Thankfully, I heard no references to roads not taken nor endings-versus-beginnings. (Though I would have enjoyed a quick reference to that four-word piece of advice from the iconic film about post-grad angst, The Graduate: “In a Word: Plastics”)
The best answer came from a young woman who said she’d like to hear from someone who has failed – and was still okay.
Now, I suspect this is a young woman who, herself, has never failed. And yet: she may have tapped into one of the biggest fears of young women who have been raised with great expectations, high aspirations and the message that they could do it all and have it all: What happens if they can’t?
If you’ve been following this space, you probably know that one of our key messages is the need to embrace failure, to put yourself out there, to take some risks – even when said risks might end in a big fat fail. In most cases, if you can see that failure for what it is – just one step in a life-long process of trial and error – you may well learn something that can propel you forward. Or, as psychologist Ramani Durvasula told us back when we were reporting our book: “You’ll always get over a failure. But regret? It’s not recoverable.”
In other words, to borrow a quote from another movie classic, you’ll always wonder if you “coulda been a contender.”
And so, as a nod to my student, and to graduates anywhere, here’s a short list of successful women who failed famously – and still, one way or the other, ended up on top:
Emily Dickinson: Regarded as one of America’s greatest poets, she wrote over 1700 poems. Only a handful were published in her lifetime.
Lucille Ball: The winner of four Emmys and a Lifetime Achievement Award was told by one of her first drama teachers that she should try another profession.
Marilyn Monroe: When she was just starting out, modeling agents told her she should go be a secretary. Why? She wasn’t attractive enough.
Kathryn Stockett: Her manuscript for “The Help” was rejected by 60 literary agents over a period of three and a half years, before being picked up by an agent named Susan Ramer, who sold the book to a publisher three weeks later.
Oprah Winfrey: At 22, she scored a gig co-anchoring the evening news in Baltimore, and eight months later, was fired. Because she still had a contract with the station, they shuffled her off to a talk show, which ultimately launched her career.
Hilary Clinton: The Yale Law School graduate failed the D.C. bar exam – but passed the Arkansas bar and moved there to be with Bill. The rest, as they say, is the history of one of the most influential women in the United States, if not the world.
The list goes on, or could, but the point is this: while we all fail at one time or another (be sure to ask me about some of my own personal doozies) the only real failure is letting the fear of it hold us back. Or, as former New York Times editor Anna Quindlen once said: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”
By the way, our commencement speaker this year is Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, who has experienced a few failures of his own.
Let’s hope he doesn’t fail to mention them.