Commencement 2017: “Leave nothing on the table”
Steven Levitan, award-winning television producer and 1984 graduate of UW–Madison, delivered the following commencement address on May 13, 2017.
Thank you, Andre, for that lovely introduction. And thank you Provost Mangelsdorf for your colorful last name—which makes me feel like I’m at the commencement for Hogwarts. Especially thank you to the Class of 2017 for inviting me to speak.
It means so much because I have kids about your age who are here today and I want them to witness what it’s like for people to actually listen to me. The next time they ignore my advice, I’ll just tell them, “Well, I guess you’re right and those 52,000 people who cared about what I had to say were wrong.”
It’s hard to believe I graduated here thirty-three years ago. I still have the official university photo of me receiving my diploma, wearing only shorts under my cap and gown and holding a big bottle of champagne as if to say, “Hey World, lower your expectations!”
I came to Madison from my hometown Chicago in the fall of 1980. The truth is, I almost went to Indiana. Well because, during my visit to Wisconsin the previous fall, I got pretty freaked out by all the dead deer on people’s cars.
In the end it was my mom who convinced me: Wisconsin had an 18-year-old drinking age back then while Indiana’s was 21. “Why”, she asked, “would you want to go to some backwards state where they force you to hide out and drink in a basement?”
I made lifelong friends at UW, some of whom are here today, which I appreciate so much. We went to Badger games, dressed up as Mediterranean fruit flies for Halloween, sang and danced our hearts out in Humorology, suntanned on the Union Terrace on the first 40-degree spring day and occasionally we even went to class. After two years in the Lakeshore dorms, we lived at the SAE house and at the Kollege Klub, 151 steps away. So, much to my mom’s chagrin, there I was, partying in basements.
To get a sense of how long ago that was, there were no cellphones and no Internet. To register for classes, we had to do this insane mad dash from building to building. We had to literally race back and forth across a campus we didn’t know—to get the classes we wanted at the times we needed. People were terrified, out of breath, freaking out. I remember this poor freshman girl literally crying as I pushed her to the ground so I could get a later Econ class.
We wrote papers on typewriters, took Polaroids and listened to albums on vinyl. Not to be hip and old school. Back then, old school was just school.
There was no Facebook. If we wanted to friend someone, we had to actually meet them. And if we wanted people to know we did something cool, we had to awkwardly work it into a conversation, like: “Wow, that exam was as hard as when I climbed Machu Picchu” or “That ice cream is as sweet as Molly Ringwald, with whom I recently took this Polaroid.”
There was no Tinder, no Bumble, no Grindr. If we wanted to hook up with someone, we couldn’t just look on our phones. Our phones were attached to the wall and there was nothing on them except a dial tone. We had to approach people in real life and use our charm and wit— so we were almost always alone.
We couldn’t even call our high school sweethearts because the long-distance phone bill would be too expensive. Instead, we’d have to write letters like we were soldiers in the civil war. “My dearest Amanda, how my heart yearns for your sturdy frame. I am filled with fear for tomorrow I go sliding down Bascom Hill on a lunch tray.”
Back then, we didn’t even have the Jump Around. We had a fat guy with a W shaved on his back doing the Moonwalk.
So I must admit I’m a bit jealous of all the advantages you’ve had, but, just like on a John Cougar Mellencamp record, there’s a B-side. Our choices were simpler—we could either go to grad school or work for a big company. But now there’s so much you could do, it becomes paralyzing. With the world at your fingertips, you always feel you should be making something and putting it online, or amping your presence on LinkedIn or keeping up with all the amazing things everyone’s doing on social media. Plus your phone’s always dying.
So, how do you deal with all that? Well, as commencement speaker, I’m supposed to impart wisdom. This is where I tell you a bunch of clichés like “Follow Your Dream” and “Be Yourself.” But I’m not going to do that because I don’t know your dream. Your dream may be stupid. Your dream may be to open a DVD store or to sell Jell-O art. Those are bad dreams, don’t do it. And, if you’re like my freshman roommate, maybe you shouldn’t be yourself. Anybody else would be better.
So I’ll do my best to avoid the clichés, and instead tell you five things I’ve learned since I stood here wearing shorts.
#1. Roll The Dice In Your Twenties
When you’re unencumbered, when your expenses are low, when you’re still on your parents’ health insurance and living in their basement… that’s when you should take chances.
My first job after graduation was as a TV news reporter here in Madison. But at night I’d look up at the network monitors on the wall and wonder if I could write those sitcoms I loved so much. So I tried. And when I realized I liked it more than my real job, I quit and took the next step. I moved to Chicago to work for an ad agency, where I got to be creative and make TV commercials. We filmed one in Los Angeles at a studio where they shot sitcoms, and suddenly I realized sitcoms were made by human beings and I was a human being so maybe it wasn’t such a crazy goal after all.
So, at 27, I took a job making trailers and TV commercials for a movie studio and moved to LA. An agent read my spec script for “The Wonder Years” and asked if I had a multicam writing sample. I told him I had an episode of “Cheers.” He told me to send it to him immediately. I hung up the phone and started writing an episode of “Cheers.” A year later, the right people read that “Cheers” script, and I was offered my dream job as a staff writer on a television comedy. I had four careers in seven years—either because I refused to play it safe or, more likely, because I had a severe case of A-D-D.
#2. Succeed Or Fail On Your Own Terms
Very early in my writing career a friend told me a story that has served me well ever since. He had created a show with two lead characters who were always butting heads. The network told him to tone down the relationship and make them nicer to each other, so they were more likable. He said, “No, that’s the crux of the show, the fire between them.” They said, if you want to get it on the air, you’ll do it. So he did. And the network passed on his show, saying the dynamic between the two main characters felt flat. He said, “But you told me to tone it down!” And they said, “Well, you shouldn’t have listened.” When I created my first show, I was fairly young and just the kind of person studio and network executives were most likely to push around, but that story kept popping into my head. So I was respectful, but, when I felt strongly, I stuck to my guns. Footnote: This works best when you’re right. I can’t help you with that.
#3. It’s Hard To Fail 10 Times In A Row.
Professionally-speaking, the years 2000 to 2008 were not my finest. After my first success creating a show, I did eight shows in a row that were cancelled after one season or never picked up in the first place and frankly I was sick of failing on my own terms.
So I took some time off and I spent a lot of days in my gym clothes without ever going to the gym. Then I took a shower and I called an old friend, who was coming off his own set of failures, and we decided to shake things up and work together.
And we failed yet again. For me that was now nine shows in a row.
We regrouped and this time we started talking about all the funny things happening in our lives. I was a super cool dad who didn’t understand why my two girls and a boy didn’t think I was at all cool… and my writing partner was a bit of a curmudgeon with a sophisticated young son who wore a smoking jacket. Plus we had plenty of gay friends who weren’t anything like the gay characters on TV. They were in long-term relationships, they were neither fit nor fabulous and they were bad parents just like the rest of us.
So we deluded ourselves into thinking this time it could work. We took everything we learned from our few successes and many failures and wrote what we knew best. We auditioned roughly fourteen-hundred actors. When the network president told us he wouldn’t cast our choice for Phil Dunphy, I thought of my friend’s story and we stuck to our guns. And finally, it worked. Now, gratefully, I’m introduced as the co-creator of Emmy-winning “Modern Family” and no one remembers I’m the idiot who failed nine times in a row.
#4 Be Calm In A Crisis. Years ago, I got stuck in an elevator with someone and there was no one else in the building. It was the first day of the writer’s strike and I was stressed and late for a meeting and, frankly, I don’t like tight spaces. We phoned for help which was at least an hour or two away. I started banging on the locked trap door on top of the elevator car, so hard that I knocked out all the lights, sending us into total darkness. The other person tried to make the best of it, while I spent the next forty minutes cursing my bad luck. Why me? Why now? Then suddenly the door opened and we were blasted with sunlight. See, the elevator did its job and slowly, imperceptibly lowered itself to the ground floor. We gathered our things, stepped outside and I said something like, “Well, that was interesting.” The other person just looked at me, shook her head and said, “What a fool.” Which, sadly, was true. The point is, no matter how dark it gets, the door will open, the sunlight will return and all you’ll be left with is how you acted when the going got tough. Also, always go to the bathroom before getting on a sketchy elevator.
Finally #5. It’s Hard To Live Up To Your Potential When You Don’t Like What You Do.
Growing up, I was a terrible student. Here’s what one high school teacher wrote, “Steve could be an A-student if he wanted to. He shows no interest in Spanish and does as little work as possible.” That was mucho true, Señora. And had I settled for a job in which I showed little interest, I guarantee that would have been my report card for life. I would have been a mediocre journalist or a decent adman. But, because I love what I do, I happily give it my all and I’ve been able to rise above my Spanish teacher’s expectationés and live up to my potential. Not everyone is so lucky, I know that. Not everyone can reach their dream job. But maybe you can and thus live up to your potential. And what a shame to not even try.
This is a true story:
I was about half way to work one day about ten years ago when all of a sudden a person popped up in my back seat of my car and said, “Hi, Daddy!” I nearly drove off the road. Fortunately, it was my 11-year-old daughter who decided she was coming to work with me.
It was a day all the writers would sit around a table and dream up new ideas for stories. Unfortunately, this day we hit a lot of dead ends—and my sweet little daughter got to witness all the bizarre ways we tried to get back on track: The running jokes, the latest gossip, the competitive game of “Name That Tune.” By 6 p.m., all we had to show for our day’s work was a bunch of notions that added up to nothing. Still, I was thrilled that Allie had a chance to experience the creative process and see people doing what they love—and thus living up to their potential.
We got home and she said, “Thanks for taking me to work with you, Daddy. It was so amazing to see what you do.” Then she walked into the kitchen, turned to her mom and said, “It’s a wonder we have a roof over our heads.”
So as you sit here today, with an amazing education from one of the finest universities in the world, that is what I wish for you: The happiness, the confidence, the feeling of self-satisfaction that comes from leaving nothing on the table. So don’t sit back and wait for good things to happen, make them happen. Put in extra hours. Learn new skills. Identify and seek new opportunities. Call that person you’ve always admired and take him or her to lunch.
Spend time with people who are different than you. Spend time with those who lift you up rather than those who drag you down. Drink a glass of water in between every cocktail. Give to charity. Adopt a dog. Put the (expletive) phone down and drive. Ask out the person who’s out of your league. Don’t be the boring one who never dances at weddings. Be generous. Be kind. Be good to your parents and thank them for everything they’ve done—mine screwed me up just enough to be a comedy writer, but not so much that I’m an actor.
The world is changing, make sure you change with it. But don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. If their life is so great, they wouldn’t stop to post pictures of it every two minutes. Shake off your past limitations and be the best version of yourself. Live up to your potential.
You are graduates of the University of Wisconsin—Madison. You can do it. Starting now. Thank you very much.