At the beginning of Associated Students, Inc.’s (ASI) “For the Love of Joy” Feb. 13, the audience was given a sheet of paper with two questions to answer: “What has been one of the most painful struggles you’ve experienced?” and “What has brought you the most joy in your life?”
Keynote speakers and viral media empire SoulPancake founders Rainn Wilson, known for playing Dwight Schrute in “The Office,” and Shabnam Mogharabi covered many topics during the event, but they said their main message was finding happiness even in the most vulnerable and uncomfortable situations in an interview with Mustang News.
On the topic of being uncomfortable, Wilson shared a story from one of the most difficult times in his life to a crowd of 800 people in Chumash Auditorium, according to ASI Events. When he was cast for his first Broadway play in New York, Wilson said he thought it was his big break. Shortly after beginning rehearsals, however, it became one of the worst times in his life.
“I got so wrapped up in all of these weird idol thoughts, idol fantasies and egotistical kind of thoughts that created a tremendous amount of pressure to succeed and be great in this role,” Wilson said.
He said the pressure caused him to forget nearly everything he learned from his theater education as critics tore him apart.
“It was my first Broadway play and I was terrible,” Wilson said. “I got terrible reviews. People really thought that I was miscast.”
He fired his agents after the performance and decided to remain authentic to himself as an actor. His biggest failure became his largest victory.
“I would have never gotten the role as Dwight had I not gone through that excruciating experience,” Wilson said.
He said that throughout his life, he has been very thankful for the comfort being an artist has provided for him.
“I feel really lucky to be trained in that way, because no matter what happens if I get fired or if I never work again as an actor, or people hate my work and everything falls apart in my life, I can make things,” said Wilson in an interview with Mustang News. “I can tell stories and I can make things that are interesting. That’s a salvation for me.”
He said that he hopes SoulPancake will inspire creativity in it’s predominantly young audience.
“SoulPancake isn’t necessarily a venue for me to express my artistry or my aesthetic, but it is a venue to inspire other young artists to be creative, to think of themselves of artists. To ignite them, and their imaginations in a fresh new way.”
SoulPancake’s YouTube series Kid President, featuring a young boy named Robby Novak, is one of their most viral projects.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that [Novak] has a brittle bone condition called Osteogenesis Imperfecta,” Mogharabi said. “What that means is that his bones just break way more easily than anyone else’s. He’s had about 80 breaks in his life.”
Mogharabi said that despite Novak’s condition, he is as positive as he presents himself in the viral videos. She said sharing positivity despite hardships in life is what the company aims to represent.
“If [Novak] can have that perspective in his life and that attitude, then there is nothing in my life that should keep me from having that perspective,” Mogharabi said. “The whole way that the Kid President was born was because a grownup said, ‘This kid has so many challenges, and if he can be joyful, then so can I.'”
Mogharabi said her mission to improve the world through SoulPancake was greatly inspired by her family’s influence growing up.
“I grew up in a Persian family, a first-born child of immigrants, and so I was also told to achieve something awesome and be of service to the world while doing it,” Mogharabi said.
When asked what advice he would give his college self, Wilson said it is crucial young adults remain curious and question what they are told to consume.
“Don’t buy into the matrix,” Wilson said. “In other words, do you remember in ‘The Matrix’ when the guy sells out his friends and they set him up as a rockstar and he’s eating the steak and he goes, ‘Man, I know that this is an illusion, but it tastes so good and it’s unbelievable, but I know it’s all an illusion?’ That’s kinda how the world is right now.”
Although Mogharabi and Wilson both said current society has its issues, Mogharabi said she has still found joy in her life, especially within her work with SoulPancake. She said she frequently receives feedback that SoulPancake is making a difference in people’s lives.
“My favorite part of my job isn’t the millions of views,” Mogharabi said. “The best part of my job is seeing the emails or comments where people say, ‘This video changed my life,’ ‘This video saved my life,’ ‘I never would’ve talked to my dad had I not seen this video.’ I mean, really beautiful things, and that kind of service that we can do for the world.”
At the end of the evening, the sheets of paper that each audience member filled out were folded into paper airplanes and flown throughout Chumash Auditorium. Members of the audience picked up a new plane and read it aloud to acknowledge another person’s largest struggle and source of joy.
Alumna Joanna Phillips said she found both the event and the company very inspiring. She said the campus could benefit from more of the positivity and inclusivity that SoulPancake represents.
“I think that we should definitely be spreading more empathy, especially on this campus,” Phillips said. “If you see someone sitting alone studying, invite them over. That was always huge for me.”
Wilson said his book “SoulPancake: Chew on Life’s Big Questions” was directed toward college students to inspire social change.
“College students have the ability to think for themselves and think clearly, and when rebellions start, they always start with the college kids,” Wilson said. “This isn’t necessarily an angry rebellion of flipping cars and going down streets. It’s not that kind of rebellion, it’s a different kind of rebellion. It’s a spiritual rebellion, to see the world for the way it really is and what humanity, sharing this globe together, what humanity really needs.”