On Friday, comedian Will Ferrell shared his career wisdom with self-deprecating wit and a Whitney Houston song in his commencement speech to University of Southern California’s Class of 2017.
He was humble about accepting the honorary degree from the school he once attended: “I want the university to know that I do not take this prestigious honor lightly. I’ve already instructed my wife and my children, from this point on, they have to address me as Dr. Ferrell.”
It’s okay to be scared but don’t let it stop you
Describing his own career journey, Ferrell said he graduated in 1990 from USC with a degree in Sports Information, “a program so difficult, so arduous, that they discontinued the major eight years after I left.” Instead of going into sports broadcasting, Ferrell knew in his heart that he wanted to pursue his hobby of comedy as a full-time job.
And that came with being open to failure. Ferrell said he “didn’t utter a word” the first time he participated in the comedian-training ground of Groundlings, an improv and sketch group. “Even in this moment of abject fear and total failure I found it to be thrilling to be on that stage. I then knew I wanted to be a comedic actor.” He would perform at Groundlings for years until he got his first big break after being selected to join Saturday Night Live in 1995.
“And yes, I was afraid. You’re never not afraid. I’m still afraid. I was afraid to write this speech. And now, I’m just realizing how many people are watching me right now, and it’s scary. Can you please look away while I deliver the rest of the speech?” Ferrell said. “But my fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of what if. What if I never tried at all?”
Don’t listen to critics
Joining Saturday Night Live allowed Ferrell to move past his days of eating spaghetti and mustard, but he was kept humbled by reviews. Ferrell taped one review of him being “the most annoying newcomer of the new cast” to his office wall as an ego check: “Some people will not think I’m funny, and that’s okay.”
His experience with criticism and rejection from producers and casting agents taught him to “enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.”
Now, Ferrell is an accomplished comedic actor whose starring roles include “Old School,” “Anchorman,” and “Talladega Nights.”
But Ferrell said that he doesn’t define his success by his career. Instead, success for Ferrell is defined by his 16-year relationship with his wife, his love for his children and his charity work.
For his final piece of advice, Ferrell channeled a Whitney Houston power ballad to the grads who were once like him and didn’t know who they wanted to be.
“If you do have a moment where you feel a little down,” Ferrell said. “Imagine me, literally picture my face, singing this song gently into your ear: ‘If I should stayy, I would only be in your way. So I’ll go, but I know, I’ll think of you every step of the wa-ay. And I-eee-ayyyyy will always love youuu.'”