Lessons from Matt

The more time I spend at Harvard, the more I believe that conversation is one of the most incredible things in this world that also happens to be absolutely free.

Granted, I realize that the nature of this institution has granted me more opportunities than I have ever been so lucky to have previously to come across former Presidents, world-renowned scientists, and professionals in all areas of academic, cultural, political, and professional life.

The latest of whom is Matt Damon.

Matt Damon was honored yesterday afternoon with the 20th Harvard Arts Medal by Harvard President Drew Faust at an event that was moderated by actor John Lithgow in Sanders Theatre.

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I’ve seen the beautifully worn stage of Sanders many times before, and yesterday was no aberration from that description. It was aglow beneath the stage lights, though this time adorned with a rich, red rug and two chairs poised for the men who would soon occupy them to discuss the life and career of the 2013 Harvard Arts Medal winner.

He was nonchalant and personable as he approached his chair–but of course, Damon is an actor, and one would expect no less from a great entertainer.

He regaled us with stories about his childhood, like that time his house was about to catch on fire and his response to his mom’s cries for “water!” was to put on his fireman costume at age 5 or 6 and put the great powers of his plastic fire hose to use.

“It’s also a story about how useful actors are in emergencies,” Damon added.

That one got plenty of laughs.

He told us about the time he was in a play in his junior year of high school–that was also the first time he acted with Ben Affleck, who was a freshman at Cambridge Rindge and Latin at the time. “We were both about 4’11”…and he played my son,” Damon added with a chuckle.

Perhaps one of the most endearing aspects of Matt Damon in the eyes of the hundreds odd students, professors, and community members in the room was that this great actor, this world-renowned presence, was and always would be a Cambridge, MA native and a “Harvard man.” Even though Damon, at the ripe age of 42, was here at this university many years before myself and my peers, I know we all still felt an undeniable sense of commonality with him as he talked about walking around Matthews, his freshman dorm in the Yard, and then about living in Lowell House as an upperclassman.

John Lithgow was equally personable and had that iconic ‘talk show host’ demeanor. A famed actor himself, he was the perfect complement to Damon as they sat and shared lessons with the audience.

For many of us students–who are usually typecast as people in the “I-don’t-know-what-I-want-to-do-with-my-life” stage of development–Damon is a poignant example of  how it can  be beneficial to have foresight with one’s career goals. He shared with us that he had known what he wanted to do with his life since the the age of 13.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an actor.” Four years later, that was the first line of his application essay to Harvard.

After matriculating at the College, he became an English major and though (like so many other famous Harvard alums) he did not graduate, he was not shy about emphasizing the impact that this university had on his life.

“Tell us about your Harvard education,” said Lithgow midway through the conversation.

“Well…it went on a for a while.” (more laughs after that one). After all, Damon took time off multiple times in order to pursue auditions and professional acting opportunities.

From his younger days, with his mother being a teacher herself, Damon said he was influenced and incredibly blessed with teachers who pushed and encouraged him. At Harvard he enrolled in a screen writing class where he wrote the first act for Good Will Hunting. It wasn’t the assignment that the teacher had given him, Damon told the audience–and so he was sure he had failed–but instead of giving him a bad grade, his teacher encouraged him to pursue the script further because he felt that he had a good thing going. Indeed, he was right.

Ultimately, Matt Damon shared a bout of advice, not just in reflection of his successes, but also his failures and how he dealt with them.

He told us that his wife is his bedrock in many ways. She is the one who helps him put his professional failures into perspective and remember what is most important–his 4 daughters help him with that too :)

He told us about the time he was a freshman at Harvard and was sure he had gotten a golden opportunity to meet the head of Touchstone Pictures. He subsequently told everyone in the freshman class about the meeting. “I knew something was wrong when…” That statement, as you can imagine, was the beginning of Matt Damon’s tale of epic disappointment and embarrassment in which he did not, in fact, get the meeting that he was hoping for or the acting deal that he thought would come with it. He then had to come back to Harvard and answer plenty of questions from eager classmates. Moral of the story: never underestimate the power of humility.

For me, one of the most relatable pieces of advice–especially for those of us who are not aspiring actors–was the anecdote he related about actors who are unhappy with their jobs and no longer find excitement in getting ready to act in that next movie. “It’s an insecure profession,” Damon explained. People start making decisions and choosing roles after they get a little bit of positive feedback because they feel pressure to keep pleasing people. But then the consequence is that the job is no longer  exciting and these actors lose interest in what they were doing in the first place. Lesson: don’t ever let the audience  dictate what role you’re going to play. That certainly is a lesson that extends beyond the silver screen.

The ceremony honoring Matt Damon was one of the first events of the 21st annual Arts First Celebration at Harvard. It is one of my favorite times of year  not only because the weather is just beginning to become beautiful again, but also because there is excitement and surprise literally hanging from trees in the yard and magnificent displays of visual art, drama, dance,  film, and every other type of art one could possibly imagine filling every nook and cranny on campus. Tents have been erected with beautiful curtains and promises of lively music, lights, and of course (free food!) to come in the days and hours that  make up the Arts First Celebration.

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When John Lithgow first began introducing Matt Damon at the Harvard Arts Medal Award Presentation, he said something that really struck me.

“They called it the Year of the Impossible Dream,” said Lithgow.

He was talking about ’67, the year that he  graduated from Harvard College and also the year when the Boston Red Sox won the pennant for the first time in decades. Reflecting on the year he left Harvard, Lithgow was implicitly telling us about all the dreams that were born at this university and how they grew into something that really did seem impossible in the many years that would come after.

Even though I have no personal connection to the year 1967, the memory Lithgow shared touched me. If I had a wish each new year, it would be that the 365 days that followed would be a new “year of the impossible dream.” Because once you make one dream possible, you ought to have a next one to reach for.

But then again, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, I plan to revel in the beautiful spring of this spring semester and the celebration of the Arts that is literally dancing, singing, and drawing all around us.

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Happy Friday!

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