If there’s one common thread amongst some of the best university commencement speeches out there, it’s failure. University, it turns out, is easy compared to the rest of life, and to prepare you for that, everyone from Denzel Washington to J.K. Rowling have dedicated their time in front of graduates to help us all remember that.
Image by Angelica Alzona/GMG.
J.K. Rowling: ‘Failure Meant Stripping Away the Inessential’
When you think about an author like J.K. Rowling, the first word that comes to your mind is probably not “failure”, but that’s exactly what she dedicated her 2008 commencement speech at Harvard to. Rowling even acknowledges the absurdity of such a topic given the privilege that comes from graduating at a university like Harvard, “Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.” She eventually delves into her own failures and why they’re so important to her:
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
Failure as freedom is an incredibly common theme in commencement speeches, and while Rowling glosses over that as merely a section in her longer points about failure, Conan O’Brien uses that as his entire thesis.
Conan O’Brien: ‘Your Perceived Failure Can Become a Catalyst for Profound Reinvention’
Where Rowling tackles her own personal struggles to share her advice to grads, Conan O’Brien details his very public experimentation after his ousting from The Tonight Show. Without failure, you have no reason to reinvent yourself, something that is far more necessary for creativity than most of us realise. O’Brien lays it out like so in his 2011 commencement speech at Dartmouth:
Way back in the 1940s there was a very, very funny man named Jack Benny. He was a giant star, easily one of the greatest comedians of his generation. And a much younger man named Johnny Carson wanted very much to be Jack Benny. In some ways he was, but in many ways he wasn’t. He emulated Jack Benny, but his own quirks and mannerisms, along with a changing medium, pulled him in a different direction. And yet his failure to completely become his hero made him the funniest person of his generation. David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and was not, and as a result my generation of comedians wanted to be David Letterman. And none of us are. My peers and I have all missed that mark in a thousand different ways. But the point is this: It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention.
There comes a time in everyone’s career, whether you’re in a creative field or not, where you have to step away and reassess what you’re doing. For many, that time is perfect for a massive retooling of your career path, where you can finally shake off the shackles of “where you thought you’d be” and take on the next step with a more open mind.
Ira Glass: ‘I Wish That Someone Had Said to Me That It’s Normal to Feel Lost for a Little While’
Speaking of taking those next steps, Ira Glass shares a story about his own self-doubt during his commencement speech at Goucher College in 2012:
I, I think, was as ambitious as any of you in this class. I was working at a network news show All Things Considered at the age of 20. And even I floundered. I floundered badly. I had one skill as a person in my 20s, and that is that. For whatever reason, I was a good editor; I was a very decent editor from the start. But for all the other things that make me decent at my job now — how to make a story, how to structure a story, how to find a story, how to report — I was a terrible, terrible writer. I was the kind of writer who writes a paragraph and then looks at it and thinks, “Oh no, now I’m going to move all the words around,” and then rewrites it over and over again.
I spent years in my 20s doing mediocre stories that should have taken days but, in fact, took me months. I spent years wondering if I should just learn to become a journalist by going to journalism school, by going to grad school. Instead — and this is just a little practical tip I simply decided… — I simply would take NPR reporters and pay them $50 to look at scripts I was working on, which was much cheaper than grad school.
As a performer on the air, I was a complete stiff; and I want to say that this is not some sort of weird, false modesty. Like, I was bad — there is proof of this on the internet. Google, and you’ll see it. I made very little money: My personal financial goal was “your age times a thousand”, which I did not achieve until I was in my 30s. For many years I made from $12,000 to $18,000. I have to say that it was very sobering for me to read in The New York Times last week (they had this series on college debt) that people get out of college with $900 a month in student loans that they have to pay. That was my entire income some years.
These days, it’s hard to imagine Glass as anything but poised, but it clearly took him years to get there, with plenty of failures along the way. Glass covers a lot of ground here, but the general idea is a nice reminder that you will not know what to do with your life until you try and fail at a few things. Even then, you will probably not end up where you think you will.
Aaron Sorkin: ‘The World Doesn’t Care How Many Times You Fall Down, As Long As It’s One Fewer Than the Number of Times You Get Back Up’
Like Ira Glass, it’s easy to look at someone like Aaron Sorkin and assume he just spontaneously exploded into the world as a perfect writer. Yet, in his commencement speech at Syracuse University in 2012, Sorkin details his own failures, the failures of those around him, and even his days of cocaine addiction. Those tidbits are bookmarked by two main points: You are dumb and you will fail, but nobody really cares:
And make no mistake about it, you are dumb. You’re a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people. I was there. We all were there. You’re barely functional. There are some screw-ups headed your way. I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they’re a-coming for ya. It’s a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb…
…Rehearsal’s over. You’re going out there now, you’re going to do this thing. How you live matters. You’re going to fall down, but the world doesn’t care how many times you fall down, as long as it’s one fewer than the number of times you get back up.
It is, as always, a nice reminder that all of us fail all the time. You just have to keep going.
Ursula K. Le Guin: ‘Success Is Somebody Else’s Failure’
Author Ursula K. Le Guin takes a different approach from most, reminding us that failure is not just something to learn from, it’s an experience to cherish. Here’s Le Guin speaking to Mills College in 1983:
Success is somebody else’s failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including 30 million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.
Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone and afraid.
What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalising culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.
It’s a darker speech, but even now, 34 years after she gave this commencement address, the question she raises are important to remember and to think about. Failure is perhaps not just the absence of success. It’s a place we all inhabit from time to time.
Denzel Washington: ‘If You Don’t Fail, You’re Not Even Trying’
Like others, Denzel Washington decided to dedicate his 2011 commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania to the idea of failure. Washington breaks it down into three different sections. First, you will fail at life. Second, doing so is a sign you’re on the right path:
Here’s my second point about failure, if you don’t fail, you’re not even trying. My wife told me this great expression, “To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did.” Les Brown, a motivational speaker, made an analogy about this. Imagine you’re on your deathbed and standing around your death bed are the ghosts representing your unfilled potential. The ghosts of the ideas you never acted on. The ghosts of the talents you didn’t use. And they’re standing around your bed angry, disappointed and upset. They say, “We came to you because you could have brought us to life,” they say. “And now we go to the grave together.” So I ask you today, “How many ghosts are going to be around your bed when your time comes?” You’ve invested a lot in your education and people invested in you. And let me tell you, the world needs your talents, man, does it ever.
Washington ends with the same sentiment that many commencement speakers take and one we’ve heard time and time again. “[Failure is] the best way to figure out where you’re going.”