Don't Let Fear of Failure Overcome Fear of 'What if?': Wisdom from Will Ferrell's USC Grad Speech
Here's what USC alum Will Ferrell told the Class of '17 about how to succeed in the business, and in life.
"As a freshman in the fall of 1986, if you were to come up to me and say that you, Will Ferrell, will be delivering the commencement address for USC, I would...have asked this person from the future, ‘Does that mean I graduated?’" Well, turns out he did both graduate (with a degree in Sports Information, which apparently is a thing), and deliver the commencement address to the Class of '17.
In his on-screen roles, Ferrell tends to play guys with what he has referred to as "unearned self-confidence," but none of that was present in his speech. Here's are three of the best things the actor, writer and producer said about what he's learned over the course of his long journey to the top of the comedy heap.
1. Give yourself permission to be silly and weird
While preparing for a career in, maybe, Sports Broadcasting, Ferrel ended up ditching his pretty easy work-study job whenever his friend would ask him to crash his classes, in character—which shows, even at this early stage, that Ferrell was both someone who could get into character and have it be, you know, funny. He just had never considered doing it for a living.
The star told the students that he "was always trying to make my friends laugh," and one day he showed up to his friend Emil's class wearing a "janitor’s outfit complete with work gloves, safety goggles, a dangling lit cigarette, and a bucket full of cleaning supplies. And then I proceeded to walk into the class, interrupting the lecture, informing the professor that I’d just been sent from Physical Plant to clean up a student’s vomit."
"Maybe I was funny to whole groups of people who didn't know me."
He did the bit, and a month later the professor stopped him on campus, not to yell at him, but to tell him that "he loved my barging in on his class and that he thought it was one of the funniest things he’d ever seen and would I please do it again?" Which he did, crediting moments like these with setting him on the path to "think [that] maybe I was funny to whole groups of people who didn’t know me, and this wonderful professor had no idea how his encouragement of me—to come and interrupt his class no less—was enough to give myself permission to be silly and weird."
2. "You’re never not afraid. I’m still afraid."
Encounters like the one with the professor led to a more serious interest in comedy, and Ferrell joined the famous Groundings in his senior year. Pulled onstage during a bit, he was "so afraid and awestruck at what the actors were doing that I didn’t utter a word...I found it to be thrilling to be on that stage. I then knew I wanted to be a comedic actor." But, for the next few years of taking classes and performing in various shows for little or no money, he "wasn't extremely confident that I would succeed..."
He moved back to LA after graduation and "there were many a night where in my LA apartment, I would sit down to a meal of spaghetti topped with mustard, with only $20 in my checking account and I would think to myself, ‘Oh well, I can always be a substitute schoolteacher. 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?"
3. Don't let fear of failure overcome fear of 'what if?'
Ferrell related that, "By the spring of 1995 producers from Saturday Night Live had come to see the current show at the Groundlings. After two harrowing auditions and two meetings with executive producer Lorne Michaels, which all took place over the course of six weeks, I got the word I was hired to the cast of Saturday Night Live for the ‘95-‘96 season." Though he spent seven years on the show, his first was particularly rocky, especially after being called ‘the most annoying newcomer of the new cast,' and being publicly dressed down by then much-feared Washington Post TV Critic Tom Shales. And still, all this time, says Ferrell, his "fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of what if. What if I never tried at all?"
"What if I never tried at all?"
In fact, he never read his early, bad reviews, because he had hung them on his office wall and was, "too busy throwing darts at the dartboard, all the while facing my fears." But even after seven years of success on late night, he still didn't have it made (noticing a theme here?) "Even as I left SNL, none of the studios were willing to take a chance on me as a comedy star. It took us three years of shopping Anchorman around before anyone would make it. When I left SNL all I really had was a movie called Old School that wouldn’t be released for another year, and a sub-par script that needed a huge rewrite about a man raised by elves at the North Pole."
Ferrell closed with some sound advice to the class of 2017: "To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. 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."
And then he whispered the first verse/chorus of I Will Always Love You. I'd say there's a lesson for all of us in Ferrell's life, no matter what our chosen path is. Furthermore, considering the quality of many commencement speakers, the USC Class of 2017 pretty much scored, so, if nothing else, at least they have that on their side.