—said that to me. She looked down sweetly, and she said: “So what do you plan to do with yourself?” It was vile. She didn’t mean it that way. But I attached the subtext of, you know, “You itty-bitty little glob of potential, what are you going to do next?”

It was like a scene out of Oliver Twist. I was like: “Well, if you please ma’am, I should like to go to law school.” And that’s what I did. I went to law school like so many of us who didn’t know what we were going to do did, figuring we would figure it out. And then, I became a lawyer. And I kind of liked it. Watch out for that. If there’s anything worse than a career you loathe, it could be one you ‘kind of like.’

For those of you who get jobs you love, you’ll be fine, the ones who get jobs, careers you hate, you’ll figure it out and move on. But the ones that get the ones that aren’t so bad, aren’t so terrible, “this is kind of okay”—you could be doomed. Because you may stay there, and you may give up a little bit of yourself by staying there.

I found myself in that position. I actually liked the practice of law. Lord knows, it’s a noble profession—I’m in awe of the ones who do it well. The cases are interesting. But the practice of it for me, whatever that thing was, whatever that is that I was meant to do, it just didn’t feel like it. I used to work late, and I remember walking home at eight thirty or nine o’clock—as young lawyers do, they work late—and I would go through the theater district in Boston, invariably passing the Shubert or the Colonial. It would be intermission, and people would be out getting a break after the first act. And often, I would walk in with them—but the second act—find an empty seat, and just sit there. Over three years, I think I saw the second act of every show that came to Boston. But the interesting part is, when I would go home later, ten thirty or eleven o’clock at night, I felt more energized, more alive than I did at nine o’clock when I left my office. And one day at work, I was, I think, feeling particularly oppressed by the mundane.

I just decided I had to get out of my office and walk. Just flee, just walk to walk. And I was proceeding aimlessly through the streets of Boston and all of a sudden I looked up, and there was the Colonial Theatre. And I thought, you know, I wasn’t intending to come here, but here I am, and I looked at that building and I got this sense: Let that building speak to me. And I went inside, the door was open, no one was there in the middle of the day, cavernous and dark. And I just sat there, in an empty chair. And I could feel the artistic energy kind of coursing through. I thought, you know, these walls are going to somehow inform me. And then I heard footsteps. And I turned around, and it was this little woman, she couldn’t have been about five feet tall, in her 60s, a floral print dress, every hair in place, and she was walking towards me and she just oozed this wisdom and this kindness. And I didn’t really much believe in guardian angels, but I thought—and she came up to me and she looked down—I was still sitting in my chair and she said, “May I help you?” And I looked back and I thought, “Just tell her.” Tell your guardian angel, tell her the whole thing.

So I went through it: the emotional malaise that I just had, my job, and how when I came into this theater at night the wall spoke, I had the song, and the zealous joy that would come when I’d walk and to leave the theater and something about the arts. So I came back here and I sat down in the building, and I just wanted to become one with the place and see if it would offer me some direction. And she looked down at me and she smiled. And she said: “Get the fuck out of here, you shitty little whiner.” And I apologize for the vulgarity, but trust me, this lady would want me to quote her exactly.

She said: “If you want to figure out your life, go someplace else. This is a place of business.” And she threw me out. And I thought, and I think, you know—you’ve all been here at Colby, a school surrounded by colleagues, friends, mentors, teachers, a very supportive environment, a community rooting for your success. The great out there, not so much. There are going to be people that are going to knock you down, tell you you can’t. Say, forget about it. The worst one I think I ever heard was: “Get real!”

You know that there’s hardship, obstacles, adversity. You’ve been told that and you’re probably well braced for it. But I remember when I walked away from that theater, I thought, “I’ll show her. I’ll show that vicious little guardian angel.” But I also did something else. I asked myself a question: What brings me joy? Proving myself was good, then being vindicated, that would be nice. But what brings me joy, what makes me feel better? And for me, it was writing.

I’d done a little bit in college. I had an idea that I thought would make for a good screenplay. So I thought I would do that. I am going to write.

When I was your age, Bruce Springsteen was hugely popular. He still is now, but at that time he had a song called “Hungry Heart.” You may have heard of it. “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” We all had that scream in our belly. The question is how we let it out.

For me, it was writing. And there was a reward in writing all by itself. I’d go home from work at the end of the day and write. And it was—it brought a wonderful meditative daydream that went along with it. When I would go to work, you know, in my head I would win an Oscar. I’d cross the street, Boylston, and hear, “and the Oscar goes to…” Sometimes, I’d win one on the way home, too.

It was this wonderful sort of daydream, there was currency in it all by itself. Then a year later, I finished the screenplay. And then, that same vile question returned. What now? What next? Part of me didn’t even want to let anybody read it for fear of the reality that someone might say to me, “It stinks. You can’t write.” Right now, there was currency in just the writing itself—it was winning two Oscars a day. Why push it?

But I knew I had to give it to somebody, and I did. We talked about how I started here at Colby skating at Alfond Arena. My father was the hockey coach at Colby. He went on a coach at BU, and then the New England Whalers where the president of that team was a man named Howard Baldwin who I’d gotten to know through hockey. And at the time I was writing my script Howard was getting into the movie making business, and as a fledgling producer he wasn’t getting offered many good scripts. Bottom of the barrel things that other studios had rejected, and he said, “Give it to me. I’ll read it.” And he optioned it. The hockey guy bought it. And that led to me getting an agent, and then getting a first job on a show called L.A. Law. A show about law. The hockey and the going to law school was this kind of inadvertent, or maybe not so inadvertent, path to me becoming a writer. You just never know.

Another lyric in that song “Hungry Heart” was “Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing. I took a wrong turn and I just kept going.” A lot of you sitting here today, maybe most of you, don’t know exactly where your river is flowing. And that’s okay. My only advice would be: Don’t take the kind of “it’s okay,” good path. Don’t get trapped by the not so terrible. Listen to that scream in your belly. Endeavor to do what makes you happy. That seems so obvious, I shouldn’t even have to say it—obvious and banal. Do what makes you happy. Most don’t. Many of you won’t. You’re entering into that “Jeez, I’m just gonna compromise a little bit for now,” stage of life, and that’s okay. There’s pragmatism that you’ll have to face too. Bills to pay. Nothing wrong with that. But as long as you cling to the scream—keep it in there. Because so many, after failing to get what they want, decide the easier route is just to invalidate the want, pretend it was never a goal to begin with. And you become a little more deadened inside.

What will bring you happiness? Who knows. Certainly not me, maybe not you. But I suspect you have a clue. And if you don’t have a clue, I would look for one. One thing about being a writer is I get asked for feedback on various things, including over the years, some kids have come up to me and asked to look at their college essay—give me feedback, what have you. And in all the places you would imagine. But one young 17-year-old boy, Alex, came up to me and said, “I’m just looking for any advice you can give me,” and he handed me his essay. And I want to read it to you: “We spent the afternoon gathering old pieces of dockwood and barnacle-covered oil drums. Neither of us knew a thing about construction but it didn’t matter. The idea that we might actually float on a self-built raft of garbage made us ecstatic, and the possibility that we would likely sink only added to it. After hours of hard work and rolls of duct tape our boat was ready for launch. We hopped on board with nothing but tuna sandwiches and a fishing pole, figuring if our poor craftsmanship and weight distribution were not enough to sink our vessel, the hundred-pound halibut would. There I was, a 12-year-old boy sitting on a pile of trash in the most beautiful place on earth, and I couldn’t have been happier. I looked next to me and I saw the grin on Noah’s face, absorbing the breathtaking wilderness around, and he said,‘I could have all the money in the world. And I’d still be doing just this.’ These words stuck with me. All my life my elders taught me to believe that money equalled happiness. The key to wellbeing was supposedly a high paying job. I never stopped to question this ideal. I learned to be a future-oriented person, placed in the system that emphasized goals and progress with the hope that I would one day become a successful individual. Noah’s words made me consider exactly what made people happy. As we floated idly in the choppy inlet, I racked my brain for the answer. I imagined what I would do with all the money in the world, only to come to the same conclusion as my fellow fishermen. Just this. Now that I am 17, evolved five years later, this insight has not completely changed the way I function, but it has allowed me to realize what I am working toward. I live in a competitive world, where everyone strives to be the best. It would be a lie to say that I am not envious of Noah’s in-the-moment mindset. However, this is not the way I was raised to think. For me, satisfaction cannot solely be derived from simple pleasures, but also requires hard work and personal achievement. That afternoon on the water taught me not to strive for money, but rather for fulfillment. Fulfillment comes from working hard toward my goal while savoring the moment—a challenging but achievable balance.”

I handed back that paper to Alex and I said, “Don’t change a word, and it’s I who need to thank you for the advice.” We lose ourselves as we go along. And I’m going to dare to suggest that all of you fall back to your college essays if you can find them. Reread it. You might reconnect with your core. Others might say “How did I get into Colby?” But I suspect you’ll find some aspiration. You might even want to take advice from the younger you. One of my favorite movies, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by Stanley Kramer, it’s about a black man and a white woman who fell deeply in love, wanted to get married only to face ferocious opposition from their parents, particularly the fathers who bludgeoned them with all the practical realities and bigotries that they faced. And as they were fighting back and forth, the mother of the groom finally spoke up, soft-spoken, and she looked to the men and she said, “What happens to men when they grow old? Why did they forget everything? These two young people love each other. They need each other. Anybody could see that. You can only see that they have a problem.” And then she turned to the father of the woman and she said, “If you ever felt what my son feels for your daughter you’ve forgotten everything about it. You knew once but the strange thing is now you don’t even remember, or if you did, how can you do what you are doing?”

We all forget a little part of ourselves. I still reread Alex’s essay to connect with that sense, that goal, that ideal that we need to find balance in our lives. And if you can find the time, you might write another essay in your application for life. What do you hope to accomplish? What you hope to get out of it? More importantly, what you plan to bring to it? When you applied to Colby, I suspect you incorporated an implied promise that you will enrich the Colby community. Make people’s lives better. Colby would be better off for having invited you in. Did you live up to that?

Make the same promise going forward now in life. There’s one cliché that turns out to be true, it’s not about what you attain, it’s about what you give. This river of mine that’s flowed here and there and circled back. It flowed back to that notion that what you give is not only what you get sometimes, it might be your best get. I know I don’t have to tell you to be a generation of takers because my generation, we already took it all. We’re bestowing upon you a rather fractured country, a rather fractured world, a lot of polarization, a lot of hatred, a lot of meanness. We’re desperate for you to fix things. To leave the country ,maybe even the world, a little better off, a little kinder than you find it. When you leave Colby today, take a little of Colby with you—the best it had to offer—and spread it around. It can’t hurt and it might just help. You all grew up in the Facebook era—their mantra was move fast and break things. Slow it down some. And heal. Dare to be happy. Go find your river. It might take a while, it’s certainly going to take work, but don’t let go of that scream in your belly. And don’t let go of that commitment to leave things better off than you find them.

I’m going to close with one story about a young man. I actually think he went to Bowdoin. He wanted a simple life and he wanted to be a farmer. He wanted to sustainably farm, didn’t want to be rich, just wanted to make enough to eat, and maybe enough to feed his family. If he had a little extra, he could feed the community. In the spring, summer came and his crops didn’t grow. This happens. Life happens, hardship—doesn’t always work. But he kept his faith, he kept his spirits up, and the next year, again, tough winter maybe, spring came in the summer, nothing grew. He wasn’t a religious man but he decided to give prayer a shot. He said, “Dear God if you could just give me a boost here.” The next spring came, the summer, the garden didn’t grow. And he got down on his knees and he said, “Dear Lord: would it really ruin some master plan, for my garden to grow?” He heard a little voice from above that sounded maybe a little bit like a five-foot lady with perfect hair. And the voice said, “Dummy, plant some seeds.”

You all have seeds in your hand today. Go out there, be happy, and make something grow. Class of 2019, onward and upward.


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