J.J. Abrams '88: Keynote Speaker

Introductory remarks from President Karen R. Lawrence

And now it’s my pleasure to introduce our distinguished speaker for this 89th Commencement at Sarah Lawrence College. It’s an understatement to say that J.J. Abrams is multi-talented and prolific. He has written and directed Super 8, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Mission: Impossible III; created or co-created the TV series Felicity, Alias, Fringe, and Lost; and written or co-written such films as Regarding Henry and Forever Young—and we would be here all afternoon if I went into all his producing credits.

The story goes that J.J. was planning to go to film school after high school but ultimately enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College following his father’s advice that “it’s more important that you go off and learn what to make movies about than how to make movies.”

Over the years, I’ve seen many of J.J.’s movies and television series, so when I heard this anecdote I couldn’t help but imagine how his Sarah Lawrence education informed the content and the ethos of his work. Did his psych course on “Stress and Coping” help him create the young characters in Super 8, who deal remarkably well with their town’s alien invasion? Did his class on “Personality and Interpersonal Relationships” help him to reimagine the father-son drama between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader? And did an SLC course he took called “Visions of Women” help empower Felicity to cut off her hair?

In fact, J.J.’s filmography is very Sarah Lawrence—genre-bending and filled with imaginative risk-taking. And like many students here, he seems to have both learned from wise teachers and found his own voice. J.J. is a model for generations of aspiring film-makers, writers, directors, and other magicians of the visual arts. His films exude a sense of joy in both making and watching movies, as if the film’s creator were still a wide-eyed fan, a kid sneaking into a forbidden matinee on a Saturday afternoon.

Please help me welcome writer, director, producer, J.J. Abrams, Class of 1988, an alumnus of whom we are very proud.


J.J. Abrams ’88

J.J. Abrams '88I'll try to be brief today, as I know many of you have reservations at some of Yonkers' finest eateries.

Firstly, thank you to the graduating class of 2017, family members, and faculty. I’d like to thank President Karen Lawrence. I’m grateful for your generosity, patience, and tenacity. But mostly, I’d like to thank those in the custodial department. I graduated from Sarah Lawrence what now feels like nearly six months ago, and I never properly thanked those who are employed to clean up situations that, in some states, would literally be considered criminal. I may or may not be referring to one instance in particular. I am honored to be here today. Thank you for having me.

Before I begin, I’d like to say a few words...about the words "before I begin.”

This is a commencement ceremony, meant to commemorate your commencement—your “beginning.” The words “before I begin”, this ceremony implies, could be a phrase used to describe your entire life up until now. Which is an anxiety-provoking perspective.

Anxiety, indeed, was evident in the conversations I had with students from this graduating class. I reached out to some of you to get your point of view, your interests and concerns, what I should focus on today. I heard a lot of excitement. Enthusiasm, a readiness to move on. But to what? Even from students who had a next step planned—and certainly from many who did not—I heard about their own anxiety, their friends’ anxiety. Abject terror, from some. All about this new beginning.

One young man asked, ”What does a Sarah Lawrence degree mean in the world?" There was a pause, so I replied, ”That was rhetorical, right?” "No," he said, "What am I going to do with it? Tell me.” I hung up on him. No, we had a good conversation, and I understood how he felt. He was in good company.

And this anxiety isn’t exclusive to the students. I spoke with some parents, as well. One mother said, “I’d love to hear that sending my son to Sarah Lawrence was worth it.” There was a desperation in her voice that I cannot describe.

Before I attempt to comfort anyone, allow me to address the elephant on campus. It is patently absurd that I am standing up here. Not just standing, but speaking, as well. I am convinced that my being chosen for this honor is really President Lawrence’s last ditch college prank before she hightails it out of here. With perhaps the exception of having well-researched knowledge about which brand’s chocolate chips taste best with almonds, there really is precious little information I can bestow upon you that you didn’t have already, when you woke up this morning.

However, I AM nearly thirty years older than you are, and—oh wait, I just lost all the feeling in my legs, saying those words. I've chosen ten random things I've learned in those intervening years in hopes of giving a talk that is vaguely relevant at best. SO: In no particular order, here are ten observations I thought I'd share with my illustrious, fellow Sarah Lawrence graduates.

NUMBER ONE.  WRITE THANK YOU NOTES.

J.J. Abrams '88Have you ever been at a restaurant with someone who, when the waiter brings your food, doesn’t say “Thank you”? Don’t trust that person. I’m not saying don’t know them, or work with them, just don’t trust them deeply. First of all, that person has never worked at a restaurant. Secondly, that person lacks a fundamental ingredient that indicates an awareness of their place in the world. And that’s gratitude. Every night our family has dinner, we all hold hands and go around the table doing what we call “our thankfuls”. Just saying what you were grateful for that day. It’s a remarkable thing what pausing and appreciating can do for the spirit and the soul. Toni Morrison, who spoke here at my commencement ceremony in 1814, once said, “At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.” Be as grateful every day, as you are when the medical report comes back negative, as when the taxi that almost hit you off your bike didn’t. We are, all of us, always, one breath away from something extraordinarily wonderful. But also an inch from darkness. Carry that with you consciously—and “consciousness” requires presence, which has now become a dying art. That waiter, by the way, clocks who is grateful and who isn’t—oh and here’s a simple life tip: be super cool to the people who bring you food. It’s not just important to feel gratitude, it’s critical to express it. In that spirit, here's a lesson my dad taught me: write thank you notes. On actual paper. Paper is a material made from trees and mulch. I know it sounds like an antiquated notion, but you will be amazed how meaningful that gesture is. To the person who interviews you or gives you a tour of grad school or your new office—trust me on this—the second this interminable speech is done, get your ass to a stationery store, and buy some decent stationery. No, I am not part of the stationery lobby, though I do fear their power. If you take one thing away from this pathetic excuse for a speech: be the person who writes thank you notes. It’s not just manners, it’s humanity.

NUMBER TWO.  R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Listen carefully. Marry. The right. Person. Yes, it’s premature. And it’s so obvious. JJ, this is none of your business. I hear you. But I’m the one talking and you’re the one listening, so I’m going to say this: one day, for many of you, you’re going to either want to ask or have to respond to a question about spending the rest of your life with someone. Attraction is easy. Love is tougher. But there’s something even harder to find, but just as important—maybe even the most important—and that’s respect. Do not marry someone you don’t deeply respect. A successful marriage is like an Escher painting: two people, somehow both looking up to each other. You want the person who you can’t believe has chosen you—and not because you have a horrible self-image, but because you have such a incredible sense of who they are. And this must apply both ways. Marry someone who improves you and approves of you. We all have or do things that delight us but which make little sense to the world. If the person you’re with doesn't respect those delights? Wrong person. My wife, Katie McGrath, and I have been married for twenty years. In a row. Has it been easy every day? Yes. No, it hasn’t—that’s impossible. Can we drive each other crazy? Of course. Does she love all the 80’s music I want to listen to in the car? Let’s just say…no. Katie is a gorgeous, brilliant, dynamic, socially-conscious woman—I was attracted to her immediately, loved her within minutes, but what struck me most powerfully—like waking up suddenly able to speak a new language—was the respect I felt for her. Admiration in the way she considers others…knows right from wrong. She is true. She is kind. Even when she’s being super mean, critiquing something I’m working on in such a mean way, I can't believe it—but that brutal honesty—words no one else would speak, is a priceless thing. Not all of you can marry a Katie—only a few of you can—but choose someone you’re attracted to. Someone you come to love. And someone you hold in the highest regard.

NUMBER THREE.  WAIT AS LONG AS YOU CAN.

Have your own children as late as possible. Because dear God. Nothing is as hard as that. Yuichiro Miura, who was seventy-five years old when he climbed Mount Everest was asked if that was the hardest thing he’d ever done. “Not even close,” he replied. “That was nothing compared to raising my kids.” While that quote is not real, I made it up, it’s how I feel. Raising kids is preposterously hard. To those of you lucky enough to have your parents here today—just ask them. Holy crap. Is it glorious and wonderful magic—yes, all that stuff—and would I trade our three kids for anything? Never in the world. But would I have liked one more year of living in TriBeCa with Katie, going to a late dinner, “just ‘cause we felt like it?” Yes. Ten years more of that? Maybe. Yes, ten years. At least ten years. The great news is that there is nothing you need to do about this today. Except maybe BE EXTRA NICE TO YOUR PARENTS. You beat the crap out of them and they still dressed up for you today. Have kids as late. As. Possible. By the way, when you’re older, and one of your parents is getting impatient for grandchildren, you have my permission to say to them, “Are you gonna raise them?” It won’t get you anywhere, but it’s a fun answer to give.

NUMBER FOUR.  GET THIS DOOR OFF ME.

J.J. Abrams '88We were in London shooting The Force Awakens, rehearsing a scene. The actors were there, including Harrison Ford, dressed as Han Solo. I don’t have words in my vocabulary to properly explain how surreal it is to be standing on the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo. It was like a really stressful dream. In the middle of this rehearsal a mistake was made and a hydraulic door was triggered and came down on Harrison, who was suddenly pushed to the ground, the door coming to a stop just before it might have killed him. What I couldn’t see at that moment is that his left leg had broken at the ankle and gone completely sideways. That was when Harrison called out, as any of us might, “Get this door off me.” As crew members scrambled to reverse the hydraulics, a few of us tried to raise the door. As I strained to lift it—I learned an excellent lesson: you cannot lift hydraulic doors. I felt a pop in my back. It hurt but I kept trying to lift as others did—not realizing that I’d just fractured my L4 vertebra. Finally, the hydraulics worked and the door came up. I saw Harrison’s right-angle left leg—in an instant, this innocent, joyous creative collaboration turned terrifying.

People ran around for help, but in the madness I was sitting beside Harrison and saw something remarkable. Despite his pain, he calmly asked for his cell phone. He called a helicopter pilot he knew. He arranged for his own transport to the hospital. He talked to the crew and medical team with respect. He demonstrated a grace and strength and focus that kicked the ass of anything I’d ever seen him or anyone do on screen. He behaved heroically. And ten weeks later he was running on the set, sprinting faster than I ever could. Harrison Ford, it turns out, may not be an actual human. Nearly everything you see in that movie, by the way, was him after the accident.

My point is that the greatest moments in your life can suddenly become life and death. But those are the times when you and your colleagues will be tested. How you act will be the definition of your character. When times get tough, know you can get through it—find something that will help guide you. My inspiration will continue to be the guy who played Indiana Jones.

NUMBER FIVE.  IS BEATRICE SHORE THERE?

There is a power in possibility that fuels my interest in not just storytelling, but in living. When I was a college student, I'd wander the streets of Manhattan—that magic hour at sundown when it's still light out, but the lights inside apartments have that warm glow—and being amazed that behind every window, every door, is a life...and how there were infinite ways those lives might intersect. Might even intersect with my own. It's like the resonant feeling I get when I go into an art or music store—the sense of what’s possible with all that raw material. Possibility—serendipity—is something to be celebrated and amazed by—and something you need to be open to. Meeting the person you’re meant to spend your life with rarely happens as you might expect. I was on a date with someone else the night I met Katie. Your career might not be jumpstarted by a meeting, but just by wandering. My senior year I was unsure of how I’d ever get my actual first paycheck. I was heading down an escalator in LA when someone called my name—heading up the escalator beside me was Jill Mazursky—whom I’d met freshman year through a friend at Sarah Lawrence. She was a writer, had sold scripts, had an agent. In an act of self-preservation, I suggested we write something together. We did. And we sold it to Disney. My last semester of my senior year I took a train into the city to sign my first contract. I was a working writer before I graduated simply because I took the escalator one day instead of the elevator. Every day is full of random catalyzing events—ripples that can have profound effect. Or sometimes just be incredible events in their own right. When my mother, who I’ll mention again in hour three of my speech, was a young girl, she lived in Brooklyn. Her Aunt, Beatrice, lived in Manhattan. One day she called her aunt, but was fairly certain she’d dialed the wrong number. She almost hung up the phone, but a man answered. Strange, because Beatrice lived alone. My mother, Carol, almost hung up, but back in the day each call cost ten cents, so she asked, “Is Beatrice Shore there?” “Yes,” the man said. “Hold on.” A moment later my mother’s aunt was on the receiver. “Carol?” she asked. “How did you know I was here?” My mother had dialed the wrong number, but somehow had reached the apartment where her aunt just happened to be visiting. It might be an overstatement to say I live for things like that…but not by much. The world is magic.

NUMBER SIX.  THE WORLD IS HARD AND UNFAIR.

This isn’t breaking news—though I’m sure since this ceremony began there’s been plenty of that—but things—out there—aren’t fair. It’s tough for me, and I’m a white guy. Getting a movie made or a series on TV is incredibly difficult—I know from personal experience—but get this: only 11.2% of film directors are men of color—1.3% women of color. So I can’t even begin to imagine how hard getting work is for those who don’t share my anatomy and skin color. The disparity between what the world looks like and who is generally telling the stories in Hollywood is both preposterous and embarrassing. At Bad Robot—while we’re certainly imperfect and still learning how to do it better, we’re trying to help level the playing field. To not just consider those who might not appear on the list of Usual Suspects, but to collaborate with them. It’s not a mandate, it’s a principle—a company value. When we cast John Boyega as Finn in The Force Awakens, I was attacked by some online who called me “anti-white.” Which I just love. It may shock you to hear that I am totally down with white people. But I am increasingly aware that it’s not just more fair to have different voices telling the stories, it’s good for business. The successes of Hamilton and Get Out and Atlanta and Master of None and Moonlight and so many others speak for themselves. Of course, the problem goes in all directions, far beyond the entertainment business. Women still earn only eighty cents on the dollar compared to men. African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites. The world is hard and unfair. In the business I’m in, things are changing for the better, but infinitely too slowly. There is a literal ton of work to be done to balance the imbalance—which takes me to:

NUMBER SEVEN.  A REPUBLIC IF YOU CAN KEEP IT.

J.J. Abrams '88Regardless of your politics—and given the college from which you’re graduating, chances are they're closer to my own than not...but taking care of each other, doing for others, helping to level the aforementioned playing field, fighting for what you know is right, not just for yourself but for those who might not have as strong a voice or station or college degree in their pockets—is not about being a Democrat or Republican, it's about being human. Our institutions matter—Democracy matters—there is no better option out there and it needs to be defended. Nothing makes me happier than stating the obvious, so I say this to a population full of activists: it matters that you vote. In your local and statewide elections. Find ONE THING you're willing to fight for—that you’re willing to commit energy and time and money towards protecting. You’ve heard the rumors about how entitled and whiny and apathetic your generation is—well this is your chance to prove your grandpa wrong. I’m not saying your grandfather accused you of that, but there’s a high likelihood that he did. No one owes you anything. But you owe it to yourselves, your community, to do your part. You have earned your diploma—nicely done. Now it is time to earn your place as a citizen in this country. As Ben Franklin famously responded when asked if they'd crafted a monarchy or republic, "A Republic if you can keep it," your job is to help us keep it. It is what you must do. But what about what you want to do? Well:

NUMBER EIGHT.  LUCKY PROBLEMS.

As a student, I was a bad athlete. I know, looking at me, it's impossible to believe. I was a bit of an oddball. My bedroom floor looked like a total mess, but it was organized chaos. In one corner was the Super 8 movie I was editing. In other, something I was painting or sculpting—there was the model I was making, the music I was recording. I got lost in the making of things more than in the making of friends. Years later, when my parents came to visit the offices of Bad Robot for the first time and saw the art studio and editing rooms and music studio, they said, "It's like a bigger version of your bedroom." It was true: I've been lucky not just to run into Jill, my first writing partner, but to somehow make a living doing the thing I love, in a building designed by an SLC graduate, Andy Waisler. I can promise you—no matter what you end up doing in your professional life—not every day will be fun. Whatever you're planning will not go as expected—but if you can find the thing that inspires you—that you'd do even if you weren't getting paid for it—it turns the inevitable struggles, headaches, and fires into lucky problems. Once we were two days away from shooting an episode of a show called Felicity and the script was a disaster. We couldn't afford to shut down, we needed a script NOW. I went into my office, closed the door and was in something of a panic. But then I thought, "Dear God. How lucky am I that this is the problem I have?" It was horrible...but I also knew that if you'd told me as a kid I'd ever have this kind of problem, it meant that my dreams would come true. So, I pulled out a recorder and started dictating. I spoke the entire script in a few hours. Did the episode turn out well? No. But it was worth it, because that experience became an anecdote that I later used in a commencement address.

NUMBER NINE.  GO TO JAPAN.

It's awesome.

NUMBER TEN.  I WILL MISS THIS.

Life can be a pain in the ass. There will be things that you will not want to do, but should. This usually falls into the family and friends category. You don't know what it's like to have your life not really be your own anymore until you have children...or a really high-maintenance dog. But becoming responsible for something other than yourself is a muscle that you should exercise as much as possible. Usually it's those acts that end up being among your most memorable. Something I do—embarrassing but true—to coerce myself into doing the right thing is I tell myself, "I will miss this." An old example. When our kids were in kindergarten there was something called DEAR time—I'm sure you had your own version—it stood for "DROP EVERYTHING AND READ", where parents would read for a half hour with their kids before class. It was a lovely thing. But there were occasions—infrequent, but they would happen—when I had a meeting to attend, a musical scoring session, something else I'd need to—or want to—get to. In those moments I'd quietly tell myself, "I will miss this." I'd go in and read with our child on my lap. Looking back, of course I recall those days sweetly and vividly. Not really remembering what it was I was tempted to do instead. DEAR time is now a distant memory. And I miss it.

NUMBER ELEVEN.  I WAS LYING WHEN I SAID TEN THINGS.

This one also has the subtitle: YES, MOM, IT WAS WORTH IT.

I can't quantify the impact that Sarah Lawrence had on me. It’s like asking an identical twin, “Wasn’t it weird growing up with someone who looked just like you?!” “No” is the answer, to them it was normal. But Sarah Lawrence is NOT normal. It has always, proudly, been a progressive and creative environment. That means that a high proportion of the student body is artistic. And artists are, nearly always, the ones for whom being a kid wasn’t so easy. There is a correlation between the make-up of the population of this college and the fact that Sarah Lawrence remains undefeated in football. Having no football team helps. But artists are usually artists for a reason. Observers on the outside because the inside didn’t always present a door. To be surrounded by—to live for years beside—people inspired to create, to voice their opinion informed by their observations and struggle—is a gift that will last for the rest of your lives.

Of course, it was more than just a powerful sense of community that Sarah Lawrence instilled in me. I came to SLC, creatively all over the place. I’ve been called a multi-hyphenate, but that’s just a kind word for a lucky person with ADD. It was in Joe Papaleo’s creative writing class that I met a small, round, Italian-American man who not only taught me—he saw me. Believed in me as a storyteller. Helped me focus on and fall in love with writing, and rewriting and rewriting. Joe was the first professor I had who became a dear friend. What’s amazing to me is that that is not an unusual story here.

J.J. Abrams '88What getting a Sarah Lawrence degree means is that you've attended an exceptional college that values the creative individual, personal discipline and unique thinking. I can't think of a more powerful combination in this new economy. In business, in technology, government, entertainment. And you'll actively use what you learned here every day. I’ve been asked many times why I’ve so often chosen to feature female characters at the center of the stories I tell. I’d argue that’s in no small part because of where I went to college. The extraordinary value of being surrounded by so many female voices cannot be overstated. Having a sister as an only sibling, and having had an extraordinary mother prepared me for this place.

The last time I was here for a commencement, my mother was sitting here—with my father, who suggested I come to SLC in the first place. I know that day she was proud of the son she’d told all his life that he could do anything he wanted. My mother has since passed away, nearly five years ago (be nice to your parents) and ironically it wasn’t her words that made me believe that I—we—could do anything we want. It was her actions.

When I was little, my mom was a real estate agent. When she was in her late thirties she attended law school. She became a lawyer, then law professor. Then painter, then author, then a Peabody Award-winning TV producer—she showed me again and again that you need not be defined by one professional descriptor—that it’s okay to be a divining rod, to start digging wherever you find inspiration.

What my mother taught me, is that life is a series of opportunities…serendipities…chances to be grateful, to do the right thing…to find your inspiration.

Which is why there’s no reason at all to be scared.

While today is important, it isn’t your commencement. It isn’t your beginning. It’s simply another beginning. Like it was going to middle school. Or getting your first job, or learning how to walk. Or being read to at DEAR time, not sure how to make sense of those shapes they called letters. It might not feel like it, but that anxiety you’re feeling right now is the same anxiety you’ve felt before, over and over again. Only you’re experiencing it right now, so it seems more real. But it was all real. And you got through it. Just like you’ll get through it now. Will it be easy? Predictable? Without speed bumps? No. But while your fear is real and justified, so is the fact that you’re standing on a foundation of your own accomplishments. If you could tell your younger self something to reassure them that all will be okay…imagine your older self speaking those same words to you now.

Or ask yourself, what would Harrison Ford do?

Life, I have learned, like any creative endeavor, is a leap of faith. The thrilling thing…is knowing that it just might work.

I congratulate you all, class of 2017, on yet another glorious beginning.