A Few Hopeful Words About Failure for the Class of 2020

My dad is a doctor by training, but if you ask me, I would say that he was a teacher for most of his life. At least, that is what he has been to me, my sister, and my brother for the last five decades.

Over the years, he has never asked me to do much for him except for one thing. He has always wanted to publish some of his parenting wisdom so that he could be remembered. This is why, with a graduation season rapidly approaching that may not have many ceremonies, I am doing what he has always done for me: showing the way.

My dad has always shown me the way. (Melissa Milsten)

My dad has always shown me the way

Pop Pop, this one’s for you.

I know how much you enjoy public speaking and are committed to teaching your kids and grandkids until the end. You have even written lectures and fantasized about delivering them to audiences much bigger than our family.

And what follows is one of them. A thoughtfully drafted commencement speech that you are simply waiting to deliver. Since the oldest of your grandkids is at least five years away from walking across the stage for a diploma (hopefully!), I thought that I would help speed things up for you.

I know you would like nothing more than to be in front of a crowd, saying these words out loud. Instead, you’ll have to settle for me helping you get them out to the broader world, trusting that the Internet is a thing and that, with some luck, more graduates than you could wish for may benefit from them.

Graduation speech on failure

Here goes:

To our graduates: I bet many of you expect this to be a long and drawn-out address, as many tend to be. Let me reassure you that this won’t be one of them.

Many of you may expect me to focus on your future and the success that you will have, what it means, and how to achieve it, like so many commencements understandably do. This won’t be one of those speeches.

I want to talk about failure and wish you a lot of it in the future. You heard correctly, even amid our current circumstances: I want to tell you about many failures.

Because on your paths to success, and let me reassure you that those paths are still out there, all of you will experience failure and disappointment just as I have in my eighty-plus years of living. And failure is a necessary part of your journey. Everyone successful has stumbled many times over.

Famous people who’ve failed

Babe Ruth. Ruth is well known because of his home run record in baseball. For decades, though, he also held the record for strikeouts. When asked about this, he said, “Every strike brings me closer to my next home run.”

Dr. Seuss. Also known as Theodor Seuss Geisel before becoming known by tens of millions of children and their parents. His first book, To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was rejected by 43 publishers. Forty-three. Rejections. I do not like them. Sam-I-am.

Winston Churchill. Winner of the Nobel Prize. Credited with saving England during WWII. Yet, he was defeated in every election for public office until he finally became Prime Minister at age 62. But 62 is the new 80, as I am now told.

Thomas Edison was literally and figuratively in the dark after 999 unsuccessful attempts to discover the light bulb. And, yet, history tells us that he did not see his failures as a waste of time. Instead, he believed they only proved 999 ways that would not work until he came up with the one that did.

And, finally, there is Michael Jordan. Arguably, the greatest basketball player of all time once said:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I have been trusted to take over the winning game shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

Just as these legends before you discovered, you will find that when an outcome matches your expectation, you don’t learn as much as when it doesn’t. When an outcome differs from what you expected, you are more likely to learn and grow. History has shown you will know more from failure than success.

Advice for the Class of 2020 about your future failures:

1. Don’t let them throw you off track. Don’t let them derail you so that you lose sight of your initial goal.

2. Pay attention to them. Do not ignore them. Do not be indifferent to them. Being indifferent means having passed up an opportunity to move toward success. Do not be the athlete once asked by his coach why he was not playing up to his potential. When the coach asked, “Son, what is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?” The player replied, “Coach, I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

Instead, ask yourself, “What went wrong?” “What could I have done to avoid making a mistake?” “What will I do to avoid repeating it?”

3. Don’t let the disappointment that often comes with failure upset you so much that you give up and decide to pursue something easier and more attainable. Playing it safe doesn’t lead to greatness.

4. Do not beat yourself up for making mistakes. Instead, own them. Being too hard on yourself is self-destructive and a waste of time; you need your reputation to preserve your credibility and trustworthiness.

5. Do not let failure curtail your dreams. Do not become a non-dreamer. Non-dreamers are without plans because they are mired in their thinking and not in pursuit of a goal.

At the same time, do not become a nocturnal dreamer — someone who only lets their wildest wishes come to life when they close their eyes. Unless you want to sleepwalk your way through life, I don’t suggest this. Instead, choose to be a dream-chaser. Be excited about something and work to make it happen.

6. Recognize that when it comes to accomplishment, progress, and success, there are three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened. A dream-chaser will make things happen.

7. Understand this: failure leads to good judgment by teaching you what you must do differently next time.

8. Just as if things had gone well, graciously learn to accept the constructive criticism and suggestions from others that accompany failure.

9. Believe in yourself. If you don’t, no one else will.

10. Remember this: only the mediocre are always at their best.

And, even if it is not the one you imagined, you are all at your best on this fine day.

So, today, in addition to becoming graduates, I invite you to become dream chasers and take risks in your pursuit of them.

I wish you every success and some failures along the way.

Good luck!”

Dad, thank you for these wise words and for being there for me; for all of my successes, and especially for my failures.

More to Read:

I Thought Having Three Toddlers Was Hard, Then I Had Three Teens

Eight Things We All Feel In Our Forties

About Melissa Milsten

Melissa Milsten lives in Westchester, New York with her husband, their four teenagers and Ruby the dog (who is sometimes the best behaved member of the family). Her background is in publishing and marketing. When she isn’t working or parenting, you might spot her on a yoga mat or lacing up a pair of sneakers. You can read more about her here

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