A Commencement Speech for the Class of 2013

Here's what today's college graduates need to hear, but probably won't.


Here's the commencement speech that members of the Class of 2013 probably won't hear, but that I wish had been given to me when I graduated:

Dear Members of the Class of 2013:

Go fail!

That's right.

At college, failure is something students try their best to avoid. It's punished. If you fail your course, you don't get to graduate.

But out in the rest of the world, failing—or, more accurately, the knowledge, skills, character, relationships, and experience accumulated while failing—is valuable, and almost a precondition for success. Before Henry Ford started Ford Motor Company, he founded an unsuccessful company called the Detroit Automobile Company. The bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, failed as a musician. Dr. Suess's first children's book was rejected by 27 publishers. Thomas Edison tested more than 1,600 different filaments for his lightbulb before settling on the right material.

That doesn't mean you should try to fail. Obviously, it's better to succeed. But neither should you avoid doing things just because there's a risk that you might fail. The real trick, after all, isn't being so cautious that you avoid all failure; it's having the resilience and persistence to recover from failure and go on to flourish.

Learn how to read a profit and loss statement and a balance sheet. Many graduates of liberal arts schools may be going out into the world without much knowledge of accounting or financial literacy. If your college failed to teach you this, go learn it somewhere else. You will find it useful. Which brings up another point…

Keep learning. Even if you aren't going right into graduate school or a professional training course, you've got to keep learning, because a fair amount of what you've learned in college may well be obsolete by the time you come back for your 25th reunion.

Don't expect to have one job, at one firm, forever. College students do a lot of their learning from professors who have tenure, that is, lifetime job security. Those jobs are rarer and rarer even in academia. In the rest of the world, even jobs that were once permanent, like law firm partnerships, are now conditioned on continued performance. If you keep learning, you'll be ready when you need to find a new job, or create one for yourself, a few years down the road.

Teamwork matters. Your diploma has just your name on it, but in the rest of the world, a lot of important work happens in teams. In college, if you work too collaboratively with other students you can get in trouble for cheating. In the rest of the world your success will depend a lot on how well you work together with other people.

Intelligence is overrated. Intelligence is a quality that's prized on college campuses, but if it's not combined with other qualities, such as humanity, humility, and common sense, one risks ending up like the guy who got his Harvard Ph.D. for suggesting that America modify its immigration policy to give a preference to high-I.Q. immigrants—highly educated, out of work, and pretty much irrelevant to the public policy debate.

Children are a blessing. College students spend a lot of time trying to avoid getting pregnant. Before you know it, you will be spending time trying to get pregnant. Children may interfere with your work and your sleep but for many of you they will be a source of both challenge and deep satisfaction. Which brings us to…

What is important in life. If your college professors and your classmates did their job, they made you think through some ideas about what is important in life. Different people have different views of this. But you should try to have your own view and try to live your life in a way that measures up to your principles, goals, and ideals. If you do that, you aren't just doing what your parents or professors or mentors and supervisors at work tell you to do — though their input may shape your own ideas. You'll be living your own life thoughtfully. You'll be able to judge for yourself if you are succeeding or failing, and before you know it, you too may have accumulated enough wisdom to risk sharing what you've learned with some future class of college graduates.