Noah Scalin’s December 2016 Commencement Address

Congratulations, you’ve made it! So now what?

Here are the three most helpful things I can tell you right now:

1. The only “real world” is the one you make.
2. You’ve got skills that the world desperately needs right now.
3. Your passion is the key to your success.

That’s it.

But of course there’s more.

I’ve been an artist and activist since I was born. I’m not exaggerating. My parents are both artists & art teachers and I went to my first protest march in a stroller. So you can imagine what a shock it was to be told when I was graduating from college that I needed to give up my youthful idealism, that it was time to get serious. It was time for the “real world.” All this art & activism stuff I was doing was well and good, but they weren’t going to pay the bills. Thankfully for me it wasn’t my parents saying that – it was just everyone else.

I know that I was lucky. Lucky that I had the confidence I needed to trust that following my passions would lead me to places that would both make me a living and make me happy. That I would be able to make the world a better place and keep a roof over my head. And I’m here to tell you that it is possible for you to do the same.

Have you been hearing a lot about this place called the “real world” lately? Are you excited by it…or frightened by it…or maybe both? Well here’s the thing (if you didn’t know already) the “real world” is a fiction. It’s something that people just made up and agreed upon.

Every day I make my own version of the world and I share it with others. That’s what I do with my art and in my teaching. The good news is that you get to do this too! This so called “real world” is whatever you want it to be and the sooner you start making your version of it and not just accepting the one you’ve been given, the better off you’ll be. The better off we’ll all be.

And the really good news, is that you’re already prepared do this job. You’ve been lucky enough to learn about, practice and embrace the most important skill of the 21st century: creativity. This isn’t hyperbole. More and more jobs are being automated and the ones that will remain are the ones that require creativity.

I’ve spent the past six years consulting with some of the biggest companies in the world. And they’re all saying the same thing. “We need more creative employees. We need people who can think differently, solve problems differently, and make things that have never existed before.”

When I was deciding on what to study in college I had just two main criteria: I needed to do something creative and I needed to be able to make a living doing it. What can I say I was a practical kid. Logically I chose to go to…theater school.

My first full-time job was assisting the marketing director of a small film company. He hired me because I had done an internship under him in college. He quit two weeks after I was hired and then I was made the marketing director of a film company. I had no idea what I was doing.

My next full-time job was working in the fashion industry. I was assisting the art director until he quit, and I became the art director. I had no idea what I was doing …and I was sensing a theme.

So I decided to start my own design company. And running a business full-time was something else I had no idea how to do.

Then one day I was over it. And I had a crazy idea, I should start making skulls every day for an entire year. Which led me to an entirely new career as an author and corporate consultant, a couple more things I had no idea how to do.

And yet, I have always had the skills I needed to do all of these things and more, because the tools I learned in school were so powerful and practical that they served me in any and every situation I found myself and they are still benefitting me daily.

When I teach creativity to corporate executives I’m teaching them about the things you’ve already been trained to do. I’m bringing them a set of tools that people in creative fields have always known about and use all the time to be consistently innovative. And this is necessary more than ever right now, because the old ways don’t work anymore. That’s what my clients are saying. That’s what the world is saying.

The world is changing faster and faster and the systems that have been in place for the last hundred years or so don’t work anymore. They’re breaking down, or they’re already broken, and they need to be replaced. Frankly they’ve needed replacing for a while. And there’s no going back. There’s no golden era behind us. The best world is still to come. So we need more creative people like you to figure out, and make, what’s next.

This is why “change” has been the watchword of our modern era. It’s what the corporations I work for recognize and are grappling with right now. It’s the thing that people have been asking for, voting for, marching for, and fighting for, for the past few decades. The need for change fuels innovation, but the fear of change creates devastation. And you…you are the people most primed to direct how we can respond positively to the changes that are happening right now and to create the real change we need in the future.

Which I realize is a lot to take in. The important thing at this moment is to make sure you know what really matters to you and spend your time focusing on that. Not on making money or gaining success. Those will come and go, but they won’t bring you joy. A truly happy life is spent being passionate about what it is you’re doing in the moment and watching out for when that passion begins to flicker, so that you can protect it, refocus it, or reignite it.

I never knew exactly where I was going or what I was doing, and I still don’t, but I have always been driven by my passions. And I never gave up my youthful idealism.

What dreams did you have when you went to school? Are they the same dreams you have now? What world do you want to live in? What are you passionate about? These questions aren’t frivolous, they’re deeply relevant. And you need to spend your time now making sure you know the answers to them. You need to make sure you can articulate them clearly. Don’t just keep them in your head, write them down. But don’t just hide them in your journal either. Share them publicly and encourage others to do the same. Then listen to friends and strangers as they share their own visions.

Your passions are the things that will make you stand out and help you discover the surprising answers to the hard questions you will be asked in the future.

Your passions will connect you to others, even when those people are truly others. When they’re from different places and different backgrounds, have different histories and different experiences. When they look or sound nothing like you.

Your passions will guide your successes in this world and will determine the future, not just for you, but for all of us on this planet.

I know this can sound daunting. And I wish I could just give you some simple advice on how to “make it” in your career. I’m often asked how I got to where I am today, as if there’s some roadmap I can share that will make it easier to get here too. There are so many of books out there which share the stories of great women & men and their successes, and they imply that their stories can be yours too…but they can’t be. You make your own story.

But the big secret, if there really is one, is that no one – no one – ever knows what they’re doing. Everyone is thinking that someone else has it together; has figured it out. But we’re all constantly making it up. Every time I got to where I thought I wanted to be in life, every time I leveled up, reached a new plateau, I discovered that I was surrounded by people who, like me, were hoping that no one discovered the truth: that they’re just normal people, hiding behind the curtain, pretending to be Oz the Great and Terrible.

My own personal roadmap looks like a tree…and so does yours. At any point along the way you can look back and follow the branches all the way way to the trunk and it seems like a fairly logical, straightforward journey, but looking outwards, it’s just endless branches in every direction. And every branch leads to more forking paths. And that’s OK.

In the end it’s not about where you end up, it’s about what you do along the way. Those branching paths ahead of you are full of opportunities to make the world you want to live in. Your job is to practice paying attention so you can see those opportunities as they appear ahead of you. You’ll definitely be surprised by the places you go, but as long as you stay true to who you are; what you believe; your passions – you’ll be happy wherever you end up. At least for a little while, because there are always more branches ahead.

I look forward to living in the world you make.

Thank you.