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7 Takeaways From John Waters’ RISD Commencement Speech

7 Takeaways From John Waters' RISD Commencement Speech

READ MORE: Robert Redford, Robert De Niro and Others Share Life Advice with Graduates

John Waters is not a man that many would expect — or trust — to instill a class of graduating students with life advice for the journey ahead. He is quick to let everyone know that he was suspended from high school and kicked out of college in “the first marijuana scandal ever on a university campus,” and he proudly recounts his favorite nicknames with which he has been christened by the public: “Prince of Puke” and “The People’s Pervert.” However, in his 12-minute speech to the young men and women of the Rhode Island School of Design, he inspires neither nausea nor disgust. Instead, he garners waves of laughter and applause as he dispenses gem after gem of quirky-but-sage wisdom.

Watch the full address above and check out some of the speech’s highlights below:

On putting yourself out there:

“Hopefully, you have been taught never to fear rejection in the workplace. Remember, a ‘no’ is free. Ask for the world and pay no mind if you are initially turned down. A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip. All you need is one person to say ‘get in’ and off you go.”

On how to measure wealth: 

“I’m rich! I don’t mean money-wise, I mean that I have figured out how to never be around assholes at any time in my personal and professional life. That’s rich. And not being around assholes should be the goal of every single graduate here today. It’s okay to hate the poor too, but the poor of spirit, not wealth. A poor person, to me, can have a big bank balance but is stupid by choice. They are uncurious, judgmental, isolated and unavailable to change.”

On parenting:

“I look back in wonder at how understanding my parents were. Dr. Spock didn’t have a chapter in his child rearing book on how to handle your son if all he wanted to do as a child was play car accident. Yet my mom took me to junkyards as a toddler and let me wander around, fantasizing ghoulishly. My dad even lent me the money to make ‘Pink Flamingos,’ and I paid him back, full, with interest. But, looking back, did I really expect him to be thrilled that I had made one of the ‘most stupid, vile, repulsive films ever made,’ as Variety called it? My parents made me feel safe, and that’s why I’m up here today. That’s what you should try to do to your children, no matter where you get your children these days.”

On humor: 

“Listen to your political enemies, especially the smart ones, and then figure out a way to make them laugh. Nobody likes a bore on a soap box. Humor is always the best defense and weapon. If you can make an idiot laugh, they’ll at least pause and listen before they do something stupid to you.”

On keeping up with the times: 

“Keep up with what’s causing chaos in your own field. If you’re a visual artist, go see the shows in the galleries that are frantically competing to find the one bad neighborhood left in Manhattan to open up in. Watch every movie that gets a negative review in the New York Times and figure out what the director did wrong. Read, read, read. Watch people on the street, spy, be nosy, eavesdrop. And as you get older, you’ll need youth spies that will keep you abreast of new music that nobody your age has heard of yet, or body-piercing mutilations that are becoming all the rage, even budding sexually transmitted disease you should go to any length to avoid. Never be like some of my generation who say, ‘We had more fun in the 60s.’ No we didn’t! The kids today who still live with their parents and haven’t seen them in months but leave food outside their bedroom doors are having just as much fun shutting down the government of foreign countries on their computer as we did banning the bomb.”

On bringing the mayhem: 

“Contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before. Is there a better job description than that to aspire to? Here’s another trigger warning, and [pointing towards sign language interpreter] pardon her signing. Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully. Design clothes so hideous that they can’t be worn ironically. Horrify us with new ideas. Out-outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression, not lazy social living. Make me nervous! And finally, count your blessings. You got through college. You didn’t commit suicide, O.D. or have a nervous breakdown, and let’s remember the ones who did. It’s time to get busy. It’s your turn to cause trouble, but this time, in the real world, and this time, from the inside.”

On being awesome because he is John Waters:

“The amazing concept I’ve heard about is where you’re supposed to warn students if you’re going to talk about what challenges their values. I thought that’s why you went to college! My whole life has been a trigger warning.”

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