In Praise of Failure


It is graduation season in Singapore and many other parts of the world, as enthusiastic young men and women celebrate the completion of their degrees and diplomas. As is customary, we send these students out into the world with parting words of advice and, hopefully, wisdom.

Much of this advice can seem generic, but last month a New York high school principal took that view to a new extreme. He not only borrowed text from another principal’s graduation message – he inadvertently concluded his own message by congratulating the graduating class of the other principal’s school.

Last week I had the honour of speaking to some of our own graduates from the Faculty of Law at their ceremony. With the example of that high school principal in mind I tried to think of something new to say. So what message did I choose with which to send these exceptional young men and women out into the world?

I chose failure.

Coincidentally, this was the morning after Brazil’s stunning 7-1 defeat by Germany. So I imagined, on the other side of the planet, Brazil’s coach giving a similar speech to his team.

A graduation ceremony, by contrast, might seem an odd time to focus on failure. The men and women graduating had, by any measure, succeeded thus far in their lives — navigating Singapore’s rigorous educational system, often with time to excel also in extra-curricular activities ranging from sports to the arts, from community involvement to charity work.

But the greatest liability of this group of graduates is precisely their history of success. It might seem churlish to point this out at a graduation ceremony, but the ability to do well in exams is a poor predictor for achievement in anything else.

Doing well academically certainly helps. But to succeed in life, raw intellectual ability needs to be coupled with other life skills such as the ability to communicate effectively, to cope with change, to overcome setbacks, and to work with and mobilise a team.

A second key message that I tried to share was linked to the first: that we learn more from our failures than from our successes. As high-achieving people who have succeeded for most of their lives, these graduates might now be tempted to be conservative, to avoid risks, to stick to the safe, well-travelled path.

I urged them to resist that temptation. For as young men and women entering the workforce, now is the time when they can — and should, and almost certainly will — make mistakes. You will, I warned them, fail.

And that’s ok. Because all of us fail.

For the true measure of a man or woman is not how often you succeed, but how you cope when you fail. Do you give up, walk away, think less of yourself? Or do you pause, dust yourself off, learn from what went wrong, and keep going?

Most great people are great precisely because they failed and yet kept going.

Indeed, if you look at anyone who achieved greatness, you can usually find the experience of failure. Thomas Edison’s teachers, for example, told him he was “too stupid to learn anything”. Oprah Winfrey was fired as a television reporter because she was not fit to be on TV. Walt Disney was sacked from a newspaper because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas”. Steven Spielberg was rejected — twice — by the University of California School of Cinema Arts.

J.K. Rowling was a single mother living on welfare when she wrote the first “Harry Potter” novel. It was rejected by twelve publishers — and only accepted by a thirteenth because the eight-year-old daughter of the CEO begged him to publish it.

The total number of paintings sold by Vincent Van Gogh in his lifetime? One: “The Red Vineyard”, for little more than $1,000 in today’s currency.

We learn more from our failures than from our successes because that’s when we learn what kind of person we are.

My concern for the young men and women graduating was that their success up until now might translate into a fear of failure. But unless we are prepared to fail, we will never know how much we might achieve. So I warned them that if, some years from now, they found that they were not failing at anything, if they were achieving all of their goals — then it was probably because those goals were not ambitious enough.

Now if I had not been giving a commencement address but teaching a class in the Faculty of Law, I can imagine the student feedback. “The prof didn’t clearly set out the aims and objectives of the course”. “He didn’t say what would be on the exam”.

That was, of course, my point: from now on, our former students must set their own exams.

So I wished them luck. I wished them success, but I also wished them failure. And above all, I wished them happiness.



The writer is the dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law.

This article appeared in the Straits Times on 19 July 2014.