A few years ago I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at a high school commencement ceremony.  Below is both the audio and transcript of the speech.  Enjoy and be inspired!

I’d like to begin with a quote by the famous novelist J.K. Rowling.  Many of you probably recognize her as the author of the wildly popular Harry Potter series.  She once said that “it is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all.”

Those are big words from the woman who penned the #1 best-selling book series in history.

As I sat down to write this speech I asked myself, what would I have wanted to hear from my graduation speaker a decade ago, when I was sitting in the very same seats you find yourself in today?  

The day of my high school graduation, I remember being so full of excitement.  I had such big plans. Life was good and the future was bright.  

For a while, those bright prospects did not disappoint.  After finishing high school, I graduated summa cum laude from one of the top colleges in the southeast, completed several prestigious internships while in school, went to South Korea on a Fulbright scholarship after graduation, got a master’s degree, and have now visited all 6 inhabited continents.

But since finishing high school I have also been unemployed, threatened with a lawsuit, assaulted, and wrongly arrested.  I have been unable to maintain some relationships with close family and friends, and struggled with a loss of purpose and depression.  

What I would have wanted someone to tell me at my high school graduation is that I am going to fail.  

I will undoubtedly fail sometime in the future, probably many times.  And so will all of you.

There was a time in my life when I would have thought that failing was the most horrible thing that could have possibly happened to me.  You see, up until my college graduation, I had never really failed at anything.  Honestly, I didn’t think I ever would.  

I spent my young life hearing how much I had going for me, how much I was going to accomplish after I moved out of my parents’ house.  It gave me an inflated sense of ego.  I thought that I would never fail, that my work ethic would carry me through any obstacles I came across.  

New York Times columnist and author David Brooks once said that “success leads to the greatest failure, which is arrogance and pride.  But failure can lead to the greatest success, which is humility and learning.”  


That’s exactly what happened to me.  Failure is always challenging, but it’s almost insurmountable when you’ve been raised to think that you can’t fail.   

So for me, when the inevitable failure did come, it absolutely crushed me.  The struggles in my life had a domino effect, with more and more challenges popping up as a direct result of me feeling incompetent from the previous let down.  

For many of you, I’m sure the future is just as bright for you as it was for me at my high school graduation.  And I have no doubt that you will accomplish much over the course of your lives.  

But you will have setbacks, as well.

There will be illnesses, lost jobs, family drama, failed businesses and financial stress.  You will have to sacrifice and make hard decisions.  Sometimes you will regret the decisions you made.  Many of these situations will bring about a fear of the unknown, a fear of making the wrong choice, a fear of failing.  

But fear is only failure if you listen to it.  As James Neil Hollingsworth once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the knowledge that something else is more important than fear.“

Being afraid of something doesn’t mean that you can’t do it.  And it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try.  Often the most impactful things you could pursue are the very things that seem impossible, the challenges that send a chill of terror down your spine.  

As actor and comedian Ed Helms once said, “fear is not something to be afraid of.  It sharpens you, it challenges you, it makes you stronger, and when you run away from fear, you also run away from the opportunity to be your best possible self.”

It’s easy to equate fear with failure.  I thought I was a failure when I headed out to South Korea on my Fulbright scholarship.  It may be hard to believe that, but it’s true.  I was so scared.  Here I was, on a prestigious scholarship in a beautiful new country, and I was crying myself to sleep every night for weeks.  What was wrong with me??, I asked myself.  

I thought I was a failure because I couldn’t more fully enjoy my first few months there. But I wasn’t a failure.  I showed up, in spite of my fear, and eventually grew to really love the people and country of South Korea.


It’s also easy to think that not achieving your desired result is a failure.  After I returned from South Korea, I struggled through a difficult master’s program only to receive a grand total of zero job offers in my desired field.  Again, I felt like a failure.  But I had successfully completed my program.  I had learned flexibility and found a job outside of my field.  I wasn’t a failure then, either.  

What is real failure, then?  

In the end, there are only 2 types of real failure.  Failing to try, and failing to learn from your mistakes.  Anything other than that is simply a courageous preparation for your next success. 

Now I know that no matter what I say here today, there will be days when your inner critic is much louder than me.  So I’ve created an acrostic from the word failure.  I want to take back this word, to remind you that not all challenges equate with failure, and hopefully silence the naysayers in your life, even if the naysayer happens to be yourself.

So here is my new and improved definition of failure: 

F – Follow big, impossible dreams

~ “For the most important decisions in your life, trust your intuition, and then work with everything you have, to prove it right.” –Tim Cook, COO of Apple

  • Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working with patients in the last few weeks of their life.  She compiled the insights she gathered from them into a book called “The Top 5 regrets of the dying.”  Do you know what the #1 regret was?  “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life that others expected of me.”  You may find this hard to believe right now, but at the end of your life you won’t regret the times you tried and failed.  You’ll regret the times you never tried at all.

A – Avoid complacency

~ “Your biggest risk isn’t failing, it’s getting too comfortable.” –Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox

  • Oh how I wish I’d learned this earlier in life.  After I returned from Korea, I found myself getting tired.  I was tired of working hard, tired of constantly traveling, tired of being far away from my family.  Eventually, I became complacent.  I settled for an easy life instead of an exceptional one.  By the time I woke up and realized what had happened, I was pretty deeply entrenched in my comfortable rut.  Beware of letting yourself get into a rut.  Keep moving towards your goals, even if you don’t see any progress.  Stop trying to make your life perfect, and instead make it interesting.  Don’t fear failure; fear stagnation.

I – Ignore the naysayers

~“Creativity is a consequence of action, not its motivation. Do what needs to be done and then ask whether it was possible.”  –Wade Davis, Canadian Anthropologist and Ethnobotanist

  • Short and stubby, the humble bumblebee doesn’t look like a very flight-worthy creature.  In fact August Magnan, a famous French 20th century entomologist once declared that the bumblebee’s flight actually defied the laws of physics.  By all accounts, they are aerodynamically unsound and shouldn’t be able to get themselves off the ground.  But they don’t know that they can’t fly, and so they do it anyway.  Like the lowly bumblebee, never give in to pessimism.  Don’t know that you can’t fly, and you will soar like an eagle.

L – Learn to like yourself

~“The way to be happy is to like yourself and the way to like yourself is to do things that make you proud.” ~Mark Lewis, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas

  • This has been a really challenging one for me.  I want to be liked by other people, and if they don’t like me I have a really hard time liking myself.  I see interpersonal conflict as something that must be fixed, and if I fail to fix it I’m somehow less of a person.  But that’s simply not true.  My value does not depend on what other people think of me.  And neither does yours.  Be the best person you can be, be proud of the work that you do, and learn to like yourself regardless of what other people think of you.

U – Understand who you really are

~“We have the choice, the ability to acknowledge that being ‘scared’ is not who we are. It is not our identity.” –Paul Glaser, American actor and director 

  • Remember this when your inner critic is attacking you for quaking in your boots.  Emotions you are feeling, actions you’ve taken or even actions you’ve avoided taking, do not define you.  If you are scared, that doesn’t make you a coward.  Health issues don’t mean you’re broken.  If you are struggling with something, you’re not a failure.  Understand that the things you’re going through don’t define you.  You have worth and value outside of the day-to-day grind.

R – Request help when needed

~”We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.” -Ronald Reagan, former US president

  • I’ve been self-sufficient for the better part of a decade now.  Asking for help is hard for me.  I don’t want to ask for help, I don’t think that I need it.  I’ve convinced myself that the best, most honorable way to do things is on my own.  
  • But the fact of the matter is that everyone needs help at some point in their lives.  It’s not shameful to ask for it when you need it.  In fact, I would say that asking for help takes a great amount of courage.  So accept and embrace your shortcomings, and surround yourself with people who can help balance you out.

E – Encourage and help others

~“Life is not about warming yourself by the fire, life is about building the fire. And generosity is the match…If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap, but if you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” –Larry Lucchino, Boston Red Sox president

  • The months after my wrongful arrest were very dark ones for me.  I just couldn’t understand how something like this could have happened to me.  It sent me into an ugly spiral that at the time seemed impossible to get out of.  Do you know how I finally did break free of my lethargy and self-pity?  I started volunteering at a youth detention center.  While I was only there for a day, I had come to realize that some people are trapped in the vicious cycles of poverty, crime and incarceration all their lives.  I decided that I wanted to help kids get out of this cycle and began mentoring teens in a local youth detention center.  In doing so, I was able to help myself and regain my own happiness.  
  • It seems contradictory, but often the best way in life to help yourself is to help others – without asking for anything in return.  The day you decide that you don’t have any time or resources to help someone is the day you stop helping yourself.  

So the next time you feel like a failure, remind yourself to:

F – Follow big dreams

A – Avoid complacency

I – Ignore the naysayers

L – Learn to like yourself

U – Understand who you really are

R – Request help when needed

E – Encourage and help others

Failure isn’t something you just need to put up with, and it definitely isn’t something to avoid. Failure is something you should run to and embrace! It’s a sign you are moving forward and doing great things.

The greatest achievers in the world have the most failures under their belt. Who has failed more, the concert pianist or the complete beginner? Obviously, the concert pianist! It is this fact alone that makes him a master.

Winston Churchill once said that “success is running from failure to failure with great enthusiasm.” Success by definition is an accumulation of failures.1 When I live in fear literally every day I’m way more fulfilled in life… because of that – not in spite of it. Pursue fear and embrace failure. Fear lets us know that we are up against something great and failure is the currency of success.