Graduation Speech Theme: Failing Forward

Flip that tassle!

Last week I was honored by the graduating seniors at my school, who asked me to deliver the graduation address. I surveyed educators up and down the hierarchy, and everyone told me the same thing: Be brief.

I was. And rather than just telling everyone to follow their dreams, and change the world, and zzzzzzzzzzzzz, I gave the kids the advice I NEVER EVER got–it’s good to fail.

Below is the text from that speech, with advice I wish I’d gotten somewhere from someone.

Failing Forward

It’s an honor to be speaking in front of you today. I promise I’ll be brief.

I’d like to talk about a very important skill that many of you—despite your amazing education—did not pick up at all.

You will need this skill to get you through college, through your first and all subsequent jobs, through all of the highs and especially the lows.

Especially the lows.

This skill is…………..failing.

Now, I’m not talking about failing like disappointing your parents or intentionally failing a test or getting kicked out of college or being evicted for non-payment of rent.

No, I’m talking about the kind of failing that comes with lessons yet to be learned. I am talking about failing forward.

Sometimes you gotta live here

Failing forward requires you to do the thing that scares you most:

Enter that contest.

Audition for that role.

Try out for that team.

Send in that resume.

Sign up for that dance class.

Enroll in that art class.

Because when you do something you’re not good at, when you take risks and earnestly try something new or something familiar but challenging, what’s the worst that can happen? You might embarrass yourself. Because when you fail, you’re either going to embarrass yourself in front of complete strangers or people who love you. And the people who love you will support you and encourage you, no matter how many times you fail.

Failing forward means learning what you can from an experience that didn’t work out as you planned and moving forward. The process looks something like this: Fail, mourn the failure, reflect, and plan your next moves. Fail not because you were unprepared or uncaring or unmotivated.

Fail because you are passionate, prepared, motivated, and ambitious. Fail because you put everything you had into it and still failed.

Few people die from failure.

So you fail.

What do you do?

Do you crawl under that snuggie with a pint of chocolate ice cream and watch a marathon of reality TV?

Do you cry on the shoulder of your best friend, relaying every moment by moment, every excruciating second of that audition or competition?

Do you tell your parents, “I don’t want to talk about it and turn up the heavy metal”?

The answer to all of these questions is YES. YES. Mourn the failure.

And then what do you do? Never submit another essay or audition for another role or take another class outside your major? If you retreat back to where you’re comfortable and never leave the box of contented competence, then you have not failed forward, you have given up.

If you decide instead to fail forward, you will take the feedback, the lessons, the reflection time and most important, the bigger picture and move, onwards and upwards. Only then will you have successfully failed forward.

I will leave you today with some pearls of wisdom from one of the most successful failures of all time: Thomas Edison, the light bulb guy.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

“I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

“Many of life’s failures are men who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Thanks for listening, and congratulations to (names deleted).

Back to School: A Graduate Student Confesses

If you’re an educator, student, or parent, there’s only one thing on your mind right now: SCHOOL.

In addition to new clothes and necessary supplies, school brings back anxiety for all.

Educator: Will I be more organized this year?

Student: Will my new teachers like me?

Parents: Will my kiddos do their homework/pay attention/pass/excel this year?

All worries valid, but all worries unfortunately being given too much energy. As an educator myself, one of the things we always meet, regardless of where and what we teach, is lack of student motivation.

We are constantly asking ourselves, “How do we motivate the unmotivated?”

A good friend of mine is taking a graduate-level educational psychology course. Below is her response to the first assignment, which asked students to describe a student with motivational issues. In a hilarious and poignant self-confessional, she describes her own motivational issues.

Brilliant. Thanks B!

She says she hates school and has written notes to be excused from classes since she was in 7th grade. There is no record of her parent’s signatures on file because she has signed her own excuse blanks since she was in 4th grade. Her parents expect her to get good grades but can’t help her with her homework. She takes accelerated classes and is relatively popular but still feels like an outsider. Both her mom and first step-mom are English teachers. Her father and step-father never went to college. Her dad cheated on her mom and her step-mom and remarried again when she was 14. Her newest step-mom has no maternal instinct and can’t even help her with English.

She actually attends a few classes willingly – math (even when she dislikes the teacher), science (when it isn’t rote memorization like Biology – ugh – but dissection was great), English literature (novels and poetry are the best), art (especially ceramics, wood-working, and metal), and physical education (any sport is great, even basketball though she is only 5’2”) – but avoids all of the classes which rely on memorization or simply reading a book and regurgitating information whenever possible. When she skips school she does homework, or reads a book for fun, outside usually near a creek or in the woods. When she is in a particularly boring class, like health education or driver’s education, she stares out the window and daydreams but can still answer questions when called upon which infuriates her teachers. Sometimes she does other homework in these classes but that makes the teachers angry as well.

Many subjects come easily to her but she prefers classes that are a challenge. She feels guilty if she does well on a test when she doesn’t study. She gets good grades, B+s and above, even in classes she avoids/cuts but she hides her exams so that no one will see that she got a good grade. She knows that smart kids get picked on and plays dumb very well. In fact, she was known as an airhead all through junior high until that fateful day when her algebra teacher revealed that she had outscored all other students, including the high school students, on a standardized math test. A chauvinistic and arrogant male classmate jumped up and yelled, “But she’s an airhead!” making matters worse. She was angry but proud that her charade had worked. Still, she wished she were invisible and wanted to curl up and hide. She hates standing out and tries to blend in wherever she goes. She is not openly rebellious but sometimes wishes that she were.

She is a model student except for being truant and for making quiet, funny comments to her few close friends in her class. She graduated 18th in her class of 512 but doesn’t consider it an accomplishment at all. It wasn’t hard. She almost didn’t graduate because she missed 47 days her senior year. Plus, she was absent on the day everyone rehearsed, were assigned seats, and had their photo taken and was almost not allowed to walk or participate in the ceremony.

She loves to learn but lacks ambition. She is expected to go to college and knows that she will but has no idea what she will study. Her guidance counselor tells her she has the aptitude to be anything she wants.

Twenty plus years later with two master degrees and a PhD underway, she still doesn’t know what she wants to be and lacks the motivation to do what she despises – regurgitating information to prove that she can critically evaluate and synthesize what she has read – but why? She fears becoming one of them – the academics without soul or passion who research what they cannot experience for themselves. She fears success and failure simultaneously. She feels trapped with no way out but letting go of who she is.