• Anne

Failure is when you give up

This is a speech I gave to a large body of my students for our online commencement ceremony.

When you make a mistake, is that failure?

Something I've noticed as I've worked with a lot of you, and other people I've interacted with in my life is the fear of failure. But how exactly do we define failure?

Failure is defined as falling below an expectation, so it's kind of vague. In the end, I only care about which definition you give a negative connotation to. Personally, I think you only fail (in the bad sense of the word) when you give up.

Those who are best fail the most

Did you know that I have never missed a goal in soccer? I have never played the wrong note on clarinet. I've never made a single mistake while playing cricket. That might sound impressive at first, until you realize that I've never played soccer, cricket, or the clarinet. Thus I've never made a mistake.

Now on the other side, those who are masters of their skills have made the most mistakes. LeBron James has missed more hoops, Alan Menkan has made more mistakes in his music compositions, Gordon Ramsay has made more cooking mistakes, and Stephen Hawking has made more errors in his theories than I have.

Now if you think about it, these men have accomplished so much and are some of the best in the world at what they do. My mistakes are more concentrated than theirs, but they have practiced a lot to overcome many mistakes, which interestingly can only be done by allowing yourself to make mistakes.

"I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." - Michael Jordan

Was that failure?

Walt Disney was fired because his editor thought he lacked imagination and ideas.

Was that failure?

He didn't give up and created one of the most successful entertainment companies in the world.

JK Rowling was rejected by all 12 major publishing companies and was clinically depressed.

Was that failure?

She didn't give up and went on to get the Harry Potter series published and became one of the most rich and famous authors of all time.

Thomas Edison was unsuccessful over 10,000 times in his attempt to invent the electric lightbulb.

Was that failure?

He didn't give up and became one of the most influential inventors of all time, holding 1,093 patents by the time of his death.

The Wright brothers put in countless hours creating prototypes for flying machines. They crashed over and over again as their devices weren't able to stay in the air.

Was that failure?

They didn't give up and eventually managed to stay in the air for 10 seconds, opening the door to air travel that we use so often today.

But it's not just famous people. I've seen this many times throughout my life where I or someone else didn't give up despite falling short and it payed off. I know I have made many mistakes personally.

For instance, when I was in elementary school, I was the slowest student in my class at math. Before 5th grade, no one thought I was any good at math.

Was that failure?

Well, I didn't give up and I like to think I'm pretty good at math now.

Back in college, I was taking an advanced math course called Galois Theory. The first test of the class was a week long take-home test. I spent 28 hours that week on that test, which is about 4 hours each day, and guess what my grade was? 56%. I worked so hard, but my grade was so low.

Was that failure?

I didn't give up, despite the test result, and kept working hard in the class, and eventually I pulled through with a good grade and it became one of my favorite subjects in math!

Failure only happens when you give up

Unfortunately there are many people who have given up. There is someone in the world with an amazing talent for music who gave up because of mistakes. There is someone who struggled in school and gave up their potential for a highly successful academic career. There is someone who could have changed the world for the better who gave up from fear of failure. But isn't that the ultimate failure: giving up your potential? I'll say that again: The ultimate failure is giving up your potential.

All of us have different talents. Every single one of you knows something that I don't. We all have something to offer the world, but we can't allow ourselves to give up in fear of failure. If we don't give up, we haven't failed; we're just learning.

Never give up

Never give up on yourselves, kids. Each of you has so much potential. I am amazed when I work with you at how much you are capable of. The road to your potential is full of challenges, but you can handle it if you don't give up.

When I was in graduate school, there were times I thought to myself, "This is too hard, I don't know if I can do this." Sometimes I cried from how hard it felt. I've seen y'all have similar struggles sometimes, and I know that feeling. But thankfully, I never gave up and now my life is better than I ever imagined it would be. And you shouldn't give up either.

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." - Thomas Edison


In gymnastics, one of the first things they teach you is how to fall properly. Why is that? Because you will fall if you do gymnastics. Likewise, you will make mistakes in your academics. Learn from those mistakes, but don't let them cripple you. Try writing 2+2=5 on a piece of paper and see if something blows up.

Next time you make a mistake (I'm sure I'll make one in the next 5 minutes), I want you to remind yourself that mistakes aren't failures. Mistakes are opportunities to improve. Don't let them discourage you and don't give up!


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