If you ain’t first, you’re last: Will Ferrell’s USC Grad Speech, by Dr. Josh Luke

Business and Life Lessons from Ricky Bobby Himself

By Josh Luke, USC Adjunct Faculty

Wait a minute. Will Ferrell went to college?

Oh that’s right. He led the naked quad run in the hit comedic film “Old School.”

But wait, there is more. He went to the University of Southern California?

Yes. He graduated with a degree in sports management. Years later he returned to deliver the May 2017 commencement speech. And now he is an honorary doctor as well?

Do you think that had a few of my fellow faculty members on pins and needles?

Life Lesson One: Shake and Bake!

It’s fair to say that no one knew what to expect. As a faculty member at USC, although I was unable to attend the ceremony, my family and I watched it on our big screen (thanks to YouTube and Apple TV) later that evening.

Not only is Ferrell a household favorite (seeing that I have three teens), but I am an Orange County (California) native and wanted to support my OC brother, the newly crowned, Dr. Ferrell!

Although I had a tough time convincing my teenage kids to watch a graduation speech, I am pleased that they were all willing as there were some great life lessons mixed in with the humor and stories. Oh, and his closing act, a solo of Whitney Houston’s hit song, “I Will Always Love You.”

As a professional public speaker who travels the globe teaching Fortune 500 businesses how to save 20% or more annually on healthcare costs, I am always seeking out opportunities to watch other public speakers to enhance my delivery. While I am eager to put myself up against any other corporate presenter as I am confident in my ability to entertain, educate and deliver meaningful, usable content to audiences, in this case, Ferrell proved to be a tough act to follow!

Here are a few of the life lessons woven into the comedy (and singing!)!

Lesson One: Shake and Bake! This lesson is for the millennials and others just joining the work force. It’s normal to be unsure of what career you want to pursue when you are in college, and sometimes even after you graduate. In fact, this is true for the remainder of your career as well. Just have a plan at all times.

As life changes, interests and people change as well. One key skill to succeed in corporate America or as an entrepreneur, is an individual’s ability to adapt to culture, generational traits and new trends.

Fight on Trojan Graduates!

Ferrell tells the story of realizing his goal of working in sports management succumbed to his passion for comedy. In perhaps his most memorable story of the speech, he speaks of crashing his buddy’s classroom at USC in the middle of a lecture, pretending to be a janitor called to clean up vomit. It’s a classic story invoking images reminiscent of many of his hit movies.

In fact, Ferrell speaks of walking across campus a few weeks later only to be approached by the professor whose class he crashed. As Ferrell was preparing to take a licking from the professor and face appropriate discipline, he was shocked and surprised to learn that the professor was amused and thought it was brilliant. He actually invited him back to do similar impromptu visits in following semesters. Ferrell’s love for comedy emerged while studying sports marketing at USC, so he changed his plan.

Lesson Two: You have a dart in your neck. One of the most memorable lessons Ferrell learned in college came from a professor who he never had a class with. Reflect back to the story above about a professor who was not assigned to a class with Ferrell, proactively seeking him out to embrace his passions and gifts. This gesture had a significant impact on Ferrell.

Why is this important? For two reasons. As a professor at USC myself, it is a great reminder to me that I am a role model who makes an impression on all students on campus, not just those in our classroom.

As a boss, leader or influencer, we should all keep this in mind in all that we do. We are always being watched and whether you like it or not, being put on a pedestal by those who aspire to reach the same level of perceived success that we have achieved. While he did not have a dart in his neck in class that day, he dressed as a janitor and this movie line was just to good not to include!

Lesson Three: Strategery. Have a plan! Ferrell’s famous George W. Bush character on Saturday Night Live used this term regularly.

While still in college, Ferrell chose to finish his commitment to completing an education, but re-set his goals to become a comedic actor. He joined acting troops and invited his fraternity brothers and friends to his “open mic’ night performances.” After completing his degree he temporarily moved home to Orange County, just 40 miles to the south of downtown Los Angeles, and tapped into lounge’s and comedy clubs in Orange County while still having a daily presence in the entertainment capital of the world, Hollywood.

Admittedly working through nerves and confidence issues, Ferrell ultimately caught the eye of famed Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels and got his big break.

Lesson Four: Smiling’s my favorite. Ferrell gave several examples of fan letters that were critical of him when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. His response? He would take them as constructive criticism but answer with respectful humor. In turn those critics became fans. What a great approach!  

Lesson Five: Dear Baby Jesus. Ferrell was willing to have faith in himself and take chances, even after making it big.

After an epic run on Saturday Night Live, Ferrell left to chase his big screen dreams and acknowledged it was a struggle to get his first few scripts accepted. Within a few years however, he was a multi-millionaire but acknowledged it took almost two years to land the first film. And when he did, he gambled on two movies in which he dressed as an oversized holiday elf in Elf, and a 1970’s on-air television personality in Anchorman. Bingo.

And let us not forget, in this day of questionable media credibility and reporting…if Ron Burgundy says it, it’s the truth! Stay Classy San Diego!

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Dr. Josh Luke is an award winning healthcare futurist, a Forbes Book Author, a #1 Best Seller and the author of the book Ex-Acute: A former hospital CEO tells all on what’s wrong with American healthcare, What every American needs to know. He teaches in the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California and serves as CSO/Sr. Health Policy Strategist for Nelson Hardiman Law.

He served as a hospital CEO for ten years and is an advocate for Alzheimer’s care. Luke is also a professional speaker sharing with executives how changes in healthcare will impact them and their employees. Please follow Josh on LinkedIn if these topics are of interest to you and check www.JoshLuke.org for speaking appearances.