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Jewish World Review June 17, 2003 / 17 Sivan 5763

Steve Young

Steve Young
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Consumer Reports

THE CLASS OF '03 MUST BE WILLING TO FAIL: An Unauthorized Commencement Speech

As the June graduation tassels get repositioned from right to left, graduates are being challenged to aggressively take on life and make a success in whatever they try. Well, I'm here to tell you what they won't... | "THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR TO SUCCESS IS FAILURE!"

In the least, having the willingness to do. After all, you're going to fall down on your face a great many more times than you are going to succeed, so why not make failure your friend? I assure you, if you have any plans to be happy in life, you're going to have to.

For too many years, more than I'm sure you wish to count, you have been reminded to be horrified of failure; that there is nothing more dreadful than that big ole red "F" with the accompanying, "What were you thinking?"or the ever popular, "This kind of work will get you no where."

Alas, most people in a position of authority or superior knowledge, have been shown to be, for the most part, dead wrong. Those who can, do; those who can't, become critics. Negative judgements alone do nothing but stilt growth.

That is unless you ignore it as did Elvis Presley who was fired from the Grand Ole Opry after only one performance and told by the manager, "You ain't goin' nowhere, son. Better get y'all job back drivin' a truck."

Or perhaps, Oprah Winfrey, who didn't let getting fired from her television reporter's job and being told, "You're not fit for TV," keep her from becoming one of the most beloved and successful women in memory.

Even news legend Walter Cronkite failed an early audition in local radio and was told by the radio station manager that he would never become a radio announcer, went on to become one of America's most recognizable and trusted voices.

All these people share one thing in common. They ignored the "experts." They refused to let hardships stop them on the road to victory. They learned that every triumphant discovery resulted from many unsuccessful experiments; that every home run has been tempered by a multitude of missed swings; that every great script was built on the back of endless rewrites; that every top performer has been humiliated by more than one performance; that failure is part of the process that breeds success.

Forget the Alaskan wilderness. Forget solar power. Failure is mankind's most neglected resource.

Parents, teachers, coaches, business supervisors, religious authorities, and critics of all sorts have been responsible for dulling aspirations and destroying dreams. Many mistakes are proclaimed failures and subsequently punished, leaving many of us afraid to take risks. All too often, these disciplines and evaluations were brought about in a misguided attempt to correct and improve the individual. More than likely, the opposite results.

There are others who have been born physically or mentally challenged, or became so through sickness or accident. They may have been told that they were not capable of doing what they had done before; or that they should not even try something for the first time, lest they be disheartened or hurt. Thank Heaven for the likes of Stephen Hawking and Christopher Reeve.

Many whose original thoughts and deeds are deemed too radical or too odd for "more reasonable" minds, are not taken seriously. Whether well-intended or absolute evil, the result of these actions has been a society of doom and gloomers, those who say, "I can't" without ever saying, "I'll try." Even worse, these skeptics will pass on this hapless message to their children and associates. The circle of learned apprehension will grow unless we understand that the circle can be broken.

The objective is to appreciate the fact that our life is a process, a process made up of infinitesimal experiences and moments all fashioning us into who we are today. And if we continue to breathe, our missteps, errors and misunderstandings are absolutely necessary for growth. They are the life-lessons that are essential for progress and enrichment. Without them, we would stagnate and whither away. Why? Because we learn nothing from being perfect. It's feels good for the moment, but it doesn't teach us a dang thing. Never did. Never will.

Do babies come out of the womb walking and talking? Not many. Are they criticized for falling down when they begin to walk? I hope not. They are in fact cheered and, with major huggies all around, encouraged to try again. After innumerable tumbles and assorted boo-boos, they're soon up and running everywhere. Does a baby feel that she should do better or learn faster? No, because a baby has no expectations, except maybe for the anticipated tranquility a well placed thumb brings. What a child did was what she did and when she did it is when it was done. And that, ladies and gentleman, is how it works best. When did we begin to deem it appropriate that devaluing ourselves by not meeting some quasi-standard was the proper way to live? And why can't Dr. T. Berry Brazelton be here for us too, the over-five generation?

You may want to haul off and pound the next person who says, "What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger," but Nature handles failure and obstacles...naturally. We call it evolutionary adaptation. As organisms (human and otherwise) evolve, the stresses faced by our ancestors have caused our body to change in order to handle environmental needs. In effect, our bodies know how to react to adversity intuitively. It would make sense that our brains and our hearts are equipped to do the long as we choose to get out of the way. Biologically, while pain would seem to be anything but good news, we would never know there was something wrong in our bodies if it weren't for the pain. It's nature's wake up call.

Life's solutions don't come down the chute, gift wrapped and ready to be opened any time we decide they should be. We have no idea if the very next effort won't provide us with our success. So why do we decide to quit before we reach our objective? Why do we let a single failure stop us? If Thomas Edison had quit because coal, carbon, and other tested materials didn't ignite his bulb, you might be able to read this only during the day. He stuck with it, each attempt bringing him closer to the discovery that tungsten would do the trick.

But stuff does happen and we sometimes must suffer through our failures, right? Not necessarily. Any situation stops being a failure as soon as we attempt to learn from it. And we don't even have to actually learn anything. The attempt alone is enough. Once you've taken the action, the constructive process has already begun. And that activity begets more activity. And here's a profound thought. When you stop or quit, nothing happens.

What occurs when you receive a negative evaluation? It probably feels lousy. But if your desire is to enhance your life, dig through that review to see if there's something in it that can help you improve. Even if the reviewer is a fool, he might stumble onto something of relevance for you. After you take what you can use, THROW OUT THE REST! It serves no purpose. Do not give it any power. Take the lemons and make lemonade. Take the leftover lemon rinds, grind them up in your food processor, and use them as fertilizer.

There ain't no going back and changing anything that's happened. What happened, happened. But what is changeable is how you treat yourself. Acceptance plays here. Since you have no control over the past, embrace it and trust that it happened for a good reason. How? Here's the good news AND the bad news. First the bad news... If you can't figure out some positive rationale for your seemingly negative situation, I wouldn't even venture a guess of what good it serves. The good news...? You don't have to know.

If you have to, fake it. If you're wrong, and at the end of your life you haven't discovered the "good reason," all you did was waste an entire life feeling good about what happened when you could have felt miserable all along. Not much of a risk, huh? Are we just kidding ourselves? Not if we want to live a positive life. Here's something will hear on every graduation day. Carpe diem! Seize the day! Nowhere does it say that the day has to be a good one.

But whether a good day or bad, no matter the source of the failure, it is our attitude towards the situation that makes all the difference. While it doesn't give you control over what happens, it does give you control about how you feel about it.

As you move through life's ups and downs, be aware that not only are we accused of failures, but we can often be the accuser. If you attain a position of authority or power, teacher or coach, parent or friend, employer or supervisor, you must learn to disregard the inclination to chastise, no matter how delicately, no matter how right you think we are. Rather than tear down or humiliate, you can use the same incident to inspire and encourage. The results for you and the rest of humanity can be a windfall of untold good.

I see the dean is giving me cut to the chase sign, you move on from the hallowed halls of this column into the hell holes of the real world, I encourage you in the strongest terms to break the circle of compulsory perfection and change your life. Toss your hat into the air, shout loud enough so that every teacher you've ever had hears you, "I AM A FAILURE, AND DARN IT, I'M PROUD OF IT!

JWR contributor Steve Young, Prism Award winner and Humanitas Prize nominee for his television writing, is contributing editor at the Writers Guild of America's "Written By" magazine. He is the author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful: Mistakes, Adversity, Failure and Other Stepping Stones to Success," "The 130 Tales of Winchell Mink," Harper Collins (Winter, 2003) and the director/writer of "My Dinner With Ovitz." His website is Comment by clicking here.

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05/16/03: Liar, liar, American Idol's on fire?
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04/11/03: Goodbye Shecky Al-Sahaf, We Hardly Knew Ye
04/04/03: An open letter to the right...and left
03/25/03: Should we be funny during war?
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03/04/03: Energy shortage vs energy profit: A Political Primer
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02/18/03: The Sting, Part II: Osama turns himself in
02/10/03: Michael Jackson threat level raised to "orange"
01/23/03: Can we really blame HBO for terrorism?
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10/09/02: Finding The Bull Within: Wall Street Needs To Rethink The "F" Word
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09/23/02: Shrinking the waist problem: Using Good Old American Failure To Lose Inches
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03/18/02: The Realies
02/19/02: Greenspan Announces Lower (Television Network) Interest Rates
02/15/02: Ken Lay sells soul to the devil: Beelzebub loses life's savings
02/12/02: Enron's Skilling mistakenly takes the Fourth, forcing him to spill his guts
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01/24/02: "I'M THE ONE!"
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12/31/01: Come on war. You can do better!
12/26/01: NOT MY OSAMA!
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12/20/01: Finally! Friends of Color
12/14/01: Bin Laden's Funniest Home Videos
12/10/01: What if Catching bin Laden is in dispute?
11/30/01: Back to normal...too bad
11/16/01: Osama not enough for some
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11/05/01: Bridges Over Troubled Water
10/29/01: The other terrorists
10/16/01: Diary Of A Young Defense Department Comedy Writer
10/01/01: Playlands, burgers, and family sanity
09/25/01: Dissent is walking on red, white and blue egg shells
09/21/01: OPEN LETTER THE MOST HIGH (RE: Falwell and Robertson comments)
09/17/01: Gary, we miss ya
09/10/01: Smelling out a real hero
09/04/01: Don't give up on that dream!
08/24/01: Pitch day at the Mouse
08/21/01: It Depends On What Your Definition Of "Unlimited" Is


© 2002, Steve Young