Lessons from the Great Bill Watterson

I stumbled upon Bill Watterson 1990 Kenyon College Commencement speech after seeing an artistic recreation of it in comic form. Not surprising, it is packed full of great ideas. But two areas stood out to me.


When I listen to successful people, I’m always trying to learn how did they come to such success and how do they feel about this defined notion of success. Watterson brings forth a perspective that continues to be a running theme from “successful” people:

We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success… Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement.

It is about defining success for yourself and creating a life that builds towards that definition of success. And I think this speaks directly to exploring those sparks of interests in hopes of finding that passion that will guide your decisions.

With so many conflicting realities facing our students, how do we encourage this life? How do we foster students that know what they stand for instead of living a life defined for them?

As Watterson says, “To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

Idea Generation

The other idea that stuck with me was this creation and ownership of the ideas to explore: “At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own” (Watterson).

And this continues to drive at a core issue facing schools: choice. The more I observe, the more it is clear just how little choice students are provided. Whether good or bad, there is little choice in the academic pathway of many students or choice is artificial. While creating opportunities for authentic choice is not as easy as many paint it, Watterson gives us some ideas:

 … as bright, creative people, you’ll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.For me, it’s been liberating to put myself in the mind of a fictitious six year-old each day, and rediscover my own curiosity. I’ve been amazed at how one ideas leads to others if I allow my mind to play and wander.

In high school, how much time do we give for wandering, wondering, and discovering? How much time do give for playing? Do we embrace the curious or see them as subversive?

And Watterson hammers home the point that I think we should all reflect upon in education:

A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.

The question then is whether learning is fun and playful minds are embraced in our classrooms, our schools or are we so focused on test scores that fun and playfulness are signs of less rigor?

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