Learning to Fail, or Getting Comfortable with the F-Word

Back in May, I was named as the winner of an annual teaching award at my school. It was an honor to be recognized for my work, but the best part, in my opinion, was that it allowed me a relatively unique opportunity. In recent years, it has become tradition for the winner of this particular award to deliver the address at our school’s Opening Convocation in August. Below are my remarks, delivered early last week to students, faculty, and staff.

OK. I need to give you all a heads up right at the outset: I’m going to use the F-word a lot in this speech. I know that might make some of you uncomfortable, but I’m going to do it anyway because I happen to think that we all need to become more comfortable with the F-word. So there’s your disclaimer.

Before I get to that, though, let me tell you about one of my favorite movies when I was growing up—a movie that taught me a lot about the F-word, actually. In 1995, the movie Apollo 13 came out, and I was obsessed. If you’re not familiar with it, the plot centers on a 1970 NASA mission to land on the moon for just the third time in history. Three days into the mission, though, an oxygen tank onboard the spacecraft exploded, forcing the crew to abandon the moon landing and, in fact, putting the crew’s very survival at risk.

But I’m really not here to talk about astronauts. Instead, I want to talk about the F-word: failure.

The approach that many of us have to failure is summed up, I’m afraid, in one of the most famous quotations from Apollo 13. Shortly after learning of the explosion, NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz assembles a team of engineers and charges them with somehow getting the crew home from space safely. He gives them some instructions, and then he sends the team away to work, saying sternly, “Failure is not an option.”

I wonder how many of you feel this way. Maybe someone has said this to you before, or maybe you’ve just gotten the impression that failure is unacceptable from the way that people tend to react to it. Even if they don’t use those famous words exactly, I’m willing to bet that people send you the same message all the time: “Failure is not an option.” Today, I’m here to tell you that this mentality is wrong.

Failure in one form or another is not only an option, it is a near certainty. In life, you will fail. That’s not to say that you will grow up to be a failure, but you will fail at something along the way. Maybe you’ll apply for your dream job but not get it. Maybe you’ll get married—and then divorced. Maybe you’ll engineer a new contraption that can send people to the moon . . . only to see part of it explode before they actually get there. You see, even the very movie which tells us that “Failure is not an option” also shows us that failure will happen.

If you followed the Olympics this summer, you saw plenty of examples of failure. Who could forget the heartbreak on gymnast Jordyn Wieber’s face after she failed to qualify for the individual all-around competition? And she wasn’t the only one. Think for a moment of the hundreds of other athletes who trained for years, only to come home without a medal. Or the thousands who failed to qualify for the Olympics at all and never even had the opportunity to represent their countries.

No matter how high we climb, it seems, there’s almost always someone who’s just a little better. A little faster, a little stronger, a little smarter, a little more popular. And even if you reach the top—whatever that means for you—it’s highly unlikely that you’ll stay there forever. As the Olympics proved, even the most successful people in the world experience failure at some point.

Like those of Jordyn and so many others, your failures will be painful. I wouldn’t stand here and tell you that they won’t hurt. They will, and there is nothing we can do about that. But what I will tell you is that failure does not have to be permanent. The key to success in life, I have come to believe, lies in learning to fail well. Put another way: get comfortable with the F-word.

Here’s what I mean: If you try to always keep failure at arm’s length—if you tell yourself that “failure is not an option”—failure will eventually come to consume your thoughts. How can you not be focused on something when you’re constantly trying to avoid it? But avoiding failure and achieving success are not the same.

If you only remember one thing I say today, let that be it: avoiding failure and achieving success are not the same. We can avoid failure for a while and still be entirely mediocre—not failures, but not exactly successes either. But I hope that mediocrity is not what any of us want out of life, and that’s why I talk about failing well. It is by your response to failure that you will ultimately be judged, and to fail well, we have to retrain our focus.

Remember Jordyn Wieber’s tears, and then remember her joy as she helped push her teammates to gold in the team competition. It would have been easy for her to wallow in self-pity, overcome by the fact that her shot at individual glory was gone—but she didn’t. She accepted her failure, and she came back even stronger.

This is the essence of failing well. We don’t have to enjoy failure, but if we accept that failures will occur—if we accept that failure is a natural part of the learning process—we can rob failure of its power over us. Remember: failure isn’t something that only happens to less worthy or less talented or less motivated people. It happens to all of us, and sometimes it happens even when we’re working as hard as we possibly can. We’re all human, and none of us is good at everything. Even in the things we are good at, none of us can possibly be at our very best all the time—and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

I hope that you will dedicate yourself to the task of failing well this year. It’s a tremendously powerful feeling when you experience the sting of failure followed by the triumph of overcoming it. You would do well to learn that feeling now, while you’re still in school. After all, schools are all about learning, and I for one hope that you will learn more than just names and dates and facts and equations and vocabulary words during your time at Saint Mary’s.

If those things are all you take with you when you leave this place, we will have failed you. So may we all—young and old alike—practice learning to fail well this year.

Thank you.

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