The Rhetoric of Failure

I was recently invited to give a speech at the induction ceremony for the National Junior Honor Society at a local middle school. I was honored to be asked, but was immediately at a loss as to what I would say. I’m used to speaking to adults, sometimes using adult language, and I’m not really what one would call a “motivational speaker.” Nevertheless, I felt that being asked I would now have the chance to say something to an audience that would put me out of my own comfort zone.

I had three ideas for topics in mind: the importance of life-long learning, the celebration of the imagination, or the idea of failure. I originally intended to speak about the importance of life-long learning when I discovered that the second speaker would be using that as her topic. I ended up with failure—a strange topic to be sure when addressing an Honors society? For years I’ve been haunted by Samuel Beckett’s phrase, “Fail again, fail better.” So, I had my starting point. Below is the text of the speech.

 

Good evening students, faculty, staff, and parents:

It is my pleasure to be speaking to you here this evening and on such an auspicious occasion. As parents and faculty you must be very proud of the students gathered in this room, and with good reason. You have proven yourselves to be engaged in scholarship, leadership, community service, and character. In many ways nothing less than the future may soon be in your hands.

Therefore, I would like to begin by asking you a question: will you allow the world to define you, or will you define the world? It’s not as simple question as it seems. What’s involved is a lot of hard work and, if I’m being honest, more than a bit of failure. And it’s really failure that I would like to touch upon this evening. As a society we tend to privilege and put too much stock in our successes. We have plans and strategies in place to insure the success of students. We have job placement programs and career service centers to help us beyond the classroom.

But what about failure? And, moreover, how does failure feed the imagination?

Well, I’m here to tell you that failure is something you should not be afraid of. In fact, we could have no success without a bit of failure. But what do I really mean by failure, and why on earth would I choose that as my topic to an induction ceremony for the National Junior Honor Society? The answer is simple. Failure is an essential part of success, without it we would be too afraid to dream, to put our thinking and ourselves at risk. And without dreams we would be less than responsible citizens of the world.

As a director of a honors program at a university, as well as someone who is involved in honors education on both the regional and the national level, I can tell you that an essential part of the honors culture is putting oneself at risk intellectually. This means that one should never be afraid of failure, or of speaking out. As great as success can feel, we can learn much more from our failures, from those times that we stumble and fall. In many ways, our failures define us perhaps even more than our successes. I can think of no leader, artist, military general, musician, teacher, or student who has not experienced failure. Failure builds character.

But it takes a special person to learn from his or her failures. Part of what it means to be a responsibly engaged citizen is the willingness to do the hard stuff: speaking out against injustice, raising your voice when you disagree, fighting for what you think is morally and ethically right, even at the cost of personal or professional harm. You may have heard or even used the phrase, “failure is not an option.” That phrase is never true because failure at some point is inevitable.

But it can also be glorious.

History is full of great failures. From Columbus to Steve Jobs. Both men went in search of something they failed to find, only to end up changing the world.

By now I hope you’ve figured out that I’m not talking about academic failure, but a different, more risky kind. What I really want to say is that you should never, ever back away from a challenge because you are afraid you might fail. The fact that you are sitting here tonight is proof that you’re on your way to making a real difference in the world—despite the possible costs. So, I return to my original question: will you allow the world to define you, or will you define the world? Go out there, be brave, look the possibility of failure in the eye—and above all, don’t blink.

Thank you for inviting me this evening, and congratulations once again to the National Junior Honor Society of Cawley Middle School.

I wish you the very best of luck.

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