Prepare to Fail: Practical Advice for the Graduating Class of 2018
Even the sound of it fills us with fear. One single, seemingly insignificant letter has literally dictated your life for as long as you can remember. It instills upon us a Pavlovian-type of response. We grimace when we hear it. We wince when we see it. We feel relief when other, equally insignificant letters take its place. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we have created a whole range of emotional responses to this one, single letter. Because this one single letter came to represent so much of who we are and what we were able to accomplish. It's not the letter we feared, but rather what it represented.
And what it represented was failure. Abject, debilitating failure. When this letter reared its angry head, it told us that we personally had failed to meet expectations. Not only that, but it told us that we were inadequate and unintelligent. It told us that didn't understand the material that had been presented to us and that we were miles away from mastery. We saw our peers stay clear of this scarlet letter of shame and we wondered what was wrong with us. Why didn't we get it? Were we really that dumb?
This nefarious letter not only messed with our psyche but there were also very real consequences in our daily lives due to its appearance. Some of us were denied time to play video games or watch TV. Others of us were denied the opportunity to see our favorite band or singer in concert. Others still faced forced isolation or what some of us might call "being grounded." And there were even those who were denied access to their own personal motorized vehicle, a fate worse than death for those of us who were punished in this way during our late teenage years.
Through all these horrific consequences, perhaps the most difficult of all was the inevitable conversation we had with the people sitting in the audience behind us today. We were interrogated as to our study habits, our motivations, our hopes, our dreams, and our aspirations all while simultaneously being asked how or why we were inflicting such harm upon our poor, caring loved ones. Promises were made. Compromises were reached. Support systems were identified and activated. In the end, we emerged with a new perspective. Some might have called it newfound motivation, others may have called it newfound fear. Regardless, we all surfaced from our first encounter with this fiendish letter to vow to never feel that way again.
So we changed our wicked ways. We asked more questions in class. We sought out extra credit. We joined study groups. We scoured the internet for additional material. We stayed after school. We passed up the big social event to prepare for the big test. We did whatever it took to avoid seeing that diabolical letter again.
For many of us, it worked. For some of us, it didn't. Regardless of how effective our newfound approach was, in the end, we all managed to make it here today. The good news is that for those not pursuing additional degrees, you no longer have to worry about that odious letter. You are free of that letter and the failure that it represents. From this point forward, the letter F can resume its role as one of 26 letters with no particular importance or significance. The stigma associated with the letter can slowly recede into the depths of memory of your formative education. From this point forward, you'll never again have to think about failing in an academic setting.
Instead, you can now fail at life and have fun while doing it.
Now, I know what you're thinking. You've spent the past dozen-plus years avoiding failure and that god-forsaken letter associated with it. You're here today because you did as little failing as possible. There are those that began this journey with you who aren't here because they repeatedly failed in an academic setting. And yet, I can and I will stand here today before you and encourage you to fail. Repeatedly. Because it is in failure that we learn the most about ourselves.
Think back to the resolution you acquired when you failed. Think about the sacrifices you made. Do you remember all the papers and projects when you got an A? Probably not. But you remember those F's. You remember your errors much more than your successes. During my elementary school years, I remember competing every year in the annual spelling bee. I must have spelled dozen of words correctly. But the only words I remember? Bailiff and dumbbell. Both of those I misspelled. Both of those I learned how to spell correctly after having failed in a very public way.
But finding learning in failure goes beyond the classroom. Now that you're free of the constraints of viewing failure as a negative, allow me to share some real-life examples of this. Some of history's most important figures have not only failed but they have used that failure to drive them to success. Many of us know about Michael Jordan and his failure to make his sophomore varsity basketball team. Some of us know about Steve Jobs and his repeated failures during the early days of Apple. There are a few of us who know that Barack Obama lost his 2000 race for Congress by over 30 points. And there is even a handful of us who know that famed inventor Thomas Edison was once quoted as saying, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
In my own professional life, I too, have failed. I taught for two years at a struggling middle school and failed to help turn it around. I taught at three separate charter schools in San Diego and failed to make the kind of difference I wanted to. I worked for a nonprofit and failed to win various campaigns. I worked as a field organizer in the most important election in our lifetime and lost the national, senatorial, and congressional race. And I currently work as a community organizer and have failed to prevent various members of our communities from being deported.
But in each failure, I learned. I learned about myself and what matters to me. I studied my own path and begin to understand my own personal story. I began to see that it is possible to have a rewarding career that challenges you on a daily basis. I found a resolve I never knew I had. In the months after the 2016 election, I felt alone, dejected, and worthless. I debated leaving organizing. Hell, I even briefly debated leaving the country. But I couldn't leave. Not with so many needing help. Not with that bitter taste of disappointment still in my mouth. Had I been successful, I would have had new and exciting opportunities. But I wouldn't have felt that fierce urgency that now drives my work each and every day.
And so, I use my own limited wisdom to share that message with you: fail. Fail in as many ways as humanly possible. Don't fail for the sake of failing, but see each failure as an opportunity for growth. Do this in all aspects of your life. Start in your personal life. Meet new people. Fail at meeting new people. Date new people. Fail at dating. Love new people. Fail at loving. Travel to new places. Fail at traveling. Find new hobbies. Fail at these new hobbies. Eat new foods. Fail at eating. Find a job you think will inspire, challenge, and excite you on a daily basis. Fail at that job. Use that failure to see if this is the kind of work where your failures can inspire you to do better each and every day moving forward.
Because that's what life beyond the classroom is all about. Learning to adapt. A large part of that adaptation will be how you handle your future failures. How do you respond to a missed rent payment? To a dropped phone with a broken screen? To an unsatisfactory job performance review? To a missed anniversary? To a child deliberately missing curfew? How do you adjust when life inevitably doesn't go the way you planned?
There are no easy answers to these questions. There never are. But the sooner you begin to see these situations as learning opportunities, the better off you'll be. Unlike what you've been told in your formal education, you aren't stupid simply because you failed. We all fail at something each and every day. Doctors fail at surgeries. Police fail at preventing robberies. Lawyers fail at convincing juries of their client's innocence or guilt. Administrative assistants fail at relaying messages. Actors and actresses flub their lines on set. Professional athletes miss the big shot. Teachers struggle to manage the rowdy student. Community organizers find difficulties in coordinating the campaign. For each person listed, how he or she responds to failure goes a long way in determining future success.
And so, I urge you all to both plan for and embrace these future failures. They will happen. They should happen. If you're not failing, you're never getting too far out of your comfort zone and are limiting your ceiling. Your true character is revealed through adversity and adversity often comes as a result of failure. But unlike with your education, these failures should not be viewed as debilitating. There are no F grades in life. Instead, there exist opportunities. Each professional failure provides an opportunity for learning and for growth. Without failure, there is no reason for innovation. Without innovation, we remain eternally stagnant.
In conclusion, I ask the class of 2018 to fail. Fail miserably. Fail spectacularly. Fail maddeningly. Fail wistfully. Fail whimsically. Fail painstakingly. Fail however you see fit and then own it. Own your failure. Admit it, learn from it, analyze it, fix it, and try it again. Repeat this routine for the next 40 years and you will have a recipe for success. And, on the accidental chance that you actually succeed, for all that is holy enjoy that too! Relish in those moments because they are most likely the result of a series of previous failures. Because nobody gets it right the first time. So when you finally get it right, acknowledge all the work that went into those previous attempts. And know that it was those previous failures that helped get you to where you needed to be.
Congratulations to the graduating class of 2018. Now, go out into the world and fail. And enjoy every single one of your failures.
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