Rashida Jones ’97: “Don’t Just Follow the Rules”
In 2007, actress Rashida Jones ’97 had just come off a highly successful stint on the hit sitcom The Office, and was in a bit of a rut. As she auditioned for television roles as the “wife or sassy best friend” on various shows, Jones found herself increasingly demoralized, frustrated, and pondering a new career path: writing. Looking around at all of her successful writer friends, she began to doubt herself.
“It felt silly to start down a new path in my 30s, but I channeled all of my frustrations and unemployed energy and sat down with my best friend Will McCormack every day for six months until we had completed a movie script,” Jones told the audience of seniors, families, and friends gathered in Tercentenary Theatre today for the 2016 Class Day ceremony. “It was called Celeste and Jesse Forever, and we sold it in a bidding war to Fox Atomic, they wanted to make the movie for $16 million. It was the greatest accomplishment of my life—I had circumvented the system. Until it wasn’t.”
Six months later, Jones said, Fox Atomic folded, and she watched her script fail, just as the whole business of bigger studios making smaller films was also crumbling. Jones and her partner realized there had to be another way, and they relied on investors to make the movie for $840,000—“almost a year of Harvard tuition,” she joked. The movie was sold at the Sundance Film Festival, earned positive reviews, and even won an Independent Spirit Award nomination for writing, launching her career as a writer and producer.
But most importantly, Jones said, she overcame her compulsion “to work within the system.” Even after 40 years, she pointed out, she has a difficult time accepting that “the people in charge are not always the most competent.” Jones urged the Class of 2016 to not follow the rules, arguing that the real world is not a meritocracy—many institutions, governments, and organizations are flawed, and being on guard is critical.
“Now I’m a realist—I work for myself. If I hit a wall, I look for the ways outside the system to get things done,” she said. “The hard fact is this: the real world does not reward rule followers the way the education world does. Don’t just follow the rules because it has always worked out that way in the past—just because they have been doing it a long time does not mean it’s right.”
Jones said a lot at Harvard has changed since her time on campus—there had been no female president, no black and Jewish female Class Day speaker such as herself, nor pressure on final clubs to admit women.
“The rumor I heard was that the Porcellian Club would give $1 million to any member of the club that wasn’t already a millionaire by age 40,” she said. “That’s awesome if it’s true. So, if they start admitting women, what’s 79 percent of a million?”
Jones urged seniors to ask themselves what they really want to do in life, and what they are prepared to tolerate to realize that path. It’s very painful, she said, when the things you believe in start to show their cracks and imperfections—“no job, or employer, or mentor” will ever be the answer you want them to be. “Everyone is dealing with their own flaws and egos…here’s the simple truth: you are the only one who can create the life you want, and you may have to break some rules to do that.
“I’m not going to tell you to be the best, or dream big, or get rich, because A. It’s not the ’80s, and B. I’m a little bit more than being the American dream of getting rich or gloating about it publicly, even on the campaign trail—seriously, what is going on?” she joked, to much applause.
Touching on themes of indifference, Jones talked about the importance of caring and compassion, especially in the information age, where there is such a constant stream of news and media saturating our lives. There are 60 million displaced refugees worldwide, she pointed out: “60 million people who can’t return to their homes—you shouldn’t be indifferent about that.”
“Changing focus quickly is now a required survival skill,” she said. “In the face of all this noise, it’s harder than ever to stay committed to do the things you really care about. But do not be distracted, do not be dissuaded, do not be discouraged—keep caring. It’s not enough to talk amongst your friends about the injustices you see in the world; now is the time to be vocal. Now is the time to be loud—louder than the loudest troll on the Internet.”
Jones called the Class of 2016 to action, saying that she herself has been criticized for her outspoken political voice, especially as an actress in Hollywood. But it is more critical now than ever to speak out, especially with the recent deaths of so many young black men, states stripping away women’s reproductive rights, and a presidential candidate who “is encouraging his supporters to be violent and racist, and wants to ensure that there are no gun-free zones in this country.
“While we are distracted with pretty Instagram shots of coffee and celebrity breakups, our freedoms are at risk of slipping away,” Jones said. “And to me, this issue is more important than smiling pretty or talking about how much fun I had on a movie set.”
In closing, Jones—the fourth consecutive alumna to give the address, as well as the first relative of a former Class Day speaker to receive the honor (her father, musician Quincy Jones, D.Mus. ’97, spoke that year)—urged students to live every day like it is their last, and to live in love, not fear.
“When big decisions pop up, get quiet—real quiet, and listen. Turn off your phone, turn off your computer, and listen to your true heart,” she said. “Hear the thing that makes you feel sick with excitement, and scared because you know you’ll learn, and do that thing.”