Shakespeare wrote “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”
Over the past several years in the classroom, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. Students are so afraid to fail that they don’t even try. Having taught in higher ed for more than a decade, I can honestly say I’ve sat through way too many graduation ceremonies, most of them outdoors. It’s not so much the unpredictable weather that was insufferable but the speeches and platitudes. You can only listen to so many versions of “you are the future” before wanting to gouge out your own eyes. So, to help celebrate this graduation season I thought I would share some of my favorite commencement speeches that I’ve found online. You’ll notice a theme here: failure.
Here’s J.K. Rowling talking to a Harvard graduating class, emphasizing the importance of failure and creativity:
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David McCullough Jr.
And here’s Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr.’s faculty speech to the Class of 2012 where he tells these kids they’re not special.
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This is another one of my favorites. It’s Steve Jobs addressing the Stanford 2005 graduates. Here he also talked about the importance of failure in his career.
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Here Conan O’Brien tells graduates at Dartmouth that life isn’t fair. Deal with it. And he talks about how failure can be liberating and the most important thing that can happen to you.
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I experienced a sort of failure about a year ago, that led me to leave a decade long teaching career, and a professional identity that I believed I would have for many more years. But it is that supposed failure that led to one of the most rewarding years of my life. It lead to starting The Costume Wrangler’s Closet and a whole new dream of helping folks celebrate who they are and not who they think they should be. So, if I were to say anything to graduating classes of 2014, it’s that failure sucks. It hurts. It can be devastating. But it can also give you the greatest, most liberating opportunity to redefine yourself, to reevaluate who you are and where you’re going. So don’t fear failure so much that you never try anything new.