Guest Column (7/30/09)

Success in failure

July 30, 2009

By Bill Mares

A lot of graduation speeches are about your new dawn, your bright and shining commencement, how you can succeed, how you will have the world by the tail. But they are tiresome clichés, and often untrue.

I want to take a few minutes to talk about failure.

My interest here is not in deliberate or reckless failure but in that which comes often despite your hardest labors and most fervent desires.

Because I believe that disappointments will more often be your traveling companions on the journey of life than will be success.

Failure is hard to analyze, because individuals and institutions never like to admit their failings, or examine their defeats. Now, of the definitions of failure in the Oxford Universal Dictionary, my favorite says, “To become exhausted, to give way under trial, to fall short in performance or attainment.”

One obvious kind of failure is to flunk an exam. That’s straightforward … and unhappy. You didn’t study, the questions were too hard or maybe you had a bad day.

Then there are the athletic losses. Most of my varsity teams in high school had losing seasons and we grew tired of being told that somehow we were “building character.”

A second kind of failure is the inability to measure up to or achieve one’s own aspirations. By that definition, I stand before you a three-time failure. In the eight years after I left high school I tried to become first a foreign service officer, then a banker, then a lawyer. In the first case, the State Department rejected me. In the second case, I rejected banking. The third case was a draw — I didn’t like law school and law school didn’t like me much either.

I can joke about it now, but at the time it was devastating, as these failures mounted up. Then, as if to prove the adage that a blind hog can find an acorn now and then, I fell into journalism and writing, then politics and teaching. But it was all no thanks to planning on my part.

The third brand of failure is based upon the belief that once you have chosen a course, or job, a profession or even an opinion, you should stick with it come hell or high water. The New York Times recently ran a long piece about a lawyer who threw over a six-figure income to repair motorcycles because he wanted concrete fulfillment with his hands and mind.

A fourth version is the failure caused by forces beyond our individual control — a dairy farmer in Vermont, a fisherman in Massachusetts, an auto worker in Detroit with jobs that have disappeared. Just look at the economy today, with almost 10 percent of people out of work. These millions did everything conventional wisdom, morality and economics told them. Now they’re pounding the pavement looking for jobs.

You are going out into a world that is changing by the minute, where events far from your doorstep will affect you. It’s like one of those space shuttle simulators, spinning, shaking, rattling in perpetual, hair-raising motion, a world moving even as we walk on it.

Anyone who promises you will be masters of your destiny is either smoking or snorting something.

So, what does all this mean?

First of all, don’t be afraid to fail. In his book “Life on the Mississippi,” Mark Twain described a boat pilot who applied for a job. He said he deserved the post because he knew where all the sandbars were. The captain asked, “How?”

“I hit ‘em,” the man replied. He got the job.

Second, think for yourself. Be contrary. As the bumper sticker says, “Question authority.”

Be suspicious of easy answers and slick promises. Hang out with people who are smarter than you are. Have patience with yourself and with others. Yes, reach for the stars with one hand, yet keep the other hand free to help the less fortunate.

I predict that all of you will fail in at least one of the ways I have described and you will be better for it. That is what Thomas Huxley meant when he wrote, “There is the greatest practical benefit in making a few mistakes early in life.”

To Jon Carroll, a newspaper columnist in San Francisco, “success is boring. Success is proving that you can do something that you already know you can do, or doing something correctly the first time … First time success is usually a fluke. First time failure, by contrast, is unexpected; it is the natural order of things.”

Thomas Edison we think of as a genius. But he estimated he tried over 700 substances and combinations of substances to get the right material for the light bulb. His reflection was not, “I have failed 700 times.” Instead, it was, “I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways didn’t work.”

From 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau said, “Cultivate the tree you have found to bear fruit in your soil. Regard not your past failures nor successes. All the past is equally a failure and a success; it is a success in as much as it offers you this present opportunity.”

One of our sons lives and works in Thailand. When I told him I was to deliver a talk on this subject, he wrote back saying, “Just don’t be boring, Dad.”

Then, to the same e-mail, he attached a YouTube clip of an ad Michael Jordan did for a shoe company. Jordan arrives for a game. As he walks slowly toward the players’ entrance, out of the darkness you can hear him say, “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot, and missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.”

Thanks again for having me, and good failure!

Bill Mares is an author and former teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School. He read this speech at CVU’s graduation last month.