A quick scan of the star-studded 2011 college commencement key-note speaker line-up discloses an interesting trend. Seems like everybody wants to talk about failure. Usually commencement speeches are all positivity and light. They tend to be about how new graduates have the world in their hands; how anything is possible; how they, the freshly educated and trialed-by-fire scholars, must move on to be the new world leaders. So why, in Heaven's name, would so many of the aged and sage graduation key-noters dwell on things gone wrong? How is it that suddenly failure is a good thing?
In Conan O’Brien’s now famous Dartmouth speech this year, he said:
There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized .... Whether you fear it or not, true disappointment will come. But with disappointment comes clarity, conviction and true originality.
Denzel Washington’s message includes some of his own failures and a very strong directive to the huge University of Pennsylvania audience:
Every graduate here today has the training and talent to succeed, but do you have the guts to fail? If you don’t fail, you’re not even trying.
Samantha Powers, Special Assistant to President Obama, not only extolled the importance of failure at Occidental’s graduation ceremony, but she noted that failure was the focus of the Class Day key-note speech the day before.
Thomas Cobb told Rhode Island College grads:
When I told my friends that I was going to speak today about failure, a few were happy to remind me of some of mine. And I’ve had a lot. And I don’t mind being reminded of that. I’m proud of my failures. Montaigne said, "There are defeats more triumphant than victories."
Failure is a mark of progress; success is the end of progress.
And Dr. Jennifer Redig shared with the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine a quote by George Bernard Shaw:
A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.
Even business leaders who addressed graduates spoke about failure. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told students at Babson College in Massachusetts to "fail spectacularly." And Barbara Desoer, president of Bank of America Home Loans, encouraged MBA grads at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business to embrace risk and view challenges as opportunity. Similarly, Steve Poizner, Engineer, entrepreneur and former Insurance Commissioner of California, implored University of Texas’ Cockrell School students to take a risk and choose paths other than the safe ones.
And finally, in Michelle Obama’s speech to Spelman University’s all woman graduates, she focused on the school founders’ tradition of overcoming moments of defeat when she told graduates that they had an “obligation to see each set- back as a challenge and as an opportunity to learn and grow.”
For the graduates of 2011, the college years have likely been much more challenging than their parents’-- financial aid more difficult to secure, internships and jobs harder to come by and less financial support from home. Many students left for college while their families were in crisis -— perhaps a jobless parent or a down-sized household. Many didn’t have the luxury of leaving for the same reasons. Some of these students had to delay their college entrance to help with family finances, to step in for ailing parents or grandparents who could not afford health care or assistance with chronic illness or simply because not enough money in scholarships came through. In addition, an increased number of students have had to stop out from college once they’d already begun and delay graduation because of similar set-backs. The drop-out rate for first and second year students has risen to 24.5%, meaning that currently nearly one-quarter of entering freshmen do not return to school their sophomore years. The college experience, in these years of our current economic woes, simply has not been the cushy, insulated playground of yore.
Studies show that college freshmen report the highest level of stress and depression in history. And that stress and depression are on the rise for all students, largely due to economic limitations. Profound economic and family concerns make college study much more challenging. The demands on a college student to work, budget her money and her time and study are more than just tough in this environment.
In all, this year’s college graduates have likely experienced some profound forms of failure during their college years. At the very least, they have been surrounded by it. And so it follows that the tone of commencement events would be one of celebration, yes. But also an acknowledgment that times are difficult. And that in the midst of individual and collective struggle, it’s helpful to be reminded that there is hope and significant value in these past and future failures. As these graduates enter a post-grad job market that is tight and competitive, it is also fitting that they be encouraged to harness their hardships and view them as assets and not obstacles. As Samantha Powers stated in her speech, “ ... one of the greatest dangers of life after college is making the certainty of success a prerequisite for trying something new.” At a time when there are so few opportunities that offer “certainty of success,” this is an important message -— to be brave and brazen, anyway.
Interestingly, the last time there was a rash of commencement failure speeches was 2008. Though not all of the 2008 commencement speeches were all about failure, like this year, many made mention of the importance of failure’s lessons and two of the most high profile and most talked-about speeches were centered on the value of failing. J.K. Rowlings offered to Harvard’s 2008 graduating class a speech that is considered by many to be an all-time classic. In her address, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination,” (which really is a must-read!) Rowlings said:
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all -– in which case, you fail by default.
The other big failure speech of 2008 was Oprah Winfrey’s address at Stanford. Everyone loves to hear a mega-success admit that she made some missteps and that her record is not without some blemishes. This is what Oprah’s speech has to offer. She discusses how being fired from what she thought was her "dream job" led to her landing her dream calling. In addition, she offers a little advice:
If things go wrong, you hit a dead end -— as you will -— it's just life's way of saying time to change course. So, ask every failure -— this is what I do with every failure, every crisis, every difficult time -— I say, what is this here to teach me? And as soon as you get the lesson, you get to move on.
Even in one of the very last appearances of the late professor Randy Pausch’s, author of The Last Lecture, failure is a theme. Speaking to Carnegie-Mellon's 2008 class, the school from which he retired when he got his diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer, he said:
I assure you I have done some really stupid things and none of them bother me. All the mistakes and all the dopey things and all of the times I was embarrassed -— they don’t matter. What matters is that I can kinda look back and say pretty much anytime I got a chance to do something cool, I tried to grab for it. And that’s where my solace comes from.”
These speeches by hugely successful and highly regarded people reflect a pivotal time. That year, 2008, was when we started to call our national financial troubles a “financial crisis.” We were already on high alert from the year before when the “housing bubble burst” -— rampant mortgage defaults and foreclosures. But then in 2008, we all watched as our banks began to fail -— big banks, like Washington Mutual, and large investment banking firms, like Bear Stearns and later, Lehman Brothers. In 2008, over 25 banks went under, some as early as January. These failures did not just shake our national economic foundation but informed us all that our country’s economic state was far worse than we imagined. We suspected that the financial crisis was going to be deep and long lasting. In times like these, everyone needs to know that there is hope and redemption, especially when failure happens despite our best efforts.
And so as the 2011 graduates emerge from their college years, into perhaps an adult world fraught with new challenges, at least they have been comforted at commencement by reminders that their difficulties will contribute to their successes and that their college learning has not just been in books and classrooms, but in their personal lives -— how they have learned to cope with the myriad difficulties they have had to face. Fortunately for all of us, these 2011 graduates are an optimistic bunch!
Gina Carroll is author of 24 Things You can Do With Social Media to Help get Into College, also blogs at Think Act Parent and Tortured By Teenagers