I’M NOT BIG ON INSPIRATIONAL SPEAKERS—or inspirational books or art or even quips and quotes. I don’t believe that I have ever recommended anything inspirational to anyone in my life. At least not in the modern sense of the word ‘inspirational’ as it relates to Tony Roberts and related go-to gurus. None of whom I’m knocking here—just saying it’s not my bag.
Oh, I tried to steer people toward Krishnamurti when I was very young, and Alan Watts when I was not quite so young. And I’d be sending people to my brother if he was still speaking in front of crowds. But that’s about it.
But I just got turned on to a video capturing Tim Minchin addressing a graduation audience. I’d never heard of Minchin, an Australian comedian, actor, writer, musician, and director, but his show Matilda the Musical, of which he is the composer and lyricist, has won awards in Australia, England, and America. He is, in fact, a very successful artist.
Happiness is like an orgasm: If you think about it too much, it goes away.
In 2013, the University of Western Australia awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree for his contribution to the arts, recognizing his outstanding achievements and worldwide acclaim as a composer, lyricist, actor, writer, and comedian. Minchin addressed the audience by claiming that he is not an inspirational speaker, then gave a bloody inspirational speech—and a bloody fine inspirational speech.
And it is this speech in its entirety that I have transcribed below: Mr. Minchin’s words are separated from mine by the two horizontal lines. Note that the layout and the punctuation is mine. I have included the video at the end of the transcript.
I’m not an inspirational speaker
MINCHIN BEGINS HIS INTRODUCTION to his Nine Life Lessons by declaring, “I’m not an inspirational speaker.” Regarding the meaning of life, he assures the audience that there is none: “Don’t go looking for it. Searching for meaning is like searching for a rhyme scheme in a cookbook: you won’t find it and you’ll bugger up your soufflé.” This is a very important part of the presentation and should be the tenth life lesson in the list below.
You don’t have to have a dream
If you have something you’ve always wanted to do, dreamed of in your heart, go for it. If it’s a big enough one, it’ll take you most of your life to achieve, so by the time you get to it and are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement, you’ll be almost dead, so it won’t matter.
I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious: put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up.
Just be aware the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery, which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams: if you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out of the corner of your eye.
Don’t seek happiness
Happiness is like an orgasm: if you think about it too much, it goes away. Keep busy and aim to make someone else happy and you might find you get some as a side effect.
Remember, it’s all luck
You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy.
But you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which—when placed in a horrible childhood environment—would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni.
Well done, you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.
Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate.
Empathy is intuitive but it is also something you can work on, intellectually.
Play a sport, do yoga, pump iron, run—whatever—but take care of your body. You’re going to need it. Most of you mob are going to live to nearly 100, and even the poorest of you will achieve a level of wealth that most humans throughout history could not have dreamed of.
Be hard on your opinions
We must think critically and not just about the ideas of others. Be intellectually rigorous: identify your biases, your prejudices, your privileges.
Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies and then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions.
Be a teacher
Teachers are the most admirable and important people in the world. You don’t have to do it forever, but if you’re in doubt about what to do, be an amazing teacher. Even if you’re not a teacher, be a teacher.
Share your ideas.
Don’t take for granted your education.
Rejoice in what you learn and spray it.
Define yourself by what you love
We have a tendency to define ourselves in opposition to stuff. But try to also express your passion for things you love.
Be demonstrative and generous in your praise of those you admire.
Send thank you cards and standing ovations.
Respect people with less power than you
I have in the past made important decisions about people I work with—agents and producers—big decisions based largely on how they treat the wait staff in the restaurants we’re having the meeting in. I don’t care if you’re the most powerful cat in the room—I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful.
You don’t need to already know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. I’m not saying sit around smoking cones all day, but also, don’t panic. Most people I know who were sure of their career path at 20 are having midlife crises now.
One sensible thing to do with this existence
I said at the beginning of this ramble that life is meaningless. It was not a flippant assertion. I think it’s absurd—the idea of seeking meaning in the set of circumstances that happens to exist after 13,800,000,000 years worth of unguided events. Leave it to humans to think the universe has a purpose for them.
However, I am no nihilist. I am not even a cynic. I am, actually, rather romantic. And here’s my idea of romance:
You will soon be dead. Life will sometimes seem long and tough and, god, it’s tiring. And you will sometimes be happy and sometimes sad.
And then you’ll be old.
And then you’ll be dead.
There is only one sensible thing to do with this empty existence, and that is: fill it.
And in my opinion, life is best filled by learning as much as you can about as much as you can, taking pride in whatever you’re doing, having compassion, sharing ideas, running, being enthusiastic.
And then there’s love and travel and wine and sex and art and kids and giving and mountain climbing.
It’s an incredibly exciting thing—this one, meaningless life of yours.
I removed several hundred words from Mr. Minchin’s points, mostly lines thrown in to funny up the seriousness of his advice. For the complete transcript, see his website. The video of his speech is readily available on the Internet, where many sites are billing it as “These 9 Life Lessons will Make you Laugh.”
Which is funny, because I found nothing funny about Minchin’s words …