Make It New Grads

The creator of 'Modern Family' says ‘follow your dreams’ is bad advice

Steve Levitan
Peter "Hopper" Stone | Getty Images
Steve Levitan

In honor of graduation season, CNBC Make It is rolling out the speeches and advice that America's leaders are most excited to share with the Class of 2017. Follow along using the hashtag #MakeItNewGrads.

Steve Levitan, co-creator and executive producer of ABC's Emmy-winning comedy "Modern Family," is known for his sometimes brutal honesty. True to form, his graduation speech at the University of Wisconsin-Madison started with frank and unconventional advice.

He told graduates, "I'm supposed to impart wisdom. This is where I tell you a bunch of clichés like 'follow your dreams' and 'be yourself.' But I'm not going to say that, because I don't know your dream. Your dream may be stupid. Your dream may be to open a DVD store or sell Jell-O art. Those are bad dreams. Don't do it!

"And if you were anything like my freshman roommate, maybe you shouldn't be yourself. Anybody else would be better!"

So instead of repeating trite, or even potentially harmful, ideas, Levitan shared some wry, heartfelt stories about his journey from University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate to a television legend.

Based on his experiences, here are his top five most important pieces of advice for anyone just starting out and looking to get ahead in the working world.

The 'Modern Family' cast and crew at the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards including Nolan Gould, Eric Stonestreet, Ariel Winter, Sofia Vergara, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, Ed O'Neill, Julie Bowen, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Rico Rodriguez, Sarah Hyland and Steve Levitan.
Larry Busacca/NBC | Getty Images
The 'Modern Family' cast and crew at the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards including Nolan Gould, Eric Stonestreet, Ariel Winter, Sofia Vergara, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, Ed O'Neill, Julie Bowen, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Rico Rodriguez, Sarah Hyland and Steve Levitan.

1. Roll the dice in your 20s

Levitan argues that you should take advantage of your freedom to take chance when you're young, "when you're unencumbered, when your expenses are low, and when you're still on your parent's health insurance."

After Levitan graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he worked as a TV news reporter in Madison and could imagine a stable future. Still, he eventually built up the courage to quit his job in order to try crafting sitcoms.

If he hadn't left his job and his comfort zone, he would never have dedicated himself to writing for television and made that work. Your 20s, he argues, are the best time to take risks like these.

2. Succeed or fail on your own terms

Levitan stresses the importance of playing by your own rules, whether you win or lose. He recalls a friend who wrote a pilot with characters he was proud of. When producers told him he would need to make them less fiery, he agreed to tone them done. Later, the producers complained the characters were too bland.

If he had stuck to his vision, Levitan posits, his friend might have done better.

Staying true to yourself may seem risky at times, but often, Levitan argues, it can be the most honest way to create art and conduct business. It is important to be respectful but also to stand by what you believe in.

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Joe Klamar | Getty Images

3. Learn how to fail

Levitan's career took a while to really get going. For a period in his life, he failed repeatedly, and, after creating nine shows in a row that flopped, he felt like giving up.

Instead of quitting, he called and conferred with an old friend and decided to write about his own personal experiences of being an uncool dad.

"We took everything we learned from our few successes and many failures and wrote what we knew best," says Levitan. That's how he was able, at last, to create, and break through with, "Modern Family."

4. Be calm in a crisis

When Levitan got stuck in an elevator with a stranger, he panicked and began punching on the ceiling. Eventually he broke the lights, forcing the two of them to sit in total darkness.

The stranger, however, stayed level-headed and tried to make the most of the unfortunate situation. Once they finally escaped, she shook her head and called Levitan a fool.

"The point is, no matter how dark it gets, the door will open," says Levitan. Hard times will pass, but the character you demonstrate when the going gets tough will stick with you forever.

Also, "always use the restroom before getting on a sketchy elevator," he says.

Eric Stonestreet and Steve Levitan
Peter "Hopper" Stone | Getty Images
Eric Stonestreet and Steve Levitan

5. Love what you do

Odds are that you will never live up to your potential when you aren't doing what you love. "Not everyone is as lucky as I am, I know that. Not everyone can reach their dream job. But maybe you can," he says. And you'll never know unless you try. The opportunity to do what you really want to do is worth the risk of failure.

Maybe Levitan does think you should follow your dreams after all.

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