What exactly is Patton Oswalt saying?
July 21, 2008 4:49 PM   Subscribe

Last week I read the graduation speech Patton Oswalt gave to the kids at his former high school, and it's been marinating, but I'd like to make sure I'm understanding his advice in the very best way possible.

At the end he wrote that "reputation, posterity and cool = fear"... on one level I can see that as being true, yet would it really be a good idea to abandon those things?

And then he wrote: "there is no them."

While that sounds profound and I'm actually attracted to the advice purely based on it's aesthetic, I'm going to go ahead and admit that I have no idea what it means.
posted by pwally to Religion & Philosophy (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I think he's talking about the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. He's saying, don't be driving extrinsically.
posted by found missing at 5:05 PM on July 21, 2008

and, by driving, I mean driven
posted by found missing at 5:05 PM on July 21, 2008

I think a key to that bit of advice is earlier in the speech when he says, "get outside yourself, and realize that everyone and everything has its own story, and something to teach you, and that they’re also trying – consciously or unconsciously – to learn and grow from you and everything else around them."

I think he means don't spend your time classifying people and building walls, just open yourself up people and learn what they have to teach.
posted by sharkfu at 5:08 PM on July 21, 2008

nice speech.

i think it's basically what polonius counseled in hamlet: "to thine own self be true." don't be so afraid of what other people think of you, how other people regard you, and how other people remember you that it keeps you from living in the present and fully embracing what you encounter.

likewise, "there is no them" probably comes from "us versus them." i think what he's saying is that there isn't an other out there to strive against. alternatively, he might be saying, "your life is not a reality show and there is no audience, so stop performing and start living." or maybe he's saying both.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:09 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm guessing he meant that if you're always worried about reputation, posterity and being cool, you'll be too afraid to do what you're supposed to be doing in life.

I can see that being true about posterity and cool, but reputation?
posted by storybored at 5:25 PM on July 21, 2008

He's been to Prague and London and Dublin and Alaska, he's seen those Five Environments, and they all helped shape who he is today. With that said, the things that really matter are not the awesome places you go or the crazy people you go there with, but just the everyday events that happen all the time. Making a crappy zombie movie with your friends in the woods or DJing terrible weddings can shape your personality just as much as seeing the world.

He's talking to a bunch of kids who will probably never have many of the opportunities that he does as a celebrity and his point is basically that it doesn't matter because those opportunities aren't what shape him and they aren't what shapes anyone. They're fun and a good way to blow off steam, and certainly an excellent way to make a living if it's feasible, but in the end they don't matter as much as everyday ordinary life.

I second the "to thine own self be true" argument.
posted by papayaninja at 5:27 PM on July 21, 2008

"Them" is like the idea of a cabal; the idea that there's an established norm, and people who occupy that established norm, and that you choose to be a part of it or not. I presume he's suggesting (and rightly so) that no such norm/group/"Them" exists, that each individual needs to be considered as an individual. And so, as an individual independently interacting with other individuals, there is only "Us'."

It sounds profound, but it's really obvious -- although apparently not to enough people in the world.
posted by davejay at 6:06 PM on July 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

"reputation, posterity and cool = fear"... on one level I can see that as being true, yet would it really be a good idea to abandon those things?

Why not abandon those things? Oh, wait, I forgot -- those things are just social constructs to describe the way we interact with one another. They simply cannot be abandoned. The trick is to rise above them and move on to more elaborate and effective methods of interacting. They will always exist, but we don't have to be proponents of them or rely on them. You can't make them go away, because some of the people will always be going through that development period of their lives where they can understand that level of social complexity, but no more. You're just supposed to move on from that sooner or later, and he just seems to be trying to encourage these kids to make it sooner. Raise the level of interpersonal discourse, as it were.
posted by davejay at 6:09 PM on July 21, 2008

"They're gonna think I'm lame!"

"They're going to think I'm too stuck up."

"They're going to laugh at me!"

"They're not going to understand why I did what I did."

"They must be so ashamed of me."

"They hate me because I'm smart/silly/dumb/sarcastic/ugly/fat...."

"They're going to think I'm horrible."


There is no THEM.
posted by tristeza at 6:13 PM on July 21, 2008 [6 favorites]

Put another way, by Chris Morris, "the pursuit of approval usually ends in disaster." You can't avoid succeeding or failing one way or another to be cool or having a good reputation or seeming nice or whatever, but you have to have a higher purpose than what others think. Because not only is what "they" think not terribly important, but it's not even all that tangible of a concept. Most people think very little of other people, in all actuality, which is a liberating thing: even if you do appear lame or like an asshole or as whatever other thing, it doesn't really matter, because you're your only judge, and virtually nobody is going to really obsess over you all that much - and even if they do, there's only so much about that that's in your control. And even if people do think you're a crazy asshole...so what? It's only a problem if it concretely interferes in your life, in which we're right back to you having to do things for yourself, and not for the benefit of how others see you.

So, if you're living your life towards the goal of being well-remembered or seeming cool or whatever, you're going to fail, because nobody is ever going to give that much of a toss about you in that way, and you're never going to please yourself. Even celebrities like Patton Oswalt can't rely on coming home to hordes of adoring fans. No one is so well-loved by others that it makes up for an internal lack. It'll never be enough. You have to like what you do and who you are, and it's only after you've gotten that straight that you can ever really begin to appeal to other worthwhile people. Depressed, unhappy, insecure people who aren't comfortable in their own skin do not make for very appealing company.

As for how those concepts equal "fear" - no one is more self-conscious and sheeplike than someone trying desperately to be cool, because that person is afraid to cultivate the likes and personality of the person they'd actually be, were it not for the supposed approval of their peers. And what peers are worth having who demand you be so cool? Or, if it's a good reputation you want: who's more worthwhile, the "church lady" who tries desperately to maintain appearances, or the revolutionary who does what she needs to do?
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:49 PM on July 21, 2008 [5 favorites]

You know the irony here is that comedians cannot afford to really be themselves, at least when performing: a comedian is necessarily required to make people laugh, and even if that comes naturally for the person telling the jokes, the comedian is in effect seeking the approval of the audience. Without that approval, the audience boos or leaves.
posted by ornate insect at 7:01 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

You know the irony here is that comedians cannot afford to really be themselves, at least when performing: a comedian is necessarily required to make people laugh, and even if that comes naturally for the person telling the jokes, the comedian is in effect seeking the approval of the audience. Without that approval, the audience boos or leaves.

I see your point, but I think Oswalt's point still stands. What separates a great comedian from a mediocre comedian is that the great comedian genuinely loves what they do and how they do it and has perfected a way to let others share in their creative glee, whereas the mediocre comedian is just constantly struggling to get people to laugh at their jokes. Great performers command the stage. It's inescapable that you need people to like you, on some level, if you want to have any sort of career, let alone in entertainment, but you'll never really get anywhere unless you respect yourself and let that be your primary goal.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:20 PM on July 21, 2008

He had a blog post where he talks about preparing for the speech, and references David Foster Wallace's commencement address at Kenyon College.

Definitely worth checking out, it's clear he took a lot of inspiration from it.
posted by cosmonaught at 7:42 PM on July 21, 2008

My take is this: there is no "them" because actually, all there is is "us." No matter what, we are all on this earth surviving side-by-side together, going through our daily struggles, fears, our everything. You aren't spending your day worrying about the next guy, you're worrying about yourself... right? Well, likewise, the next guy? Stop worrying about what he thinks. He's not judging you so much, he's got other stuff on his plate. And BTW, if he IS spending all of his time judging you, he's a loser because he should be spending more time looking in the mirror. We are all responsible for our own salvation so worry about yourself and appreciate everything and everyone around you in the moment. Don't worry about how you compare or impress everyone, it means nothing in the big scheme of things.

Actually, that's probably one of the best speeches I've ever heard/read Patton do. It's really made me like him a lot better. Not that I didn't like him before but I used to listen to his Uncabaret rants a lot and this really gave me a different perspective on him. I'm impressed, he kept the potty humor in there to impress the kids/freak out the faculty... yet said some insightful stuff. Good for him. (Also, the "5 environments" thing was interesting to me too. So thanks for bringing that speech to my attention.)
posted by miss lynnster at 7:44 PM on July 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have little more to say than thanks. That's a great speech, and I would have missed it.

Short anecdote - My mom was taking me to my Jr. High School and I told her how I was embarrassed that I was wearing the same clothes I was wearing the day before (forgot to bring clothes to her house). She looked at me, in dead seriousness, and gently said, "OrangeDrink, do you think anyone cares?"

That was when I figured out there was no 'them.' I just continuously forgot it for the next 10 years.
posted by OrangeDrink at 9:21 PM on July 21, 2008

"Them" is this floating disembodied concept, rather than a collection of actual human beings which I have personal relationships with. If "they" think this or "they" think that or I have a problem with "them" then there's nothing I can do, because "them" doesn't mean anything. "Them" is imaginary.

The other day I was in a town-hall type congregational meeting at my church about some proposed changes we were considering. Some people who weren't very keen on these changes were saying that they didn't think they would be received all that well. They were basically using the concept of "they": "They wont like this". Rather than saying plainly that they didn't like these ideas, they rather hid behind the construct of "they". So you end up having a whole group of people discussing what "they" would like and what "they" wouldn't like. As if it was a whole other group of people, rather than the very people who were in the room.

So "They" becomes a convenient way to justify our own poor behavior and lack of ownership. "I don't think that they will be willing to do that" sounds a lot nicer than "I am not willing to do that", even though it usually means the same thing.
posted by jpdoane at 10:06 PM on July 21, 2008

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