tim minchin really is an inspiring speaker (on life, dreams, and exercise)

Es­ti­mated reading time is 6 min­utes.

I’M NOT BIG ON INSPIRATIONAL SPEAKERSor 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.

Photo of Tim Minchin in a relaxed, casual mood and setting.


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.



Don’t rush

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.


9 Life Lessons - Tim Minchin UWA Address

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 web­siteThe 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 . . .


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