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2017 Commencement Speech
Congratulations to the Bexley High School class of 2017! My name is Mike Altman, class of 1995. These days I work as a 3D modeler, which is like a digital sculptor, at Pixar Animation Studios, just over the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. I've worked there for eight and a half years on films like the Toy Story 3, The Good Dinosaur, and Inside Out, and most recently on Cars 3, which will be coming out June 16th. Mark your calendars!
I am so honored to be sharing this momentous occasion with you and want to thank Dr. Williams, Mr. Nolan, and Student Council President Aaron Rothchild for inviting me. We even have some of my FAVORITE elementary school teachers here in the audience tonight who came to hear me speak, which is in itself a testament to how much Bexley cares about their own students. THANK YOU Mrs. Retzlaff, Mrs. Yearling, Mr. Griffin, Mrs. Winer, and Mrs. Antle for joining us here tonight. It was such a gift to grow up in such a tight knit community, and it’s something you often don’t even realize until after you’ve moved away.
Although I graduated back in ‘95, returning to Bexley always feels like coming home. My parents still live in the same house I grew up in, just a few blocks away. I feel like I could just grab my backpack after this and head back home with my twin sister Ilona like we always did after school. We went through the entire education system here, from kindergarten at Maryland all the way through 12th grade. And my cousin, war hero Steven Zilberman, whose memorial plaque is inside by the school’s front entrance, also graduated from Bexley a couple years later. The foundation I got at Bexley High School is in many ways what helped propel me into the career I have now. But enough about me!
Today is the day for you, the Class of 2017. Celebrate! You’re done! You’ve finally made it!
Now for my magical words of wisdom. For weeks, I wracked my brain about just what to tell you. I’ve had so much life experience in these 22 years since I graduated, but for some reason I was completely drawing a blank.
What would I say to people of your generation? When I think back to high school days I remember when MTV still played music videos, the days before I had even sent my very FIRST EMAIL...practically the Stone Ages. What could I tell you --so many bright futures hanging in the balance...One wrong move, and who knows how I could lead you all astray!
Pretending like I was in English class again, I started freewriting and eventually put together a list of my 5 keys ingredients to building a successful and fulfilling life. So here goes.
My first bit of advice is the easy one, and the one that’ll probably have all your parents out in the audience nodding along with me in agreement. In fact, it’s the advice they’ve probably given you a million times:
- Make your bed every morning.
- Eat your vegetables.
- Get some exercise.
- Start a savings account.
- Get enough sleep.
Graduates: chances are your parents have given you all of these nuggets of wisdom in so many ways throughout the years, basically teaching you to take care of your future self. Maybe it was in the form of a list of chores or asking you to clean your room. A weekly allowance or the promise of a new video game would help things along. Maybe at family dinner a big bowl of steamed broccoli always managed to end up right within your arm’s reach. Or that time your dad took you to the local bank to open a new savings account so you could deposit that birthday check from your grandma.
Your parents have become experts in finding creative ways for you to do things that are “good for you.” Because they love you. But soon, you may be heading out on your own for the first time. You might be moving to a college dorm, maybe in a different state.
And the world is gonna start asking MORE from you now. Projects will start piling up, finals will be looming around the corner, and you’ll be tempted to let healthy habits and self care go to the wayside. Getting a little exercise in the middle of studying for exams will feel like an unaffordable luxury. Who has time to straighten out the pillows and tuck in the sheets?
But always remember to make these things a priority. Make the time to take care of yourself.
The reason is simple. Whether in your education or a future career, you will always perform better when you’re not struggling to stay awake and when your surroundings aren’t a cluttered mess. Your body, mind, and overall well being are tied together in ways you’ll only become more aware of as you get older. Start paying attention to the effects that food and sleep and your environment have on you. And for the sake of your future self, start saving now and be responsible with your finances.
In essence, your parents have passed the job of your own daily upkeep onto you. They’ve spent a lifetime hoping to instill good habits, and now it’s your turn. They’ve taught you the first essential steps to take towards your success. Remember to THANK THEM for it.
Now, for second little key ingredient for success in life, one that your career counsellor could be proud of:
So always make the effort to show pride in who you are. Work with everything you’ve got to present the best version of yourself to the world. Make any of those willing to listen want to lean in further to hear what you have to say.
- Learn to write a professional letter.
- Buy yourself a well-fitting suit.
- Stand up straight.
- Comb your hair.
This is all about presenting your best self to the world, and DETAILS MATTER. Once you’ve gotten the healthy body, mind, and environment under control, it’s time to put your best foot forward and send you on your way!
Make that good first impression. Learn to present yourself in best way possible so that people will want to spend more time with you and get to know you better. It’s NOT about being a conformist, it’s about the effort you put into showing yourself to the world, the frame you present yourself in, no matter your personal sense of style. Sometimes, it’s as simple as dotting all the i’s, crossing all the t’s, using good grammar, and taking the time to proofread.
Remember earlier when I said details matter? Every year at Pixar we get at least ONE application from a well-meaning kid, probably with a pretty decent portfolio, but who completely blows their chances by telling us about how much they love Dreamworks movies in their cover letter.
I’m sure it’s an honest mistake. On one hand, it’s understandable; one day you’ll see that writing cover letter after cover letter can be a pain and every one starts to look the same. But at a place like Pixar, we get so many applications that our recruiters are looking for any reason to cut the mountain of applicants down. Telling us you love our rival studio’s movies in your cover letter only makes their job easier.
You’re going to face a lot of people who make snap judgments about you based on a quick impression. And if you put yourselves out there as often as you should for the things you really want, you’ll probably face your share rejection too--I, myself, applied to Pixar FIVE times over the course of TEN years before I finally got in.
The third thing I wanna talk about is a little more fun:
- Learn a new language.
- Or how to sculpt.
- Or how to play the ukulele.
Ok, it doesn't have to be these things exactly, but the point is to always be learning something new --skills and activities that may seem impractical, even useless. Whatever it is, it oughtta be hard for you, something you don't really have the time for, and that you probably won't ever do that well. But whatever it is, it should be fun.
How many times over the last four years have you been sitting in class thinking to yourself, “God when will I ever actually need trigonometry in real life?” Or maybe it was band. Or art or chemistry. RIGHT? We’ve all felt that. If you’re not going to be making a career of those things, then what’s the point?
Well in high school, I became friends with a girl named Heather who had just moved to Bexley. She spoke with a funny Jersey accent, and at 16 she was already starting a career as a dancer at Ballet Met, and I remember going to watch her perform in the Nutcracker at the Ohio Theater. She was such a talented dancer, and I couldn’t imagine her doing anything else. After high school, we lost touch and last I heard she had moved to a dance company out west.
A decade later, as I applied to Pixar for the fifth time, guess who writes me back from a Pixar email address? It was Heather! Yes, after outgrowing the world of ballet, Heather needed to find a new career. Wouldn’t you know it that after all those years of dance, her understanding of timing, body mechanics, and movement would have landed her right in the world of character animation!
Things like this happen all the time because Pixar is made up of such an an incredibly creative group of engineers and artists who never stop learning. Every two years we have a company-wide music festival called Pixarpalooza. And this isn’t just any talent show. We set up serious lighting and sound rigs on three different stages. It’s as real as concerts get.
On one stage, my friend and fellow Ohioan, Fran, will be fearlessly thrashing her hair and belting out vocals with her rock band called “Clowncar.” Later in the night, Michael, an engineer who builds software tools for our artists, will be mixing the afterparty jams like a musical mad scientist.
So many artists and engineers at Pixar are tinkerers, makers, and crafters in their off time. My friend Greg’s obsession with model trains put him in charge of building the model for the “Train of Thought” in the movie Inside Out. And beyond singing, Fran’s hobby of knitting and making clothes dovetailed perfectly with her role tailoring and simulating the cloth of Merida’s dress in Brave.
We seek out people who show such varied interests because we’ve learned well-rounded minds with a deep sense of curiosity can see solutions from unique angles. Pixar makes a great investment into our growth too, bringing in filmmakers and inspiring speakers and offering us an educational stipend. I’ve personally signed up for weekend classes in printmaking, glass blowing, clay sculpting, and even neon sign making! You start to realize that everything is interconnected. Ideas and inspiration bounce off and influence all these different facets of life. You never know, sometimes moving your body or using your mind in a new way will help you see something new in an otherwise old, familiar subject.
The fourth thing I want to talk about applies to anyone who ever puts themselves out there and tries new things.
- Be your biggest cheerleader.
- Be kind to yourself.
At first that might sound a little cliche but this can have really far reaching consequences because negativity is stifling, and positivity, support, and kindness are SO freeing. And this doesn’t just apply to the individual. One really unique feature of my workplace is that, while it can be a challenge to join, once you’re in, you couldn’t be among more supportive people.
A few years ago, a small group of Pixar artists banded together to create a short film after work hours. For FIVE YEARS they worked tirelessly on their film after work and on weekends. They called it “Borrowed Time,” and it went on to earn an Oscar nomination last year. Pixar also had an Oscar nominated short film I worked on that year called “Piper.” For the first time in our studio’s history, Pixar was competing against itself. On one hand, the official short the studio had produced, and on the other hand a film produced by an ambitious and talented group of Pixar artists in nothing more than their spare time. Who would win the Oscar? Anywhere else this could have resulted in jealousy or negativity or competitiveness, but in our company culture of learning and sharing, that didn’t happen at all. In fact it was the opposite. Pixar celebrated and honored “Borrowed Time’s” achievement. We all expressed our admiration to the crew for having put so much of their heart, sweat, and soul into their work. Their independent success was a source of pride for the whole studio!
“Piper” eventually went on to win the Oscar, but ultimately, that spirit of cooperation and collaboration is more satisfying than any award.
And just as that spirit of kindness and encouragement makes Pixar creative, internal kindness does the same for you. Everybody is cheering you on at Pixar, so always try to align your own mind the same way.
As teenagers, we all struggle with this. Body image issues, popularity, and competition in your social circles. And as if teenage lives weren’t hard enough before, now there is social media, where scrolling through page after page of pretty faces, perfect bodies, and everyone else’s achievements on Facebook or Instagram can make it even easier to feel like you’re not measuring up.
Be gentle and kind to yourself, and embrace your honest mistakes. Spend as little time possible lingering on regret. We often forget that the most important relationship we have in life is the one to ourselves. So bring out the loving, encouraging and kind voice and turn down the volume on the self criticism, judgements, and doubt. Be in your corner and honor all that you are now and all that you can become. Tell yourself you got this. Be your biggest cheerleader.
The final thing I want to talk about is really the most important thought I want to leave you with today.
FIND THE THINGS YOU CAN LOSE YOURSELF TO.
Find that thing in which the minutes, hours, and days wile away without even realizing it. Find those pursuits in life which feel so good to explore, to grow with, to dive deep into, that you forget to pay any attention to whether you’re any good at them. They just make you that happy. Forget chasing after just titles, money, or prestige. Figuring out what your happiness is may be your life’s hardest work --more difficult than getting into a prestigious college, more difficult than getting a glamorous job, more difficult than earning any amount of money. Ironically you can achieve all those things and still not be satisfied. You have to lead with your heart and be doing the things that matter to you the most.
You’re leaving the world of high school, where many of you may have defined yourself by what you’re already good at. Some of you might consider yourself “jocks,” or maybe you're the “star artist.” There are the theater and choir kids. Those of you who are good at science and math. Or many of you may be worried that you haven’t already found your own special thing, where your talents lie.
BUT TALENT IS COMPLETELY OVERRATED. People who find long term success are those who truly enjoy what they are doing. The people who find their thing, they may not be the best at doing it at first, but inevitably, they’ll become good at it. As the time drips away, they stick with it long enough to become masters without even realizing it. Soon, they are sought after for their expertise, surpassing those who may have had early talent but never pursued it.
When I left Bexley High School, I could not have imagined myself with the career and like I have now. First of all, the computer animation industry didn’t even exist. The year I started college in 1995 was the same year the first ever fully computer animated feature film was released, Toy Story. On top of that, I was so torn about what I wanted to do. I loved art and working with my hands but didn’t know how I could turn that into a career. Before going to art school at CCAD, I went to Ohio State which is sort of infamous for having something like a whopping 200 different majors you can choose from. I started a double major in architecture and pre-Med my freshman year, and signed up for a chemistry class and architectural history. They were all interesting in their own ways but I was also one of those students who had not yet found their “thing.”
After pulling myself in so many different directions, I decided to add ONE MORE class to my schedule, an art elective as a relief from all my other academics. There was a little class on the far corner of campus available for my Friday morning time slot. It was an introduction to 3D sculpture. Enrolling in that class changed the course of my life. I found myself going to the lab, working on my assignments through the weekends, forgetting to eat, just totally fascinated by creating artistic 3D forms in the computer. Time simply melted away, and so many years later I’m somehow still doing it today, building characters, sets, and environments for our films at Pixar.
SO, I suppose those 22 years since graduation did reward me with some wisdom to pass along, after all:
You can build a fulfilling career if you put in the hard work and effort along the way, but that hard work and effort is so much easier if you do it from your heart first and let the success follow from there.
That, and eat your vegetables. Thank you.