Monday, May 27, 2013

My Commencement Speech

If I gave a commencement speech this is what I would say.
This time of year is filled with commencement speeches and pockets of wisdom from many public figures directed at college students.  My favorite was by Senator Elizabeth Warren. Twice in my academic career, I asked to be a commencement speaker when I received my associate’s degree and when I received my masters.  Both times, academic and community politics got in the way with me sharing that message.  Someday, I am going to be a successful entrepreneur and when I am there this is the speech I am going to give.  Enjoy.

Thank you Madam President and fellow students, I am deeply honored to be here and to be a small footnote to your lives.  You see on a day like this you have a lot more things on your mind that what some middle aged portly man has to say about life, the universe and everything.  As many of the fine arts students who have read Douglas Adams can attest the answer is 42.  All kidding aside, you are more interested in where you are going to have dinner, visiting with your parents, and figuring out what to do with the rest of your lives.  This is heady stuff and important.  You know how hard it is to get a dinner reservation in this town tonight.
 
That said I do want to leave you with something besides my vain attempts at humor.  Today is one of the biggest successes in your life you have entered a very elite group of people you are college graduates.  According Harvard and the Asian Development Bank, only 6.7 percent of the world population holds a bachelor’s degree.  You are not quite the 1% but you are damn close.  You are roughly the one in twenty people on this planet that can boast this kind of education and experience.   But you didn't get here on your own it took your family and community to get you here.  So for a brief moment can all the parents, siblings, spouses, friends, and significant others please stand up.  Give yourself a hand because these graduates are here because you helped them get here.

Like I said, today is a big deal.  This may be the biggest success you have in your entire life but I want to leave you with a little nugget wisdom on this big day.  Today you embrace success, but now that you are graduates you will be confronted with failure.  How you deal with failure and hardship will define you for the rest of your lives.  I am sorry, I am harshing this happy occasion but it would be wrong of me not to share the wisdom I have accumulated over the years.  Failure is necessary.  Failure is pure.  Failure educates in ways that will remain with you the rest of your life long after your American Literature finals.  Many of you have been scared of failure and have done everything in your power to avoid it.  I have some bad news for you.  Failure will find you and grasp you in its unjust embrace.

My father had a sign on his desk which said, “The only people who never fail are those who never try.”  It was a dose of wisdom that as a twenty year old graduate, I mocked.  As a middle aged man launching his own business, I understood.  As a culture we are frightened of failure.  I have known people who have failed who were treated like those afflicted with leprosy by their friends because they were afraid that failure was contagious.  I have seen careers end because of failure. I have seen people end their own lives because they could not cope with failure.  It is sad because I have learned that failure is just another way that human beings learn and grow.

I have failed in so many ways in my life.  I am twice divorced.  I do not have any children to carry on my name.  I have been fired from several jobs because I struggled to conform to what I thought were ethically dubious situations or take grief from someone I though was not my equal.  On paper, my life looks like a failure.  I beg to differ.  I am my own boss and lead an organization that employees many people.  I have finally earned some financial independence and I can support my parents in their old age.  Finally, I wake up in the morning and can look myself in the mirror without feeling profound levels of contempt and rage for the petty compromises I have made in my life.  I have gotten to this point because of failure.

The playwright Arthur Miller said, “…possibly the greatest truth we know, have come out of peoples suffering.”  This from a man who was married to Marilyn Monroe; I get the feeling he did lot of suffering.  We suffer because of failure.  People are greedy, mean, selfish, and crazy.  And that folks is just on the good days.  Add personal pride, money, and sexual gratification to the mix and you have a recipe for suffering and failure.  I know.  I have been in those situations and I am sad to report they don’t sell t-shirts.

What I have discovered is that during these profoundly dark moments, I have learned something.  Failure educates in ways that cramming for an exam does not.  It enlightens because I illustrates who your friends are.  They are the ones who will stand by your side and support you went others will turn away.  Failure shows you what your limits are and what you need to do to overcome them.  Failure is the reset button of your life because when you fail the only way to go is up.

It is said that there is nothing worse than a failure.  I disagree.  There is nothing worse that someone who doesn't learn from failure.  There is nothing worse that someone who doesn't grow after failure.  There is nothing worse than someone who repeats the same mistakes to fail.  Finally, there is nothing worse than someone who wallows in failure.  It is not wrong to fail.  It is wrong to fail and not gain something anything from the experience.

I come from a community of technologists known as the agile community and our motto is to fail early and often.  So today on one of the greatest days of success in your life, I want to remind you that failure is coming.  Fail early and fail often.  Don’t quit trying.  Don’t give a crap about what others think; because at the end of the day you sleep with yourself and you better learn to like that experience.  Look in the mirror and know that you have done your best and then do better the next day.  Life is unfair, cruel, and short.  Don’t be like life.  It is not a question of if you will fail but when.  It is that test of your character which will define you for the remainder of your life.

Fail early and fail often, because inside each failure is a nugget of wisdom which will lead you to greater success.  God Speed, go forth and fail.  I will see you on the other side and then we will have stories to share and a world to change.

Congratulations and God bless you and your families.