Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington urged the 2011 graduating class at the University of Pennsylvania to “Fall forward,” i.e., take risks. An expression that the actor himself never quite understood until later in life.
Washington, who was among a host of distinguished honorary degree recipients, including Penn professor emeritus Renée C. Fox; Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn; renowned author Joyce Carol Oates; entrepreneur turned Africa activist Mo Ibrahim; and Nobel Prize winner Ei-ichi Negishi, delivered the commencement speech with remarkable transparency.
“Speaking at a graduation of this magnitude is a little overwhelming. This is out of my comfort zone,” the actor said after greeting the dais and the graduating seniors, “high-minded intellectuals” as he calls them.
He continues, “So I had to be here. I had to come… even though I was afraid I might make a fool of myself. I’m sure in your experiences — in school … in applying to college … in picking your major … in deciding what you want to do with life — people have told you to make sure you have something to ‘fall back on.’ But I’ve never understood that concept, having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything, except my faith. I want to fall … forward.”
First lady Michelle Obama, during her 2011 commencement speech at Spelman College, also advised the graduates to “see setback as a challenge and as an opportunity to learn and grow.”
Washington was raw and authentic as he shared his fears with the eager seniors, whom he challenged early during his address to avoid the urge to pull out their iPhones and start texting their boyfriends.
“I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success. You’ve got to take risks,” he said.
Washington’s son, Malcolm, is an undergrad at UPenn. –yvette caslin