||Here's the text of a speech Bill
Watterson gave at Kenyon College,
Gambier Ohio, to the 1990 graduating class.
SOME THOUGHTS ON THE REAL WORLD BY ONE WHO GLIMPSED IT AND FLED
Kenyon College Commencement
I have a recurring dream about Kenyon. In it, I'm walking to the post
office on the way to my first class at the start of the school year.
Suddenly it occurs to me that I don't have my schedule memorized, and
I'm not sure which classes I'm taking, or where exactly I'm supposed to
As I walk up the steps to the postoffice, I realize I don't have my box
key, and in fact, I can't remember what my box number is. I'm certain
that everyone I know has written me a letter, but I can't get them. I
get more flustered and annoyed by the minute. I head back to Middle
Path, racking my brains and asking myself, "How many more years
until I graduate? ...Wait, didn't I graduate already?? How old AM
I?" Then I wake up.
Experience is food for the brain. And four years at Kenyon is a rich
meal. I suppose it should be no surprise that your brains will probably
burp up Kenyon for a long time. And I think the reason I keep having the
dream is because its central image is a metaphor for a good part of
life: that is, not knowing where you're going or what you're doing.
I graduated exactly ten years ago. That doesn't give me a great deal of
experience to speak from, but I'm emboldened by the fact that I can't
remember a bit of MY commencement, and I trust that in half an hour, you
won't remember of yours either.
In the middle of my sophomore year at Kenyon, I decided to paint a copy
of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" from the Sistine Chapel
on the ceiling of my dorm room. By standing on a chair, I could reach
the ceiling, and I taped off a section, made a grid, and started to copy
the picture from my art history book.
Working with your arm over your head is hard work, so a few of my more
ingenious friends rigged up a scaffold for me by stacking two chairs on
my bed, and laying the table from the hall lounge across the chairs and
over to the top of my closet. By climbing up onto my bed and up the
chairs, I could hoist myself onto the table, and lie in relative comfort
two feet under my painting. My roommate would then hand up my paints,
and I could work for several hours at a stretch.
The picture took me months to do, and in fact, I didn't finish the work
until very near the end of the school year. I wasn't much of a painter
then, but what the work lacked in color sense and technical flourish, it
gained in the incongruity of having a High Renaissance masterpiece in a
college dorm that had the unmistakable odor of old beer cans and older
The painting lent an air of cosmic grandeur to my room, and
it seemed to put life into a larger perspective. Those boring, flowery
English poets didn't seem quite so important, when right above my head
God was transmitting the spark of life to man.
My friends and I liked the finished painting so much in fact, that we
decided I should ask permission to do it. As you might expect, the
housing director was curious to know why I wanted to paint this elaborate
picture on my ceiling a few weeks before school let out. Well, you don't
get to be a sophomore at Kenyon without learning how to fabricate ideas
you never had, but I guess it was obvious that my idea was being proposed
retroactively. It ended up that I was allowed to paint the picture, so
long as I painted over it and returned the ceiling to normal at the end
of the year. And that's what I did.
Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of
college are times like these, where things were done out of some
inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was
demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized
art project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act of
It's surprising how hard we'll work when the work is done just for
ourselves. And with all due respect to John Stuart Mill, maybe
utilitarianism is overrated. If I've learned one thing from being a
cartoonist, it's how important playing is to creativity and happiness.
My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year.
If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are,
get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine
your livelihood. I've found that the only way I can keep writing
every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new
territories. To do that, I've had to cultivate a kind of mental
We're not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do
more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our
idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the
television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting
off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car
battery-it recharges by running.
You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demands
of "just getting by: absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised
matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. You may be surprised
to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people's
expectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out how
quickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.
At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world,
you'll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your
own. With any luck at all, you'll never need to take an idea and squeeze
a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you'll be called
upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind
play is the best way to solve problems.
For me, it's been liberating to put myself in the mind of a fictitious
six year-old each day, and rediscover my own curiosity. I've been amazed
at how one ideas leads to others if I allow my mind to play and wander.
I know a lot about dinosaurs now, and the information has helped me out
of quite a few deadlines.
A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your
natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think
you'll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road
So, what's it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but
beyond that, I don't recommend it.
I don't look back on my first few years out of school with much
affection, and if I could have talked to you six months ago, I'd have
encouraged you all to flunk some classes and postpone this moment as
long as possible. But now it's too late.
Unfortunately, that was all the advice I really had. When I was sitting
where you are, I was one of
the lucky few who had a cushy job waiting for me. I'd drawn political
cartoons for the Collegian for four years, and the Cincinnati Post had
hired me as an editorial cartoonist. All my friends were either dreading
the infamous first year of law school, or despondent about their chances
of convincing anyone that a history degree had any real application
outside of academia.
Boy, was I smug.
As it turned out, my editor instantly regretted his decision to hire me.
By the end of the summer, I'd been given notice; by the beginning of
winter, I was in an unemployment line; and by the end of my first year
away from Kenyon, I was broke and living with my parents again. You can
imagine how upset my dad was when he learned that Kenyon doesn't give
Watching my career explode on the lauchpad caused some soul
searching. I eventually admitted that I didn't have what it takes to be
a good political cartoonist, that is, an interest in politics, and I
returned to my firs love, comic strips.
For years I got nothing but
rejection letters, and I was forced to accept a real job.
A REAL job is a job you hate. I designed car ads and grocery ads in the
windowless basement of a convenience store, and I hated every single
minute of the 4-1/2 million minutes I worked there. My fellow prisoners
at work were basically concerned about how to punch the time clock at
the perfect second where they would earn another 20 cents without doing
any work for it.
It was incredible: after every break, the entire
staff would stand around in the garage where the time clock was, and
wait for that last click. And after my used car needed the head gasket
replaced twice, I waited in the garage too.
It's funny how at Kenyon, you take for granted that the people around
you think about more than the last episode of Dynasty. I guess that's
what it means to be in an ivory tower.
Anyway, after a few months at this job, I was starved for some life of
the mind that, during my lunch break, I used to read those poli sci
books that I'd somehow never quite finished when I was here. Some of
those books were actually kind of interesting. It was a rude shock to
see just how empty and robotic life can be when you don't care about
what you're doing, and the only reason you're there is to pay the
"the mass of men lead lives of
That's one of those dumb
cocktail quotations that will strike fear in your heart as you get
older. Actually, I was leading a life of loud desperation.
When it seemed I would be writing about "Midnite Madness
Sale-abrations" for the rest of my life, a friend used to console
me that cream always rises to the top. I used to think, so do people who
throw themselves into the sea.
I tell you all this because it's worth recognizing that there is no such
thing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate the
resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or
failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we
arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously
where I was going all along. It's a good idea to try to enjoy the
scenery on the detours, because you'll probably take a few.
I still haven't drawn the strip as long as it took me to get the job. To
endure five years of rejection to get a job requires either a faith in
oneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work. I loved the
Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home the
point that the fun of cartooning wasn't in the money; it was in the
work. This turned out to be an important realization when my break
Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn't what I caught.
I've wanted to be a cartoonist since I was old enough to read cartoons,
and I never really thought about cartoons as being a business. It never
occurred to me that a comic strip I created would be at the mercy of a
bloodsucking corporate parasite called a syndicate, and that I'd be
faced with countless ethical decisions masquerading as simple business
To make a business decision, you don't need much
philosophy; all you need is greed, and maybe a little knowledge of how
the game works.
As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that
popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much
time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12
billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a
piece of that pie. But the more I though about what they wanted to do
with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I
Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in.
Sell out, and you're really buying into someone else's system of values,
rules and rewards.
The so-called "opportunity" I faced
would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a
money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing
was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be
sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of
assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would
become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was
supposed to supply all the meaning I'd need.
What the syndicate
wanted to do, in other words, was turn my comic strip into everything
calculated, empty and robotic that I hated about my old job. They would
turn my characters into television hucksters and T-shirt sloganeers and
deprive me of characters that actually expressed my own thoughts.
On those terms, I found the offer easy to refuse. Unfortunately, the
syndicate also found my refusal easy to refuse, and we've been fighting
for over three years now. Such is American business, I guess, where the
desire for obscene profit mutes any discussion of conscience.
You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both
personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but
if we don't discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for,
we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all
asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define
ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the
world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and
recognize that there are many kinds of success.
Many of you will be
going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other
graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with
luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own
But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is
Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a
rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and
excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually
considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only
understood if it's to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of
success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the
time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A
person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is
considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and
salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You'll be told in a
hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be
satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you're doing. There
are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you'll hear
To invent your own life's meaning is not easy, but it's still allowed,
and I think you'll be happier for the trouble.
Reading those turgid
philosophers here in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job,
but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what
makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have the
Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it's going to come in handy all
I think you'll find that Kenyon touched a deep part of you. These have
been formative years. Chances are, at least of your roommates has taught
you everything ugly about human nature you ever wanted to know.
luck, you've also had a class that transmitted a spark of insight or
interest you'd never had before. Cultivate that interest, and you may
find a deeper meaning in your life that feeds your soul and spirit. Your
preparation for the real world is not in the answers you've learned, but
in the questions you've learned how to ask yourself.
Kenyon, I suspect you'll find yourselves quite well prepared indeed.
I wish you all fulfillment and happiness. Congratulations on your