Scott Cooper '92, "I sincerely cherished my time on The Hill."

May 23, 2014

Scott Cooper and DaughtersI sincerely cherished my time on The Hill and that continual march toward becoming "a good man and good citizen."

In wondering what I might say,  I've landed on three pieces of advice that I've received and still live by: live your life on your terms, don't be afraid to fail, and always listen to your inner voice.

Twenty-two years ago this month, I sat several rows back on the right-hand side of this lectern. I was proud.  I was relieved.  But mostly, as many of you are today, I was frightened. Frightened not that I was about to be swiftly ushered into an unforgiving world or frightened that I felt unprepared for what lay ahead in the vast unknown. No, one can't matriculate at Hampden-Sydney and be ill-prepared for all that life has to offer. After all, Hampden-Sydney men, and I mean this sincerely, are as prepared as one can be as we cross over the threshold into adulthood.

After four years of our cultivated curriculum, we've become critical thinkers, keen communicators, and men who are innovative and creative. With an enriched life beyond academic measure and a capacity for open-ended inquiry, Hampden-Sydney men are plenty prepared to make sense of our lives and our world.

No. I was frightened on that day 22 years ago, because I was afraid that I wasn't about to live life on my terms. Frightened that I was about to follow a "career path" that felt safe and conventional.

What I really wanted to do was lead a life in the Arts. Now, I'm not certain of the numbers, but those actually leading a life in the Arts are staggeringly low, unfortunately, relative to those leading a life outside of the Arts.  Low because it's a difficult life, a life of rejection, uncertainty, a life where there are no rules or structure, a life with no ascension.

So, as I look at each and every one of you, I'm certain there are more than a few of you who are also frightened by not doing exactly what you want to be doing as you depart through the gates a final time today. A few  are pursuing a job, a line of work, a "career path," because that's what's expected of you.  But simply ask yourself now and when you're alone next, "Is it what you most want to do with your life?"  My advice, as trite and clichéd as it may sound, is to do what will make you most happy, regardless the financial reward, or lack thereof. Don't be afraid to fail ever, and live your life on your terms.

If this speech was a screenplay instead of my life's path, I'd now type: CUT TO, and then type: TWO YEARS LATER. And I'd find myself closing the door of my newly bought Toyota 4-Runner (packed to the gills with all of my worldly possessions) standing in front of my newly-leased apartment in Los Angeles. 

I proceeded to build a network of close friends and began honing my craft in acting class, small local plays, and countless auditions (forgettable and otherwise). But, truthfully, I was having the time of my life as I was listening to my inner voice, failing time and time again, and most importantly, living life on my terms.

Again, if this were a screenplay, I'd type: CUT TO, and then: SEVERAL YEARS LATER. After hundreds of auditions and hours in acting class, having had very little luck finding gainful employment, I found myself back in Virginia, costumed in Civil War attire standing across fromt eh madsterful actor and national treasure, and Virginia, I might add, Robert Duvall.  Yes, I found myself  in Gods & Generals, a Civil War drama that was my first big break, though I had a forgettable part.

As it would turn out, Mr. Duvall and I would strike up a friendship, and he would offer sage advice" "Scott, "he said, "When I find myself not telling the stories I want to tell, I tell my own.  Don't wait for others to make your luck for you.  Create it yourself."  I listened to Mr. Duvall, my inner voice, and told myself, "Don't be afraid to fail, because you are failing at every turn now."

So, with what little savings I had at the time, I purchased my first laptop computer and took Mr. [Robert] Duvall's advice.  I found myself (in screenwriting parlance) typing: FADE IN: CLOVIS, NEW MEXICO. Bad Blake, 57 years old, but with a face and body that appear ten years older, stands in a Bowling Alley Parking Lot in Front of his 1978 Chevy Suburban with burnt valves. Bad looks up to a small marquee that reads: "COUNTRY STAR, Bad Blake, here tonight!" And Bad mutters to himself: "Jack, you bastard. A bowling alley?"

And those first sentences, which came from a very personal place and somewhere deep in those vintage country albums my parents would spin on the turntable, would forever change my life as those were the first lines of Crazy Heart, my screenwriting and directing debut that went on to win two Oscars.

In the face of steep odds, in the face of sure disappointment and failure, I was persevering on my terms. And most importantly, not only had I found my calling (after several years of struggle and hardship), but I was confronting all of my fears and overcoming them.

And as I stand before you today, I know with certainty, because I can see it in your eyes, that you, too, can and will face your fears and overcome them. Regardless of the fact that you are likely frightened - just as I was - you will overcome your fears because that's what Hampden-Sydney men do, that's what Hampden-Sydney men are prepared for. I just simply want you to do it your way. Follow you instincts and your heart, because those are the truest. Allow them to be your compass.

Now obviously, not everyone is so fortunate to do what they love, but if you stay true to yourself and continue to take big risks in life, you'll be living your life to its fullest and you'll likely be doing what you love. If you do what you love, you will become very good at whatever it is that you're doing. You will succeed and have those things in life that most strive for: a strong family, a strong community, strong core values, personal fulfillment, and a meaningful philosophy of life.

What will make you happy is a life of truth, responsibility, a life of empathy, intellectual curiosity, and of inspiration: all things that I am certain you developed as you walked these halls, exposed to the gifts of spirited collegiate learning and rigorous thinking.

The things you will need, in my experience, to find that fulfillment, that contentment, are: resilience, grit, living with failure, and writing your own narrative. Accept the difficulties that life will inevitably present, because they will only make you stronger and wiser.

So, be unique. Do something that no one else can do. Don't live cautiously.  Do what I frequently tell my daughters to do: don't be average and don't be afraid to lose it all, as you'll recover from the experience and become better still with your dreams intact. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, "When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on."