Charlie Day on Risk

While you are reading this, some poor kid is sitting through a graduation commencement address, sweating through their robe as lecturers drone on about what it takes to be successful in the outside world. They define “success” from Webster’s Dictionary and quote from Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go…that is unless you were fortunate enough to attend Merrimack College’s ceremony.

This past May, Merrimack College invited Charlie Day to give their commencement address. Charlie is co-creator and star of the popular TV series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, he’s been in countless movies, and he is a Merrimack College alumnus. As expected, Charlie was funny. He had great stories and was able to relate his experience at the college to those graduating. Charlie also had some insightful advice.

I am not going to post Charlie’s speech. Feel free to check out the video here. Instead, I’d like to share a few bits of wisdom from Dr. Charlie Day (Merrimack bestowed him with an honorary doctorate, so the “Dr.” is legit):

LESSON 1: FAILURE

After graduating from college, Charlie was faced with two options – move to New York City to begin his pursuit of acting or take the entry-level position that had been offered by Fidelity Investments.

…but I didn’t want to fail at Fidelity…If I was going to run the risk of failure I wanted it to be in New York. I wanted to fail in the way and place where I would be proud to fail, doing what I wanted to do and let me tell you … and I did fail. Time and time again… I was taking my punches but I was in the fight.

Success is not the opposite of failure, it’s a by-product. If you hear about someone who made it big on their first attempt, they are either lying or extremely lucky. Sustainable success takes multiple attempts accompanied with rejections, self-doubt, and anguish.

LESSON 2: GAMBLE

After being in New York for a while, Charlie and some friends started filming bits in their apartment called It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In a stroke of luck, Charlie was concurrently offered an acting job on the network show, Life on a Stick.

Suddenly there was another decision to be made…Take the big network opportunity, the big paycheck or bet on myself and my friends, make no money and try to sell what basically was a home movie as the next great television series? Life on a Stick went one season and thirteen episodes. We are currently filming our tenth season of Sunny, we’ve written and produced 114 episodes and are signed on for another two seasons making Sunny one of the longest running comedies of all time.

Charlie and his friends did not have the benefit of foresight to know their show would be a hit. They had no prospective deals and there was no trust fund to lean on. All they had was hope and the belief that they were doing something special. His lesson is simple, “Don’t wait for your break. Make your break. Make it happen for yourself.”

LESSON 3: FEAR

After being asked to present this commencement address, Charlie was struck with the magnitude of the feat. To prepare, he watched too many videos of brilliant orators that freaked him out.

I know I will be posted on YouTube and judged and compared by all who care to see. But my lesson is this. I don’t give a shit. You cannot let a fear of failure or a fear of comparison or a fear of judgment stop you from doing the things that will make you great. You cannot succeed without the risk of failure. You cannot have a voice without the risk of criticism. You cannot love without the risk of loss. You must take these risks.

One additional piece that struck me as particularly significant was:

I don’t think you should just do what makes you happy. Do what makes you great. Do what’s uncomfortable and scary and hard but pays off in the long run.

Like the graduates who are joining the workforce, each of us must remember that “You are capable of greatness in your profession and more importantly in your quality of self.”

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