Make It New Grads

Not everyone will believe in you and 5 other lessons Will Ferrell learned on the way to mega success

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Comedian icon Will Ferrell started his career broke, surviving on spaghetti with mustard and hustling to get stand-up gigs. It took years for his career to gain momentum, and even after he started getting traction, there were discouraging setbacks on the way to success.

In a commencement address delivered to his alma mater, the University of Southern California, Ferrell mixed some laugh-out-loud humor with thoughtful lessons on success — what it really means and how the journey feels along the way.

Actor Will Ferrell delivered the commencement address at the University of Southern California
Photo by Jerritt Clark
Actor Will Ferrell delivered the commencement address at the University of Southern California

1. Reaching your dreams takes time

After Ferrell graduated from USC (with a degree in Sports Information), he moved home to live on his mom's couch in his hometown of Irvine, Calif., for two years.

"You're never not afraid. I'm still afraid. I was afraid to write this speech." -Will Ferrell, comedian

Ferrell took classes and performed what he admits was "not great standup" wherever he could get a gig around Los Angeles, including Nino's Italian Restaurant in Long Beach; the San Juan Depot in San Juan, Capistrano; and the Cannery in Newport Beach.

"I wasn't extremely confident that I would succeed during this time period, and after moving back to L.A., there were many a night where in my L.A. apartment, I would sit down to a meal of spaghetti topped with mustard, with only $20 in my checking account and I would think to myself, 'Oh well I can always be a substitute schoolteacher.'"

Even after Ferrell was hired at "Saturday Night Live," presumably an indication that he had achieved success in his chosen industry, the path was still uncertain for the first couple of years. "After my first show, one reviewer referred to me as 'the most annoying newcomer of the new cast,'" says Ferrell.

2. Not everyone will believe in you

Ferrell kept that early negative review on the wall in his office.

"To some people I will be annoying. Some people will not think I'm funny, and that that's okay," says Ferrell.

After Ferrell left "Saturday Night Live," he spent three years pitching his movie "Anchorman" before anyone would take it. That comedy would go on to catapult his career to greatness.

"No matter how cliché it may sound, you will never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself." -Will Ferrell, actor

3. Pay attention to what your heart is telling you

Even while Ferrell was studying to be a sports broadcaster at USC, he knew that his passion was making people laugh.

"While I had an interest in pursuing sportscasting, my gut was telling me that I really wanted to pursue something else. And that something else was comedy," says Ferrell. "I was always trying to make my friends laugh whenever I could find a moment."

In the spring of his senior year, Ferrell went to a show at a local comedy and improv group, The Groundlings. During the performance, he was tapped by an actor to come up on stage and be part of a routine.

"I was so afraid and awestruck at what the actors were doing that I didn't utter a word," says Ferrell. "And even in this moment of abject fear and total failure, I found it to be thrilling to be on that stage. I then knew I wanted to be a comedic actor."

4. Encouragement comes in surprising places

In college, Ferrell dressed as a janitor and crashed his friend's Thematic Options literature class, pretending he was there to clean up a student's vomit — really he was there to try out his jokes on an audience.

Luckily the Professor, Ronald Gottesman (co-editor of the Norton Anthology of American literature), thought Ferrell was really funny. When Gottesman later saw Ferrell on campus, he asked that Ferrell come back to his class again.

"So on invitation from Professor Gottesman, I would barge in on his lecture class from time to time as the [janitor] coming by to check on things, and the professor would joyfully play along," says Ferrell.

"Moments like these encouraged me to think maybe I was funny to whole groups of people who didn't know me, and this wonderful professor had no idea how his encouragement of me — to come and interrupt his class no less — was enough to give myself permission to be silly and weird."

5. The fear of failure never really goes away

Failure is scary, but the fear of not trying was always more intimidating for Ferrell.

"Yes, I was afraid. You're never not afraid," says Ferrell. "I'm still afraid.

"I was afraid to write this speech. And now, I'm just realizing how many people are watching me right now, and it's scary. Can you please look away while I deliver the rest of the speech?" jokes Farrell.

"But my fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of what if. What if I never tried at all?"

6. There's more to success than fame and money

"Now one may look at me as having great success, which I have in the strictest sense of the word — and don't get me wrong, I love what I do and I feel so fortunate to get to entertain people.

"But to me, my definition of success is my 16-and-a-half-year marriage to my beautiful and talented wife, Vivica," says Ferrell. "Success are my three amazing sons, Magnus, 13, Matthias, 10 and Axel age 7. Right there, stand up guys, take a bow, there you go."

Also, the comedian points to his involvement with the charity that gives scholarships to cancer survivors, Cancer for College, as evidence that he has had a successful life.

"No matter how cliché it may sound, you will never truly be successful until you learn to give beyond yourself. Empathy and kindness are the true signs of emotional intelligence," says Ferrell.

Look for more exclusive pieces of advice from icons like Melinda Gates, Dave Ramsey and others over the next few weeks. Follow along using the hashtag #MakeItNewGrads.

See also:

Mark Cuban gives his 3 best pieces of advice for college grads

Billionaire investor Chris Sacca's best advice for grads is the same advice he gives himself

In speech to Virginia Tech grads, Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg gives 4 ways to get more resilient