Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez Speaks to Graduating Students at The University of Texas at Austin Spring Commencement

May 24, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — Internationally acclaimed filmmaker Robert Rodriguez was the speaker for The University of Texas at Austin's 126th Spring Commencement Saturday, May 23.

Wearing his trademark western hat with a graduation tassel dangling from the brim, Rodriguez stood out prominently in the crowd of about 20,000 people attending the ceremony on the university's Main Mall. The event celebrating the graduation of about 7,500 spring semester graduates ended with a spectacular fireworks display from the top of the Tower, which was illuminated in orange with "09" on the sides of the building.

Robert Rodriguez with President William Powers Jr. on the projector screen
President William Powers Jr. introduces Robert Rodriguez at The University of Texas at Austin's 126th Spring Commencement.Photo: Marsha Miller

Rodriguez wrote the script for his first feature film, "El Mariachi" while attending The University of Texas at Austin in the early 1990s. He temporarily set aside his academic career to focus on making movies but later completed course requirements to receive his bachelor of science degree in radio-television-film from the university in summer 2008.

His speech to the graduating students follows:


Thank you President Powers for that wonderful introduction and for giving me this opportunity and honor to give the commencement speech.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, distinguished faculty, family, friends, and of course, you my fellow UT graduates of 2009!

They had actually given me an honorary degree about nine years ago and it just didn't sit well with me. I wanted the real thing like you people have and I wanted to be here and get a real degree because, let's just face it, it's not real until it's real. And what you did is real.

Of course I took the 20-year scenic route. I saw a lot of weird things but it's good to be back.

Take lots of pictures. This'll be the last time you see me in a cowboy hat and an evening gown.

I grew up in San Antonio, from a family of 10 kids. Education meant everything to my parents. That's all they ever talked about—not contraception, education.

But seriously, of any accomplishment I've gotten or ever will have gotten, my parents are most proud that I'm graduating. And my parents are here tonight. So are my children, my friends, my family, along with your families and everyone here is proud of you.

Robert Rodriguez stands at the podium
Robert Rodriguez delivers the commencement address.Photo: Marsha Miller

Let's all thank our families and supporters for encouraging us to seek out excellence. Give them a big hand!

I know you are all tired and restless and getting rained on and you're ready to get the hell out of here, so I'll keep this brief. I also promise to make this worth your while.

You are about to enter the worst job market in 25 years. And you're probably wondering how you're going to do that.

I'm going to tell you. I'll give you the answer.

I don't know.

I really don't!

And neither does anybody. But that's a good thing. That actually could be the very best thing. Of course, I'll have to explain that.

You've heard that knowing is half the battle. So then what's the other half?

Not knowing!

In my personal experience, I can tell you, without a doubt, that not knowing is just as important, if not more important because you do not know yet what can't be done. You don't know what can't be done.

When you get out there's going to be a lot of people who will tell you, "Oh, you're doing that all wrong or you don't know what you're doing." They're wrong. There's something about not knowing that gives you an advantage when you're young enough and you're smart enough and you've got gut instincts and it hasn't been beaten into you yet.

I'm going to give you an example from my first movie of how that worked for me.

I made that while I was still here a student at UT. I didn't know that it was impossible to go make a movie for such a low budget with no film crew. It just wasn't being done at that time. This was 1991. It was just completely unheard of. It didn't mean it was impossible, it just meant no one had ever bothered to try it before.

UT Graduate 2009: Robert Rodriguez
Robert Rodriguez is a 2009 graduate of The University of Texas at Austin.Photo: Marsha Miller

And that's how things were done. How did I figure it out? I'm from a big family. I can't waste money. It's against my genetic makeup. So, I had to substitute money with creativity and that's what made all the difference. So, I had to make a movie in a way that broke the traditional mold and learn not to be a slave to tradition. Traditional thinking will hold you back.

And after that movie won Sundance (Film Festival), people then realized it could be done and they were able to follow and do the same.

It seems very common now. People do that. But back then it wasn't.

But I had to be willing to ignore the rulebook.

You can't make a mistake if there's no rules. And if there are pre-imposed rules, break them. Those rules were made yesterday and the tide has already shifted today.

So, be ready and willing to break rules, make your own rules and break those, too.

Be ready and willing to fail. Failure is good. It means that you're seeking new ideas.

Winston Churchill said that "success is the ability to move from one failure to the next failure. With enthusiasm." So, yeah, get happy about falling on your face. Then turn that perceived failure into success.

Now you may have heard several rumors, stories, about how I ultimately financed "El Mariachi," all of which are not completely true. It was much worse than that. Since you're old enough now and graduating, I'll go ahead and fill you in on some of the details of the horrors. Maybe that will shock you into not wanting to take such jobs, that you'll go on to do something else and not become a human lab rat like I did. Pursue your dreams.

Robert Rodriguez shows off his 'Hook 'em, Horns'
Robert Rodriguez shows off his "Hook 'em, Horns" to the Class of 2009.Photo: Marsha Miller

They wanted to test a new speed healer drug on me in exchange for $2,000. That's money that in my mind I'd already spent on lights, cameras and film stock.

So how do they test an experimental speed healer drug on you? They wound you. Punch biopsies on the back of my arms—speed healer on one side, placebo on the other. Then after several days they gouge out the rest of that section, sew you back up (bad stitching job by the way), send you off with your cash. You learn a lot from that.

What I learned was that I never wanted to do anything like that ever again.

But it was a creative solution at the time on how to make my movie. But you see there are no mistakes. You learn from everything. Was it a risk to put my arms in the meat grinder?

OK, it was. But it happened to pay off, big time. And that money allowed me to realize a dream.

So you have to take risks. That will be your advantage. You're young, you're risky, innovative, you can think on your feet.

I'm going to give you a tip:

How much did you get away with while you were here in the university, simply by saying, "Well, I'm a student. I am free to make mistakes, take the risk, try new things." How many times did you use that as an excuse? Keep using it.

Because if there's one thing I can tell you with all certainty it's that you will never know it all. You'll always be learning. We have to continue to be students of life and students for life.

I didn't avoid getting my degree for 20 years just out of laziness. OK, that was partly it.

But I did it because I knew it was important to keep this mindset that my education would never be done, that I was in this to be a student for life.

Technically I'm a writer/director. People wonder why I also do other jobs such as why am I the editor, the cinematographer, the composer, the producer, the caterer. Well, it's job security, isn't it? In today's world you really do have to know how to do more than one thing.

So a key thought I want to pass on to you is to continue learning. Continue learning new skills.

It's a crazy world out there right now. There really is no surety. There's going to be no comfort zone.

And something that has helped me tremendously is to surround myself with mentors. This is something you've already learned. You've got to take it out there in the world with you. These are friends who are masters at what they do, who challenge me and push me toward excellence, masters in photography, painting, music, filmmaking, Texas barbeque, you name it. I just have them teach me things all the time. And that's what you need to do. Surround yourself with people who are better than you. That's going to define who you become.

Robert Rodriguez, President Powers and Colleen McHugh sing 'The Eyes of Texas'
Robert Rodriguez, President Powers and University of Texas System Board of Regents Vice Chairman Colleen McHugh (far left) sing "The Eyes of Texas."Photo: Christina Murrey

You've always heard, "be careful who you choose as your peer group." Now, that meant one thing up until now, but it's going to mean something else as you go into the future.

I didn't know what a peer group was until I inherited one when I became a filmmaker, where I got to become friends with and work with people like Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams, Jim Cameron, George Lucas.

I can tell you it absolutely gets your game up really fast to be surrounded by people who are a lot better than you because they'll eventually turn to you and ask, "And what are you up to down there in Texas? What ground-breaking innovations can we expect from you in the near future?" To which I'd have to come up with something really quick, say like, "Um . . . I'm working on this brand new style of digital filmmaking to bring a comic book called 'Sin City' to life," or "I'm using hi def cameras and strapping them together to kind of do a 3-D movie and re-introduce that to cinema, that hasn't been done in 25 years."

And they'll say, "Ahhh, good show."

So it kind of forces you to be better. And you learned this already when you were here in school. When you wanted to get better grades, who did you hang out with? You found people who were more motivated than you, who were smarter than you and you tried to keep up with them and learn from them and find those study groups. What you do out there in real life is you go out there and you find better study groups.

So, this university has been great preparation for what's to come. Don't forget what you've learned here. It all applies. I'm telling you, it's the exact same thing out there. It's just like college, only louder and more obnoxious. The skills and techniques you learned here will apply the rest of your life. You've already learned how to be a student. That's the main thing. Don't ever stop being a student.

You are inheriting a less than ideal world. And that's OK because, in a perverse kind of way, you are going to have to come up with all these new ideas, take many more risks. It could be the best thing that could happen to you as a person that this challenge is up to you. You can't see them as problems. There are no problems, there's only challenges. If you look at it that way, if you look at a problem as a challenge, you will come up with a solution.

There's a story about going to a class of young children and asking these young kids, "Who can write an opera? A symphony? Be a high ranking leader, a politician, an astronaut, a doctor, a president?"

And what happens? The whole class, they put their hands up because they don't know what can't be done. They haven't learned that yet. It's all possible. Ask the same questions of that same class five years later, 10 years later, 20 years later and what happens? The hands start going down. Why is that? Because they've been poisoned by this thing called "I can't." They think they already know what's not possible and that's the killer.

I've always tried to be that little kid with his hand in the air. It really works to be that naïve, to really think you can do anything.

I've risked signing myself up for jobs I've had no qualifications for whatsoever, but just had passion for them. And you figure out a way to do it and before I knew it, for example, I was writing my own movie scores for a 100-piece orchestra and I can't even read or write music. It's like there's always a way. You just have to keep your hand up. It's really that simple. You can do anything.

Robert Rodriguez with President Powers
Robert Rodriguez, wearing his trademark western hat with a graduation tassel, stands with President Powers and Pamela Willeford, president of Texas Exes.Photo: Christina Murrey

There's so much ahead of you and your future, your ideal future, is absolutely something you can create for yourself.

Fellow UT graduates of 2009. Since we are graduating together you can now consider me part of your peer group. Because I'm going to be watching you. The eyes of Rodriguez are upon you because I do want you to do your best. It's what you need and it's what this world needs.

So, since we're classmates, I'm going to give you my Twitter address (@RobertRdz). That way we can keep tabs on each other. I'll be updating it regularly. I hope to hear from you, too. . .

This degree means more to me than any award because an award is something that's given to you and a degree is something you went out and earned. So, you earned it my fellow graduates.

But, do not leave here full. Leave here hungry, hungry for knowledge, hungry to continue learning and to be a student for life.

Today is really the end of one form of education, but the beginning of another.

There's a reason it's called commencement.

Let's not wait to begin though. Let's start now.

Please stand up.

Who can make anything happen? Raise your hand. Keep it up. Now make a fist.

Index finger out! Pinky finger out!

Repeat after me!

Hook 'em, Horns! Hook 'em, Horns! Hook 'em, Horns!

Thank you. Good night.

For more information, contact: Robert D. Meckel, Office of the President, 512 475 7847.

31 Comments to "Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez Speaks to Graduating Students at The University of Texas at Austin Spring Commencement"

1.  Alicia Guera said on May 27, 2009


2.  Sally Leach said on May 29, 2009

I think it is wonderful that The University of Texas at Austin broke the mold and got Robert Rodriguez as commencement speaker. He is certainly the ultimate optimist and probably just what this class needs at this time. Congratulations to the one/committee who had the good idea.

3.  josh said on May 30, 2009

This speech changed my life.

4.  Vinay said on May 31, 2009

Wow, that was very inspirational. I'll always be raising my hand in the air from now on because I know that for whatever challenge comes ahead of me, I can do it!

5.  Juan said on June 4, 2009

As a fellow alum (class of '99), it fills me with pride to hear some of my very own thoughts being delivered during this inspirational speech. Robert is absolutely correct in stating that we should strive to be students of life, and for life. If we do not, then we are just merely existing. Hook 'em, Horns, and keep holding that hand up!

6.  Teresa Cruz Kypuros said on June 4, 2009

The speech got better as I kept reading my newsletter link. Adelante (in this context, "praise"/"kudos") to the committee that made this nontraditional selection. Arriba con mis Horns y Roberto!

7.  E. Starr said on June 4, 2009

As a graduate's parent, I truly didn't know what to anticipate from Mr. Rodriquez's speech. Upon completion, I was utterly amazed at the words of wisdom that Robert Rodriguez imparted. His message was precise, sincere and motivational beyond belief. His words had me wanting to keep my hand raised, taking my life experiences and turning them to positives ... remaining challenged no matter at what age. Thank you, UT, for the unique speaker you invited to this 2009 commencement.

8.  Jim Gilbert '73 said on June 4, 2009

What were you thinking having this kind of a speech at commencement? Whatever it was, keep thinking it! How appropriate in a time of such uncertainty to have such a view both on life and education.

9.  Bill Bellamy said on June 4, 2009

When I saw the lead for this article, my initial reaction was, "Who is Robert Rodriguez and can't UT come up with a more prominent speaker than that for commencement?" Boy, was I ever wrong (and perhaps a bit out of touch)! The speaker was relevant, the message was magnificent, and Mr. Rodriguez comes across as a real person with whom a student/new graduate can identify and draw inspiration.

10.  Zeb said on June 4, 2009

Awesome speech. Great idea to have him speak.

11.  Maria Rangel said on June 4, 2009

Great speech. Very motivating. Always saw Rodriguez as a down-to-earth type of guy. Just from what I would read. His speech said it all, very sincere, from the heart and so grateful he shared. Most of all how he spoke of his parents.

12.  jason abernathy said on June 4, 2009

While other institutions of higher learning got the Clintons, the Obamas and the Bidens to speak at commencement, The University of Texas at Austin can only manage to get Robert Rodriguez? I read the text of his speech, and it sounded terrible. He spoke in simple sentences and didn't inspire me in the least. I wish the university would strive for a bit more and seek out intellectuals for commencement speeches in the future.

13.  J. Wu '92 said on June 4, 2009

That was a very good speech and inspirational for every student in life. I forwarded the Web link to my 8-year-old daughter after reading through it. I am sure she and I will have a very good discussion. Thanks a lot!

14.  Bre '03 said on June 4, 2009

Very inspirational speech! It was great to see this speech given by someone of such creativity and commitment to his career and profession, and someone who has worked extremely hard to ensure his success, not depending on others. This country needs to be inspired right now and motivated to continue learning. Jason Abernathy, why would you want to hear a sterile, politically slanted speech from someone in Washington (that you can hear almost every day when you turn on the news), when you can listen to a speech from someone from this great state who has worked so hard for what he has and has a fresh outlook on life! You should read the content of his speech, not critique it for being composed of simple sentences. Thanks, UT Austin!

15.  Shannon '02 said on June 4, 2009

Awesome speech, Robert! His speech was so inspiring, so true, so sincere. This is someone these new graduates can relate to, and I'm thrilled UT gave him the chance to be the not-so-traditional commencement speaker. Hook 'em!

16.  Maria de Leon said on June 4, 2009

Wow! What an inspiration. This is exactly the message young graduates need to hear in our economy. Too often individuals set limits on what they can accomplish for fear of failure. In my opinion and as stated by commencement speaker Robert Rodriguez, failure gets us to the next level, success is in the cards. And, yes, by all means, surround yourself with successful people, brilliant people, people who inspire you and challenge you. Great job, commencement committee, great speaker!

17.  UT-Mom said on June 4, 2009

I am so grateful I was able to be there for my youngest daughter's graduation from the School of Nursing, and heard Robert Rodriquez's commencement address to the Class of 2009. After hearing such an inspiring speech, I am more determined than ever to go back and finally finish what I started at UT more than 40 years ago!

18.  Melissa Cowley said on June 4, 2009

Wow. I must express how during the commencement speech I was in awe with EVERY word I was hearing from Robert Rodriguez. I was fantastic to hear, not only for me as a parent, but for my graduating son. Afterward, while we were taking pictures, I heard many, many students say how they thought that was the best thing that they could of heard. Thank you to Robert for "keeping it real." I think the students needed to hear some reality from someone other than their parents. (When it comes from someone else, our children tend to listen more closely!) This is a world of uncertainty, and it was just what the "Longhorn" ordered! Thank you for affirming once again that we made the right decision on The University of Texas at Austin for undergrad, and now we look forward to the graduate program. How are you going to top that one? Hook 'em, Horns, forever.

19.  Yolie D. said on June 5, 2009

Que Dios te bendiga, Roberto. Dios es muy grande para dar te un talenta muy hermoso. Ya es tiempo que los hispanos salen por siempre adelante. Es bueno para dar gracias a tu padres y familia, eso es tu fuerza. Que bueno es para ser hispana.

20.  Neila Holland said on June 5, 2009

As a graduate parent beaming with happiness in the audience, I thought that Mr. Rodriguez's speech was awesome, inspirational and entertaining. HIs life experience is a good example for the young grads. Cheers for Mr. Rodriguez.
Neila Holland

21.  Mickey Grasty said on June 5, 2009

Great choice, great message, appropriate for the times. I was fortunate to be one of the 20,000 in attendance. Cay you provide a link to the video/audio of the speech, as it would be much more compelling than reading the transcript?

22.  Roger Williams said on June 5, 2009

I am not a UT grad, did not attend the ceremony and have never met Robert. However, I do personally know his parents and attend church with them here in San Antonio. It's obvious to me where Robert obtained his drive and commitment to excellence. Way to go, Rodriguez family (especially Robert)! Your message has and will continue to inspire many.

23.  Irma Solorio said on June 5, 2009

It was wonderful to read Mr. Rodriguez's commencement speech for the graduating class of 2009. What an inspiration! And how timely in this economic turmoil. Mr. Rodriguez is right. We must never lose the desire to learn and be challenged in and by life. Thank you very much for sharing, Mr. Rodriguez, and thank you to the UT committee that selected him to be the commencement speaker. I look forward to someone as good for my daughter's graduation next spring. Muy agradecida!

24.  Glynda Harrell Eschle said on June 6, 2009

I graduated in the spring of 1963. I do not remember any part of the commencement address. I believe i would remember this one. Very memorable.

25.  Tracy Garrison-Feinberg said on June 6, 2009

What a wonderful speech! So glad that Robert Rodriguez was the commencement speaker--I used to read his comic in the Daily Texan, and I remember seeing El Mariachi at Dobie and thinking, "whoa!" Nicely done--great advice to the class of 2009! Hook 'em!

26.  Correll Corbett said on June 8, 2009

My family have been longhorns for as long as I can remember and my son, as well. I am still on the orange parent network even though my son officially graduated this past year. I do not remember the commencement address being posted in this newsletter. We only attended the liberal arts graduation last year. As my son has just finished his second degree, we are going through the same things as the new graduates, again. Mr. Rodriguez is correct, it is a depressed job market, but from this vantage point, it can be looked at as an opportunity to be more creative and how often does this happen? So, as a concerned parent, this approach has helped to inspire and remind me of this opportunity. As a teacher, I needed to be reminded of this as well. I plan to pass this speech on to my son in hopes that he will see the inspiration in it, too. This speech was a good example that longhorns can be supportive of each other and build a network, not just the aggies.
Thank you!

27.  Dana said on June 8, 2009

When I was working for the Daily Texan, I remember Robert as the guy who only came in to turn in his episode of Los Hooligans each week. He was incredibly hard working even then. Any of us could have done it if we had just gone out and started making movies and not thought "I can't. I'm not ready." It's inspiring to see the success of somone who could see beyond grades and timetables for graduation.

28.  Charles Gentry said on June 8, 2009

My daughter graduated from UT as did I. We just attended her commencement for her masters at Columbia in NYC. Rodriguez' speech was by far a very real, instructive, encouraging and inspirational address. I am impressed by the innovative and very current choice of The University and even moreso impressed by the speech. As a fellow San Antonian - muchas gracias, Robert! Go Horns!

29.  Joe S. - BBA, 1974 said on June 16, 2009

After waiting out the storms in the doorway of Battles Hall, we were thrilled as the sun lit up the tower as only it can. We felt there was someone opening the clouds on the crowd. The speeches were great, and Robert's was especially motivating. Truer words could not have been spoken. Congratulations to all of the graduates and welcome to the world of forever being a Longhorn.

Remember Robert's closing words... -
"Raise your hand. Keep it up. Now make a fist. Index finger out! Pinky finger out!
Repeat after me!
Hook 'em, Horns! Hook 'em, Horns! Hook 'em, Horns!"

30.  Xavier Gonzalez Jr. said on June 23, 2009

A very inspirational, encouraging, motivating and moving commencement speech, and so true...a student for life. Hook 'em!

31.  Greg Rodriguez said on June 23, 2009

As Robert's uncle and strong admirer, I am amazed by his talents, good humor, intelligence, and above all, his family values. He will continue to inspire millions and we, as an American society, are so fortunate to have a great filmmaker in our midst.