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commencement speeches


Illinois governor's ‘Office’-themed 'Idiot' commencement speech is actually a lesson in kindness

“Whenever I’m about to do something, I think ‘Would an idiot do that?’ and if they would, I do not do that thing.” – Dwight Schrute

J.B. Pritzker speaking at the Iron Workers Delegate Dinner.

Two-term Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker gave a clever commencement speech at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, on June 12 based on quotes from “The Office.” Pritzker graduated from the Northwestern University School of Law, which was renamed in his honor in 2015.

Coincidentally, "The Office" star Steve Carell was in attendance at the speech because his daughter was among the graduates.

“Today, graduates, I want to invoke a seminal piece of twenty-first-century culture to help send you forward on the right path in life,” Pritzker said. “I am, of course, talking about the Emmy award-winning sitcom known as ‘The Office’—which in its two hundred episode run gave us all the wisdom you need to make your way in this world.”

His speech was based on six quotes from “The Office.” (The last one comes at the speech’s conclusion.)

“PowerPoints are the peacocks of the business world; all show, no meat.” – Dwight Schrute

“Having a baby is exhausting. Having two babies? That’s just mean.” – Jim Halpert

“I knew exactly what to do. But in a much more real sense, I had no idea what to do.” – Michael Scott

“I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” – Andy Bernard

A quote from Schrute inspired the most poignant moment in his speech: “Whenever I’m about to do something, I think ‘Would an idiot do that?’ and if they would, I do not do that thing.”

“If you want to be successful in this world, you have to develop your own idiot detection system,” Pritzker said before joking that people who prefer the “Star Wars” prequel and sequel trilogies over the originals may be idiots. But then the speech took a serious, heartfelt turn where he talks about two approaches to human nature.

“The best way to spot an idiot? Look for the person who is cruel,” Pritzker says. “When we see someone who doesn’t look like us, or sound like us, or act like us, or love like us, or live like us—the first thought that crosses almost everyone’s brain is rooted in either fear or judgment or both. That’s evolution. We survived as a species by being suspicious of things we aren’t familiar with.”

“In order to be kind, we have to shut down that animal instinct and force our brain to travel a different pathway. Empathy and compassion are evolved states of being. They require the mental capacity to step past our most primal urges,” Pritzker continues. “I’m here to tell you that when someone’s path through this world is marked with acts of cruelty, they have failed the first test of an advanced society. They never forced their animal brain to evolve past its first instinct. They never forged new mental pathways to overcome their own instinctual fears. And so, their thinking and problem-solving will lack the imagination and creativity that the kindest people have in spades.”

Then, instead of showing the graduates how to detect the idiots in the world, he showed them how he finds the most intelligent.

“Over my many years in politics and business, I have found one thing to be universally true—the kindest person in the room is often the smartest,” Pritzker says.

Priztker’s observation may sound nice, but it is rooted in research. Numerous studies have found that people who have lower cognitive abilities—or, as Pritzker and Dwight Schrute would call them, “idiots”—are more likely to harbor bigoted beliefs about people who are different.

Pritzker concluded his speech by summarizing the lessons he learned from watching “The Office.”

“Be more substance than show. Set aside cruelty for kindness. Put one foot in front of the other even when you don’t know your way. And always try and appreciate the good old days when you are actually in them,” Pritzker said. “And remember what Dwight Schrute said, ‘You only live once? False! You live every day! You only die once.’”