Goodwin Commencement Prize winner Kate Kearns ’14 delivered the address “Failure in Perspective” at Bowdoin’s 209th Commencement exercise May 24, 2014.
President Mills, Members of the College, and Guests,
Thank you for the wonderful privilege of speaking at our graduation. As we begin the next chapter of our lives, I have been reflecting on the beginning of my Bowdoin experience. I was worried about fitting in here. As a die-hard New Yorker, I thought that in order to be a Bowdoin student, I had to at least convincingly pretend that I was outdoorsy.
For my pre-orientation trip, I had a grand vision of conquering a section of the Appalachian Trail, as the first of many successful milestones of my Bowdoin career. Instead, I found myself sitting on the trail, in the rain, crying hysterically in front of ten people I had just met, because I had sprained my ankle. I felt helpless as I navigated the campus on crutches for the first three weeks of school. I believed that I had failed my first Bowdoin test. As hard as it was, I learned a lot from my experience. After many people offered to help me on a daily basis, I learned how supportive the Bowdoin community could be. Even though I desperately missed my parents’ care, I felt a new sense of pride and a deeper understanding of my independence because I made it through the experience on my own.
Our graduation day is day to celebrate the end of our successful Bowdoin careers and the start of our bright futures. But I’m going to talk about failure. I believe in the value of failure. Our generation faces significant pressure to craft the story of our lives as narratives of success. In an article entitled, “The Incessant Selling of Self,” Ann Beattie wrote: “young people have been educated to believe that self-promotion is essential. …How sad for everyone, that they’re expected to have their narrative — facts are to be spun into fiction; they’re prompted to make up a coherent story, though life itself is hardly that — while they’re still developing. Then, they’re expected to be “adult.”
I believe all of this practice boiling down our lives into one-minute sound bites of perfection can lead us to internalize unrealistic images of a successful life. It creates a narrative in which there is no room for uncertainty, failure, and fear. After I fell on my orientation trip, my own belief in what a ‘successful college experience’ was made me deeply anxious… that my injury was an irredeemable failure and a sign that I did not belong here. Looking forward to the next period of our lives, similar ideas can create a false image of the ‘real world’… in which ‘grown ups’ proceed perfectly through life in one direction without any bumps in the road.
And this is deeply untrue. Failure, in big or small ways, will happen, whether we’re fired, we have a horrible roommate, or we feel unhappy in what we thought was our dream job. Our lives will be littered with failures or bumps in the road. Or we’ll be standing in the middle of a four-way intersection and have no idea which direction to choose.
So how do we move on from these moments of defeat or deep uncertainty? We have to take risks. But we seem particularly adverse to risk and vulnerability. This point was emphasized to me recently at one of President Mill’s Life After Bowdoin panels. After President Mills described the value of risks in the workplace, one student asked, “how do you take risk optimally?” While in some ways this question was on everyone’s mind, it also basically means ‘how do you take a risk and make sure you don’t fail?” It echoed my own reluctance to embrace risk and the daunting possibility of failure.
In the spirit of taking risks, I took a dance class my senior fall, even though I’m not particularly graceful (as we’ve already discussed). I was very worried about the experience, expecting to carry the heavy weight of my inadequacy as I struggled through each class. But in class, my professor never told us we did something wrong. She would show us the difference between her movement and our movement and then say, “what you’re doing is beautiful, it just isn’t what we’re doing today. It isn’t wrong, it’s just different.” I loved that she said that to us. I believe that my professor does think my movement was beautiful, but she (and I) also knew it was wrong. Her words made me believe it was OK to fail. And that my failures did not need to cut deeply into my self-worth.
Much of an education is about learning a vocabulary and a framework specific to a discipline, just as my professor was teaching us a specific style of dance. But a valuable education encourages students to think outside the box, emboldens them to take risks, and reminds us that, whether we want to or not, we all moves a little differently than our peers. And that’s a good thing. Some of the most valuable experiences I’ve had at Bowdoin are one’s that have forced me to recognize my mistakes and my vulnerabilities and empowered me to keep moving forward. I never expected to learn life lessons in a dance class, but that experience has made me think differently about my future.
In Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford in 2005, he said, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” I would invite us all to remember Job’s words as we move through life. There is not a clear path laid out in front of us; instead we must trust that our choices, and the risks we take along the way, will pay off sometime in the future.
During my dance class, I would often walk into the studio with a knot in my stomach, worrying that once again I would fail. In order to relax, I would think about what my professor said; that my missteps and my eccentricities did not amount to some deep flaw in who I am. Failing once or twice or a lot does not mean you are a failure. Failure challenges us to remember that we aren’t perfect (and how boring would that be!). Failure encourages us to reflect. And failure dares us to move forward even more boldly, since now we know, we can endure failure and survive. So what is there left to fear?
I hope to remember this piece of wisdom in the coming years as I try to figure out what kind of life I want to have. And I hope it may prove helpful to you as well.
Congratulations to the Class of 2014. Thank you!