Joss Whedon’s Guide to Life


As you may have heard, everyone’s favorite vampire slayer-creating, Avengers-assembling writer/director, Joss Whedon, gave the commencement speech at his alma mater Wesleyan University, and unsurprisingly, it was kind of great. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise; throughout his career, both in the dialogue he’s written and the many good interviews he’s given, Whedon always comes across as an old soul filled with great wisdom. So with that in mind, here’s a couple dozen nuggets of advice from your self-appointed “Uncle Joss.”

Remind yourself that you have the right to exist.

“That moment, where you stand up and say, ‘I have the right to exist.’ I’ve written it a lot of times, and I never get tired of writing it. And if I could just believe it about myself, I think I could stop writing it.” (GQ, 2012)

“I guess because I grew up small and afraid of everything, and apart from the fact that I’m no longer small, nothing has changed. Every moment that I love is the moment when a character basically stands up and says ‘I have the right to exist.’ And that’s something I have yet to do as a person. But I can write it quite eloquently.” (Forbes, 2012)

Listen to your own voice.

“Ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s fucked the system; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction; it’s a homogenizing process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up: they’d started talking about a different show.” ( Hotdog , 2006)

“Paint like them before you can paint like you.”

“I have abused language. I love it and I abuse it…. I don’t write just to be clever. But sometimes I do. And if you don’t have an understanding of the language, then the way in which it’s bent doesn’t actually register. It’s the old you-gotta-paint-like-them-before-you-can-paint-like-you thing.” (Wired, 2012)

Be distinct.

“It’s gratifying to have a voice. It’s gratifying and a danger. The ability to subsume your voice in the characters you’re writing is as important as the ability to be distinct.” (Forbes, 2012)

“Actually, everything I’ve done has been [alternative therapy]. I didn’t realize until after seven seasons of Buffy — literally, until after I was done with it — that I was writing about myself. People always say, ‘Which character is you?’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I feel like I’m Xander because he’s funny and he’s kind of a loser.’ And then honestly it wasn’t until I was working on something else that I went, ‘Oh! I was Buffy, and I was writing about myself the whole time. How could I possibly not have noticed that?’” (Forbes, 2012)

Lay the groundwork.

“Like with everything else, if I don’t lay the groundwork, if I don’t do the stuff that seems like it’s not that rewarding, I don’t get the reward later on. I feel that all the time. Not to sound like the biggest old fogey in the world, but it’s true.” (Rookie, 2011)

Lose yourself.

“You have to completely lose yourself in something, even if you have to lose yourself in something else 45 minutes later. If you try to multitask in the classic sense of doing two things at once, what you end up doing is quasi-tasking. It’s like being with children. You have to give it your full attention for however much time you have, and then you have to give something else your full attention. The secret to multitasking is that it isn’t actually multitasking. It’s just extreme focus and organization.” (Forbes, 2012)

Finish things.

“You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.” ( Hotdog , 2006)

Focus on what matters most to you.

“I’m not interested in sharing my life with people. And I would feel an obligation, if I were to tweet, to tweet something worth tweeting. And believe me when I say if I could lose four days of work — of page after page of good, solid work of my job of being a writer — to trying to figure out a tweet.” (Forbes, 2012)

Don’t sell out.

“The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie: if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skillful you are: that’s called whoring.” ( Hotdog , 2006)

Keep yourself in check.

“For the most part, I’m psyched. But you have to be careful that self-righteous umbrage doesn’t determine how you act around people, or how you behave artistically. You don’t want to be the guy who’s like: ‘OF COURSE I’M RIGHT! I’VE ALWAYS BEEN RIGHT ALL ALONG!’ And then suddenly, you’re making your worst stuff, because you’ve lost that checks-and-balances thing you need to manage yourself.” ( Entertainment Weekly , 2012)

Write to keep sane.

“I just love language. I mean, I love it. I love stage directions. Any opportunity to write. I hadn’t written in so long, I get very crazy and miserable. I — it’s like not seeing my kids, I can’t do it for very long.” (Wired, 2012)

“”I’ve had people say to me, ‘You know, I’ve thought I might like to write.’ And I’m just like ‘Turn around and go away.’ I don’t ever want to hear that. If you’re a writer, you need to write. You have to do it. And you need to have to do it because it’s grueling. You have to give yourself over to it completely… that is what you are and that kind of passion and tenacity is necessary when people are telling you it’s not going to work out.” (Making It With Riki Lindhome, 2012)

Think through the logic of your biases.

“Everybody makes fun of Uncle Joss when he brings up womb envy! But I still believe in it. It’s a very simple theory and I gave it a silly name, but basically it just seemed to be a fundamental thing that women have something men don’t, the obvious being an ability to bear children, and the resilience to hang in as parents. I don’t understand why or how anyone ever pulled off the whole idea of ‘women are inferior.’ Men not only don’t get what’s important about what women are capable of, but in fact they fear it, and envy it, and want to throw stones at it, because it’s the thing they can’t have.” ( Mother Jones , 2008)

Acknowledge where you still need to progress.

“I have a slight problem with people. And I’d like to say that I’m working on it, but I’m not sure if I’m moving forward.” (Wired, 2012)

Enjoy the meal.

“There are definitely times when you go through every permutation of an idea and then you go, well, that’s over. And that was lovely, thank you. I’ll have my fish.” (Time, 2005)

It’s corny, but take the road less traveled. And it will be difficult.

“Let’s just say that, hypothetically, two roads diverged in a wood and you took the path less traveled. Part of you is going, ‘Look at that path over there! It’s much better! Everybody’s traveling on it and it’s…it’s paved and there’s like a Starbucks every 50 yards… This is wrong. This path’s got nettles and Robert Frost’s body and… somebody should have moved that, right? It feels weird.’ Not only is your mind telling you this, it is on that other path. It is behaving as if it is on that path, it is doing the opposite of what you are doing. And for your entire life you will be doing, on some level, the opposite of not only what you are doing but of what you think you are. That is just going to go on. And what you need to do is to honor that. To understand it. To unearth it. To listen to this other voice.” (Wesleyan Commencement Speech, 2013)

You decide what to take from your education.

“You may have a terrible teacher. You may have a great teacher. But ultimately there is no such thing as a boring subject. It’s just a question of whether you’re going to decide to engage with it.” (Rookie, 2011)

Happiness does not equal peace.

“If you think happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. They will always be in conflict and if you accept that, everything gets a lot better!” (Wesleyan Commencement Speech, 2013)

Combat fear.

“So for everybody, at some point — very often for teenagers — the world is a terrible place. The world is a giant, awful black hole of evil conspiracy. Sometimes that’s because you have perspective on what the world’s really like, and sometimes it’s because you’ve completely lost perspective and you’re having a terrible day. But no matter what, everybody shares that feeling, and life is kind of about your ways around that, your ways around certain truths. Some people combat it with faith, some people combat it with work. For me, if I’m not writing or creating something, I get very antsy. That’s my little defense against darkness. Also, my kids.” (Rookie, 2011)

Change the world.

“I think we can all agree that the world could use a little changing. I don’t know if your parents have explained this to you about the world but we… broke it? Ummmm, we’re sorry? It’s a bit of a mess. It’s a hard time to go out into it. And it’s a weird time in our country. And the thing about our country is… oh, it’s nice. I like it! But it’s not long on contradiction or ambiguity. It’s not long on these kind of things. It likes things to be simple. It likes things to be pigeonholed. Good, or bad. Black, or white. Blue, or red. And we’re not that. We’re more interesting than that. The way that we go into the world understanding is to have these contradictions in ourselves and to see them in other people and not judge them for it.” (Wesleyan Commencement Speech, 2013)

Be fierce this year (and every year).

“…you know, early on, I don’t know, maybe 14, I realized that every year I go to school and in September I’d be like ‘Yeah! Let’s do this! I’m very excited!’ and by mid-October I’d be behind in everything. And I kind of trained myself — I gave myself this little mantra: I was like, you know, ‘I’m gonna be fierce this year.’ I can’t remember the whole mantra, but it had to do with me being a rocket ship. And it worked. I was like, no, I’m fierce homework guy, engaged guy, doing my work, I’m a rocket ship, I’m not gonna let up. And I was working great, and then I told somebody about my rocket ship mantra, and they laughed at it. And I just stopped.” (Rookie, 2011)

And a parting thought.

“You will be so many things and the one thing that I wish I’d known, and want to say, is: don’t just be yourself, be all of your selves. Don’t just live, be that other thing connected to death. Be life. Live all of your life. Understand it, see it, appreciate it, and have fun.” (Wesleyan Commencement Speech, 2013)