Success in Failure
General studies commencement, Weber State University
May 6, 2005
Today is a good day. Here you all are, all gussied up in funny robes and with all these people and – I have it on good authority – there will be cookies and punch at the end of all of this. So, clearly, this is all very important.
For me, my own graduation ranks right up there with a wedding and a couple of kids being born. And I feel especially fortunate that I get to come to these things and witness that kind of accomplishment in all of you. This is all being put together to acknowledge the fact that you have done something truly outstanding. You’ve succeeded.
We put a lot of emphasis on this thing called success. It is, after all, what brings us here today. But I have to tell you, I think success is overrated. Sure, it feels good, and you deserve the special recognition. But, for me, failure is really where it’s at.
I’m not just saying this because I teach in the sciences. I really think that failure gets a bad rap. After all, what’s the point of having you show up and do a bunch of stuff that you already know how to succeed at, things that you’re already good at? When I look back on my own education, I realize that it’s the events that really shook me, confused me, and kicked me around that really made me learn something. In fact, those confusions made me who I am.
For me, it was an acting class that really perplexed me. How was I supposed to be someone other than myself? I was awful at being other people. But I got better, even though it was one of the most difficult experiences ever for me. I know now that I’m better at being me than I ever would have been had I never risked failure and learned to act like someone else.
So now, I’m delighted to work at an institution whose mission is to make thousands of students continually risk failure and do things that they are not necessarily good at to begin with. The act of learning becomes meaningful in light of all of the challenges.
For all of you, there has been a wide assortment of challenges, hardships, and confusions. Academically, you had to factor polynomials, you had to construct a persuasive argument, you had to uncover hidden information for a research paper, and you may have even had to change your mind at some point. In one of my classes, you may have had to find the moon in the middle of the day or measure the size of Earth with a straw and a piece of string, and I was delighted that this seemed impossible to you. I’m delighted that it seemed impossible, and yet, you’re here now.
Education injects into your life that extra bit of something that pushes you to do the things you never imagined. Just the other day, as I was prompting a student to finish her exam, she called me – and I apologize in advance for this bit of profanity – a “butthead”. She didn’t mean it, it just came out; but it pointed out just how “on edge” she had been pushed. As teachers, we get to see this all the time. We get to witness your inspiring acts of learning and perseverance. For example:
- There was the student who turned in a final exam in an early morning, 7:00 AM session, and then showed me the wristband that identified him at the hospital as a 4 hour old dad;
- There was the student who excused herself from class to vomit, and later told me it wasn’t the lecture, but the chemotherapy;
- There was the student whose mom died, while he was attending my lab, but he returned three days later and asked what he could do to make up the missed work. Incidentally, he went on to become our most important member of society: An eighth grade teacher.
The lot of you have fallen in love, done assignments incorrectly, gotten married, failed an exam, had children, crashed a car, crashed a computer, dropped a course, dropped a minus sign, gone through a divorce, had flooded basements, tripped on a curb, fallen out of love . . . the lists goes on. It is all of these things – the relationships and hard work and the hardships and confusions and failure – that we really learn from.
So I truly congratulate you. I admire you. And I wish you very very well, not in your future successes, but in all of your future confusions, hardships, and failures. Keep up the good work.