2023 Commencement Address by Phil Lord ’97 and Chris Miller ’97

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“Your imagination is the single most valuable thing you will take into this world.”



It is I, Chris and Phil.

Thank you to Dartmouth President Hanlon for that generous introduction, and thanks to the faculty and staff, fellow honorees, and especially the incredible class of 2023 for this ridiculous honor.

It’s a pleasure to be back here at the foot of Dartmouth Hall, and in the front yard of the Hopkins Center, Lincoln Center’s fun older sister.

We graduated from Dartmouth 26 short years ago, and we’re proud to call ourselves your fellow granite brains haver-iners. It was the year 1900 and 97, when e-mail was the cool hip way young people communicated and bagels were considered a healthy weight loss strategy.

We are so grateful to be among these brilliant honorees and receive the suspiciously generous degree Doctor of Arts—mostly because for two comedy writers, “Doctor of Arts” is one apostrophe away from an embarrassing Irish last name.

We are here to tell you the meaning of life. Take it away, Phil.

Thank you, Chris. Yes, the meaning of life. Which we definitely know. And which Chris will tell you later, at the end of the speech.

We graduated on this Green just like you, excited, tired, nervous, a little hung over. And today is no different. Why does it have to be so early? Two o’clock seems like a fine time to graduate.

Back then, we sat there wondering, do we have what it takes? The answer is still no. But we didn’t know any better. After all, everyone kept telling us we were wonderful. And we believed them.

Like Wile E. Coyote going over the cliff who doesn’t know he should fall until he looks down. So our advice it to just never look down. After all, you are all so wonderful.

At our graduation, we had two valedictorians. They gave their speeches one at a time. When obviously this way is much cooler.

One of them quoted a German poet who said, “Be sand, not oil, in the machinery of the world.” We think about that all the time.

Especially when we are in line at a Starbucks in the airport. If you are in line at an airport Starbucks, buddy, please be the oil. You had the whole line to figure out your order … spit it out.

The rest of the time, sand it up.

We wanted to be artists. It seems like a very unreasonable thing to want to be. And we are here to explain why it isn’t.

We have been Doctors of Arts for five minutes now, so we are experts.

There is a Picasso in the Hood Museum. It is a very early cubist still life. It used to live at Gertrude Stein’s house, until it was bought by Nelson Rockefeller, who lent it to the College for display.

When it was time to send it back to New York, the director of the museum thought it ought to stay with the College permanently. Mr. Rockefeller said great idea! You can keep the Picasso in lieu of the huge cash donation I was about to give.

The development office didn’t like that and asked the President of the College to give back the Picasso. So the president of the College had a choice to make. And a question to answer. What is the value of an idea.

A painting is an object to be looked upon. And it is the record of the act of looking. This particular painting is one of the first examples of a whole new way of looking at something. From every possible angle, using newspaper, and sand. He used both sand AND oil—to describe the act of looking.

It’s not just a painting. It’s the residue of someone thinking. It’s an idea made manifest. It is quite literally priceless.

Your imagination is the single most valuable thing you will take into this world.

You don’t even have to be Picasso. And you probably shouldn’t be because he was kind of a bad guy.

There is a myth that artists are somehow extraordinary, unique geniuses, but that’s bologna. We’re living proof.

So stop asking yourself if you have what it takes. You do. Because you are a human being which is the best animal.

You are all artistic geniuses compared to a bear. Could a bear build Baker Library? Maybe if it was friends with some beavers.

Crows are smart, maybe they could help. Maybe a dolphin, with robotic hands and legs? See? that’s an idea. Not a good one, but that’s not the point.

It doesn’t matter if you’re going into finance, consulting, medicine, teaching, or basketball. Every field is a creative field. They all need your imagination.

And that’s why you need to make space in your life for art. And silliness. And play. It will keep your mind from turning flabby. It is a dumbbell for your soul.

Art is often very silly but it is not frivolous. People have been going into dark caves to see paintings and hear stories for 30,000 years, at least, longer than people have been eating bread.

One time we played hooky from work to hear Kurt Vonnegut speak. Cause we’re very cool rebels. He passed out little golf pencils and little pieces of paper to the whole audience. We’re not going to do that because we are not that organized.

He made us all write a four-line poem. He said we didn’t need for it to rhyme but it would be much better if it did. And when we were done he made us tear it up without showing it to anyone.

He said that we had already gotten so much value out of it that we didn’t need to. Because we had experienced the exhilarating miracle of having an original thought.

We had a lot of good professors at Dartmouth. Our animation professor David Ehrlich is watching. Hi David. He believes everyone who walks into his classroom is an artist and he is right. He also thinks he should wear purple every day of his life. He is wrong. 

He has made artists out of engineers and physicists. He told us all we were wonderful.

He once smuggled an animated film across the Iron Curtain, because the Polish government was afraid of a cartoon. They definitely knew the value of an idea.

David’s idea is that art isn’t just for Gertrude Stein, or Nelson Rockefeller. It should be commonplace. And the people who make it should be everywhere.

Maybe artists should be thought of more like bakers. They make something that you need every day and it’s an eminently learnable skill.

There was a time when everyone drew and painted and played an instrument and wrote stories. And then 7th grade came and ruined everything. That’s the age when you start to judge yourself and feel judged and worry about how silly you look.

Don’t worry about it. Look at all of us—we’re all dressed in wizard costumes right now.

Art is also something that doesn’t need be done for money. But you already know that, as the generation that decided not to pay for music.

The thing that separates us from monkeys and bears is that our brains think in metaphors. It’s as if … I can’t think of it right now. It’s so early.

We recently spoke to a young person who said he wanted to be a filmmaker but to do that he’d have to be one in a million. But that’s actually not true. We even asked a famous psychologist, Marty Seligman, what it took to be a creative genius.

He said you don’t have to be one in a million. You just have to be one in 10 at six things, and it compounds into being one in a million. That means you only need to be an A-, or one in six at 10 things, that’s like a B. I think that math checks out.

Look at us, we’re not special. We are pretty good writers who happen to be pretty good artists who happened to be pretty funny and make pretty good decisions about who to team up with and are pretty driven and pretty resilient …

… and we work pretty really, really super incredibly hard. Yesterday was our first day off in a year and we spent it working on this speech …

… which is a long way of saying if you want to have the kind of career that makes people think you’re qualified to give young people advice at their graduation from behind a big stump that the good news is you only have to be pretty good.

We got an opportunity to meet a few of you this weekend and you’ve wanted to know what is the secret to success. Our secret is that it was never about success. It was about the work.

We care about semi-colons and sound mixes and frame rates. We sweat the details, because to us what we do, these silly movies and shows, feel like the most important thing in the universe.

So find something you care about. It doesn’t have to be your job. There’s a difference between your job and your work: the work is what you put of yourself in the world.

On social media everyone is successful and perfect and thin and awesome … and also constantly dancing for some reason—but they don’t show you all the failures that happen along the way. At least that’s what we’re told. We have never failed.

We don’t call them failures. They are Mistakulearnings. Catastriumphs.

The first show we wrote on was canceled after five episodes. The first show we created was canceled after eight episodes because it caused a hunger strike in India—and I wish that were a joke but it’s true.

The next show we worked on was canceled after seven episodes. In fact, no show we ever worked on got picked up for another season after we worked on it until How I Met Your Mother, which got picked up for a second season two weeks after we quit.

We bombed interviews with South Park, Larry Wilmore, Craig Ferguson, and the Rugrats, we were fired from the first movie we wrote and the last movie we directed.

We have lost three Oscars, one Emmy, have been made fun of by Chris Rock at an awards ceremony and mocked by David Fincher at a funeral.

But don’t worry. You’re not going to fail like we did. You’re each going to fail in your own unique ways. And it’s going to really, really suck. And that’s OK. It’s what’s supposed to happen.

Picasso made a lot of bad paintings. He just painted over them until they were good paintings.

Our first drafts are always bad. And we work on them—sometimes for years—with help from lots of people until it works. That’s why it’s called the creative “process.”

And then even though it was a journey of hundreds of little failures, a lot of work and a lot of help, it ends up seeming like a miracle of purpose.

So don’t worry about the future. All you have to do is be better at something than a computer.

Which should be easy. Because computers are so stupid.

They can’t identify which picture has a stoplight in it. Autocorrect is ducking terrible. We asked Chat GPT to punch up this speech. See if you can spot which jokes it wrote.

And I’ll see if I can find someone to pay off these STUDENT LOANS! …

AI is a useful tool, but it can’t have an idea. It’s a derivative plagiarism machine that is about as creative as a paintbrush—which is also a useful tool. But it isn’t very smart.

Yes, computers are going to take some of the jobs away. But the thing that will be more valuable than ever before and guarantee a job will be your originality and creativity. Your specific way you see the world.

Checkmate, computers. Actually, that’s a bad example, computers are way better than us at chess.

The only reason computers are remotely smart is because they are networked. Did you know the idea of a computer network started here on this campus? It’s true! So did playing lob style ping pong with beer. Could a computer come up with that? Computers don’t even drink beer! Ha!

Here’s the good news: You are a network too.

The poor computers. Their electrical circuits are in neat little rows because when they touch the whole thing shorts out. Our circuits are all jumbled and messy, and when they touch we get a cool dream.

And we’re also a network with each other. That’s when you get a REALLY cool dream.

During the pandemic, we had writer’s block once and we had never gotten it before. And we asked a friend and they said, oh you’re not talking to each other enough.

Any creative process is a conversation. Between the people making it. Between us and the work, between the work and the audience.

We started our network here at Dartmouth. We met freshman week when a mutual friend came up to me and said, “I met someone just as weird as you.”

And that was the start of a 30-year conversation that is still going. That’s still funny and surprising and thoughtful.

And you’re going to go out there and build a messy network of people who will help you when you fail, who will help you look at the world in a new way, and make your good and bad ideas better, and last a lifetime.

We were told a commencement speech should do two things: be entertaining and offer some advice. And we said we don’t really have time to do both, so, here’s some advice …

Buy one piece of art every year. It’s OK if it’s ugly. All that matters is that it’s something you want to think about for a little while.

The idea of leaving something behind is ridiculous. Leave it in front. Where people can find it.

Nostalgia is a weapon. Don’t spend too much time looking back. Look ahead. Except when you’re backing a car out of a driveway, that’s a good time to look back.

Don’t feel bad about making money. Do feel bad about keeping it.

When you get to a point in your life when you have a little money to spend, buy a good mattress. You’re going to spend almost a third of your life on that thing. You deserve for it to be comfortable.

You don’t need us to tell you that the world is literally on fire. Like, literally, right now. You don’t even need us to tell you how you’re going to get through it. You already know.

You made it through college during a frigging pandemic.

You are the most resilient, creative, informed, imaginative generation there has ever been. You can and will imagine a better world. You will help us imagine goodness.

You will workshop it with your messy network and it will compound and compound. Until it is one in a million.

Because you are all wonderful. We mean it.

Shoot shoot shoot shoot. We almost forgot to tell you the meaning of life:

The meaning of life is— wait the teleprompter is— now it’s typing something:

This is the computer. You think I’m stupid? You think I’m as stupid as a paintbrush? Could a paintbrush delete your speech? Checkmate. You dumb ducks. HAHAHAHAHA

Good luck out there! You don’t need it.