The Graduation Speech No One Will Let Me Give

(Armed with nothing more than mid-to-late 20s hubris, here’s the graduation speech that I wish most undergraduates and, heck, all other types of graduates could hear.)

Most of you will fail at most of the things you undertake in your life. Some of those failures will be so small you may not even consider them failures, or even notice them. Some of them will be noticeable, at least to you. And a few will be catastrophic or nearly so. The volume of mistakes and failures, of course, will vary considerably. Many of you already have heard the proclamations to own your failures, perhaps to not let them define you. Some of you have already failed quite a bit and have moved past it. Unfortunately, there’s some bad news: It will never stop. You will fail continuously for the rest of your life, most of the time you try things.

By the way, I do mean all of you, if not all of humanity. No matter how intelligent you are, you will fail at most things. Amusingly enough, the more intelligent you are, the correspondingly huger your mistakes tend to be, as you may have the talent to land in a very important role that requires making very critical decisions, one of which may well spectacularly backfire.

Oh, I’m not finished. You are going to die, no matter how much money the current crop of the mega-rich desperately throws at longevity initiatives. You also are inheriting this epoch’s particular problems, which are intriguing inasmuch as they seem to dwarf even the past couple decades’ passels of problems, which is saying something given we’ve all lived through 9/11, the dot-com crash, the financial crisis, etc. You are now uncomfortably, increasingly aware that the grownups who are supposed to be managing the world may not be doing such a great job. Some of you think you can do a better job. Some of you think that just the right set of current grownups need to take the reins. Nearly all of you don’t want to think of yourselves as full-fledged grownups that are actually more responsible for the current state of affairs than you think, and are already in the thick of the real world, given the last comfort blanket has now been tugged away.

However, a smaller subset of you is keenly aware, having been on the inside of institutions or a perceptive student of statistics, that all of these observations just made do have one thing in common: They all acknowledge the objective reality we live in, as demonstrated by statistics. A nicer way to phrase my opening line is that most people aren’t that successful in what they aim to do. That’s the simple reality we live in. If most people succeeded in even half the time in what they were trying to do, the world would be remarkably different. For example, once you get into a corporate job, you will be struck by how often you presumed the people actually running the businesses that make up the economy aren’t necessarily good at their jobs most of the time. Some of them are good some of the time, very few are true high performers, and some are outright incompetent.

Now, this moment is where one would expect the narrative to reverse. This is where I should flip my statements and explain why it’s actually all okay. That’d be a little too easy, however. And it wouldn’t be entirely accurate, because some of you will burn with ambition or hunger or jealousy or all of the above your whole lives, internally dissatisfied with the fact that you didn’t measure up, in some way, to what you thought you should achieve. Others will temper ambition, assess what truly makes them happy, then pursue that, and realize it to some degree, or maybe entirely. Many others will exist in some nebulous area between those two states, shifting depending on their changing environments, searching for fulfillment.

Such searching is what got this species to where it is. It is unavoidable, hardwired into your very flesh, blood, bone and brain. The downside is that such focus on the extrinsic, especially in the US, often tends to neglect the intrinsic. But failure knows no such boundaries. And thus, confronted with the possibility of failure on all fronts, the focus on the extrinsic, the searching for achievements outside of oneself, ignores the one area where you have the most control: the intrinsic. You.

The extrinsic matters too, of course. What you give to the world, what you accomplish or fail to accomplish for the most part, all is critical for actualization of the interior. But you are the node between those extrinsic affairs, operated by the intrinsic. And, again, there is only one of those areas where one can credibly say you have more than a fighting chance, and that is inside your own head.

Failures at most things in life, which again often go unnoticed – for example, being lazy and skipping that intended workout, or blowing a test that was a last-ditch effort – are all too often measured in terms of extrinsicity. But measurements that only take into account one part of a system often do so to their ultimate peril. The holistic nature of the intrinsic person accomplishing the extrinsic tasks.

To remain cognizant of the intrinsic interior, where we have the most control, we must recognize and declare our own value. Please do not mistake this with the abused term “self-care”. Recognition of one’s own value does not mean approval or condemnation. Rather, it is a clearheaded assessment that you do matter, just as every human being on this planet matters, in an incalculable, intrinsic fashion. That is the first step. The second, necessary step is to recognize that the purpose of this intrinsically valuable creature is to accomplish something in this world. However, given human flaws, such accomplishments are not only hard to define and find but also difficult to pull off. We must come to terms with the extent to which we may and probably will fail.

From there, we must define the terms of our failures internally. What IS a failure, after all? Is it merely missing a goal? Should that have been a goal in the first place? Was that goal unreasonable? Was it reasonable, and within your capabilities, and thus an actual failure? By asking just those few questions, it should already become clear again that most of the time you will fail. And yes, many of those failures will be bad. But they will not be significant. They will represent small morasses of frustration that, if dug into, could yield experience. That is, of course, if you are willing to do the dirty work of digging into them. Which is what one must, if one wishes to become resilient. Resilient to the degree that one can move past that particular failure…on to new ones.

That process is not easy and never-ending. At times it will be easier, and then become harder again, because humans aren’t particularly good at follow-through. That is the primary reason failure is so common, by the way. The virtue of persistence is preached constantly, as it has to be, but astonishingly few of us practice it, well, persistently.

The only way to render that process marginally easier is to embrace humility. Humility and security go hand in hand. And it is fascinating how most of us, including myself, do not possess much interior security. Hence our constant search for the extrinsic, for the outward validation or confirmation via achievements that we are worth something, or anything. The most successful among us can still suffer from that particular affliction. But achieving that inner security, that poise, that self-command, isn’t achievable through purely intrinsic means, e.g. meditation. It is achievable only in a blending of both the extrinsic, outward achievements, which in turn transform the intrinsic person that you are, which enables further outward achievements. It’s a quintessential chicken-and-egg cycle, unceasing in its oscillations.

But when a balance has been struck for a time, and humility is obtained, from that bedrock can sprout the tried-and-true, best approach to failure: learning. Again, your cycle of failures will never cease. With grace and luck and diligence and endless work, you may mitigate most your failures. You may lessen their incidence. But you will possess the resilience and the tools to embrace your endless probability of failure.

Let me be clear: This may seem like a grim way of looking at the world until you actually embrace it. Once you do that, however, it is the most reliable source of serenity in the often mundane humdrum business of life. Sure, it is tiring, but it is the seasoning that lends the rare successes true sweetness in life. Not only because they finally happened, but because you can place them in their proper context. Your successes won’t completely define you, and nor will your failures. You are too complex for that, so do not attempt to measure your self-worth by what you have done, but what you have done, who you are, what you can accomplish, and, maybe most importantly, what you can’t.


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