No More Winning: Stephen Colbert on Love, Service, and Improv

We’ve gotten a lot of mileage over the years from graduation speeches. Perhaps because they […]

David Zahl / 5.9.13

We’ve gotten a lot of mileage over the years from graduation speeches. Perhaps because they tend to be so long on law and short on grace–i.e. full of exhortation rather than comfort–that when they’re good, they really stand out. Among our favorite “anti-commencement addresses” would have to be those by Bill Watterson, JK Rowling, Conan O’Brien, Jonathan Franzen and, of course, David Foster Wallace. With schools around the country gearing up for their big days, I figured it was time to toss another log on the fire, in the form of the hilarious and deceptively wise words Stephen Colbert delivered at his alma mater, Northwestern, in 2011. Even the few hints of pep-talk-ness are couched in such a profound understanding of human motivation that you barely notice them (that it’s so funny is no coincidence). In fact, substitute the word “winning” for “earning,” and the beauty of the underlying theology should come into view. The first 15 minutes are entertaining, but if you’re only interested in the “meat” (or don’t have much insider knowledge of Northwestern), just cut to the 15 minute mark. I’ve transcribed most of that text below the video if you’d prefer to read than watch it:


Like many people my age, I have fantasized about traveling back in time and giving advice to my younger self. To stop young Stephen on a street corner, and say, “Break up with her, you idiot. Haven’t you noticed that she’s nicer to the dog?!” Or “Buy real estate!” Or, “For God’s sake, don’t buy real estate!” Or “under no circumstances should you wear white jeans. Even on a cruise. Also, don’t go on a cruise.”… But I doubt my younger self would even listen to me. I’m sure he’d say “There’s no way you could be me. I have a chin.” Plus, young me would never respect old me. he’s in the theater. I’m a total sellout.

So to recap: I’m going to try to give you, who for all intents and purposes are me 25 years ago, some advice that I probably won’t get right, and you probably won’t listen to. Ready?

stephen-colbert-report-pundit-religionOK: you have been told to follow your dreams. But – What if it’s a stupid dream? For instance Stephen Colbert of 25 years ago lived at 2015 North Ridge – with two men and three women – in what I now know was a brothel. He dreamed of living alone – Well, alone with his beard – in a large, barren loft apartment. Lots of blond wood, wearing a kimono, with a futon on the floor and a samovar of tea constantly bubbling in the background, doing Shakespeare in the street for the homeless. Today, I am a beardless, suburban dad who lives in a house, wears no-iron khakis, and makes Anthony Wiener jokes for living. And I love it. Because thankfully dreams can change. If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses.

So whatever your dream is right now, if you don’t achieve it, you haven’t failed, and you’re not some loser. But just as importantly–and this is the part I may not get right and you may not listen to–if you do get your dream, you are not a winner. 

After I graduated from here, I moved down to Chicago and did improv. Now there are very few rules about improvisation, but one of the things I was taught early on is that you are not the most important person in the scene. Everybody else is. And if they are the most important people in the scene, you will naturally pay attention to them and serve them. But the good news is you’re in the scene too. So hopefully to them you’re the most important person, and they will serve you. No one is leading, you’re all following the follower, serving the servant. You cannot win improv.

And life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along. And like improv, you cannot win your life. Even when it might look like you’re winning. I have my own show, which I love doing. Full of very talented people ready to serve me. And it’s great. But at my best, I am serving them just as hard, and together, we serve a common idea, in this case the character Stephen Colbert, who it’s clear, isn’t interested in serving anyone. And a sure sign that things are going well is when no one can really remember whose idea was whose, or who should get the credit for what jokes. (Though naturally I get credit for all of them.)

But if we should serve others, and together serve some common goal or idea — for any one of you, what is that idea? And who are those people?


In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love, because, as the prophet says, service is love made visible.  If you love friends, you will serve your friends. If you love community, you will serve your community. If you love money, you will serve money. And if you love only yourself, you will serve only yourself, and you will have only yourself.

So no more winning. Instead, try to love others and serve others, and hopefully find those who love and serve you in return.

In closing, I’d like to apologize for being predictable. The New York Times has analyzed the hundreds of commencement speeches given so far in 2011, and found that “love and “service” were two of the most used words. I can only hope that because of my speech today, the word “brothel” comes in a close third.

Colbert is describing what we might call an environment of grace as opposed to law. That is, what life looks like when scorekeeping has–miraculously–been put on hold. It’s rare, but maybe you’ve experienced it (you know if you have). Despite the soft appeal at the end, the wisdom found a few paragraphs earlier remains: an environment like this cannot be commanded into existence. It is the fruit of love.

There is a sense in which all of us want what Colbert is describing: more acts of love and service in the world–more people doing what they love both for its own sake and the sake of their fellow citizens. You might say that we all want to be happy, and we are happy to the extent to which we have lost sight of the winning/losing spectrum–which also happens to be the extent to which we’ve lost sight of ourselves (or at least that part of us which is so helplessly caught up in justifying itself). The problem invariably comes when you talk about the How. How are people inspired to do good? Does it happen through admonition and instruction? Or does it happen when those things are removed and/or allayed? Colbert seems to be in agreement on this issue with the man who executed his New Testament namesake. After all, when it comes to success, both inherited and achieved, the apostle Paul was clearly a “winner”. Yet in light of his conversion, Paul came to view those point tallies–indeed, the entire game itself–as a profound dead-end. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that he also spoke so beautifully about the fruit of the Spirit, that is, of the organic nature of life lived in the shadow of the cross–which is simply life lived from a place of gratitude rather than fear. Or as Tullian puts it, life lived from salvation rather than for it. To carry the metaphor a tad further, we may take this good news and turn it into yet another strategy for increasing our crop yield, but thankfully, I know of only one person who has ever been able to stop water from being… water. On that note: