Achieving Success Through Failure
Why Students Who Fail Now Will Win The Future
Good morning! Thank you very much for having me here today. It’s a real honour to be back on the Appleby campus and be here with you.
Thank you to Dr. Carter, Reverend Lucock, and Mrs. Ford from the Alumni Relations Office for inviting me here today. I’d also like to acknowledge the alumni here for their 50th Year Reunion. What an amazing occasion… congratulations gentlemen!
It was Closing Ceremony in June, 2001. Because of the rain, we all had to move to the J.S. Gardiner arena for the ceremony. It was my second year at Appleby College and I was just about the graduate Middle 2.
Two years earlier, I had moved from my hometown in Kobe, Japan to Oakville and started my Middle 1 year at Appleby. The last couple of years had all been new territory for me. New friends, new environment, new school, new everything.
As the Closing Ceremony began to wrap up, the final part of the ceremony – the reading of the Honour Roll started. I remember the Honour Roll announcement to be an anxiety-ridden experience.
Back in Middle 2, my last name was Woschina so I literally had to wait until the very end to find out. Gorchynski, Jessani, Leung… I heard the names of my friends getting called up one by one. Until it came to – or what should have been my name – and…
Nothing. It was onto the Upper 1 Honour Roll.
I was devastated. Ashamed at myself! I looked at my mom. She looked confused. I was pretty sure she thought they must’ve forgot my name somehow.
It was a quiet ride back home. I went to my room after the ceremony and teared up. It was one of the toughest experiences at Appleby.
Failure. It’s such an ugly word and feeling. It’s one of those words that if we could avoid using… we try to at all cost. Failure means a step back from progress. Failure means that you weren’t good enough. Failure means that everyone else notices. Failure means you couldn’t live up to expectations.
It’s no wonder that culturally failure is so taboo. What’s the worst outcome for a test? Failure or, let’s just say, anything less than you or your parents expected. What’s the worst outcome for a job interview? Failure to get the job – not getting selected. What’s the worst outcome for asking your crush out on a date? Well, you might already know failure looks like for that.
But is that really true? Is failure such a bad thing? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s the reason why we live in a world with great inventions and ideas. It’s because of failure that we’re able to grow, and personally, the reason why I’m the person I am today.
Back in Upper School when I was a student the boys didn’t have a Softball team. Interest had ran out from the Seniors and the team was put on hiatus.
But I really wanted to play!
So I contacted Ms. Creelman who was the Director of Athletics at that time and asked her what it would take to start a softball team at Appleby. She told me I’d need to find a minimum of 10 guys to play by 4pm that day.
So that morning I rallied a handful of friends at the library -and told them I was starting a softball team and we had 6 hours to find guys for the team. Some of the guys I rallied had never even touched a baseball glove before.
At 3:50pm we all walked into the room that Ms. Creelman told us to meet at and at 3:55pm, we had our 10th player walk in. We had a team!
We also realized at that point that we needed a coach. So we literally went door to door around the school to ask teachers still in their offices to coach a softball team that had just been formed 10 minutes ago. We came across Mrs. Dodd’s office, saw her door ajar, 10 boys filled the room and pleaded her to coach us.
And Mrs. Dodd to her credit… (I’m pretty sure had no idea what was going in her office as we crowded into it) said she’d coach us.
That season we ended up making the playoffs on the last game of the year. It was incredible. And it would’ve never happened if a group guys and a couple of teachers didn’t take a chance on making it happen.
Appleby gave me a lot of opportunities to try things and take risks. And I learned valuable lessons with every opportunity. There is no better time than now to experiment, make mistakes, and take risks. You have such an incredibly supportive environment around you. And if you don’t know if there’ll be support for your idea, just ask. There’s no harm in trying and you might be surprised!
We often gloss over the failure that successful people have had in order to get where they are today.
Take Pablo Picasso, who painted more than a thousand paintings and you can probably only name three of them.
Harry, Hermione, and Ron wouldn’t even be household names for any of us if J.K. Rowling gave up after she received 12 rejections in a row for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
After 10,000 failed attempts, Thomas Edison finally developed what is now the modern lightbulb.
So we know it takes failure (sometimes multiple failures) to get to where we want to go. But I think we all still have a fear of it. And I think it’s because of the unknown. We fear failure because we don’t know what happens after we fail. We often picture failure as an ending point. It’s all over when we fail… when it can really be the start of something completely new and remarkable.
Seth Godin, one of the most influential business bloggers in the world, explains our resistance to failure this way,
“I think it’s fear, and I think we’re even afraid to talk about this sort of fear. Fear of art. Of being laughed at. Of standing out and of standing for something.”
Art, according to Godin, means creating and doing something you believe in. Something you’re passionate about. Something you know that if it existed in the world, the world would be a better place.
I believe that art is in all of us. The world – or right here at the Appleby Community – will be a better place if you can bring out the best version of who you are – the one who’s not afraid of taking risks. The YOU that can bring a smile to someone’s face, the YOU that can lift up the spirits of those less fortunate, the YOU that can be the next J.K. Rowling, Malala, or Steve Jobs if you didn’t let the fear of failure stop you.
I think we sometimes hide who are because we’re afraid that others will see us. And we’re afraid of exposing that. We’re afraid of failure.
But as we’ve seen, people who take risks, and realize that failure is the price of admission, are the ones that ultimately make a dent in this world. Average is easy. The world tomorrow will be ruled by people who create remarkable stuff.
Last October, I took a personal development program in Los Angeles to work on my confidence and communication skills. One of the activities that we had to do was to go out onto the streets of Hollywood alone and ask a stranger to write down the first three impressions they had of me and sign their name next to the first impressions.
I was pretty nervous. Even as an introvert, I generally enjoy engaging people in conversation but to stop a stranger in the middle of one of the busiest streets in America and ask them for their first three impressions of me was terrifying.
What if someone got annoyed at me? Angry even? What if a cop stopped me to ask me what I was doing? What if someone wrote something particularly mean or nasty? How would I cope with that rejection?
Over the course of two hours on the street, I collected 20 signatures. And to my surprise, the top three comments I received were Friendly/Nice with 12, Funny with 8, and Outgoing with 4. My highlight was actually having an actor dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean come up to me and write “very cool, clean cut, and handsome” as his first impressions of me.
The whole point of that activity, as our coaches explained afterwards, was to shake off the fear of rejection. By putting us into a situation where we were confronted with that possibility – in a really public space – we realized that the “other side” of rejection wasn’t too bad!
Yes, I had some people walk past me or ignore me but the confidence I gained from the majority of the people that had something nice to say about me made it worth facing the potential rejection. We put too much stock into failure and rejection that we diminish the benefits of the success or learning experience that we gain from giving it a shot.
So how do we make this actionable? How do we implement failure and learning from them more regularly in our lives? Here are three ideas that I’d like to share with you.
#1 – Don’t Blame Others (Take Responsibility)
There are so many situations and circumstances that may cause you to fail. The noisy neighbour’s dog keeping you up at night, the classmate that didn’t do his part for a project, the family emergency that pulled you away from completing the assignment.
Whatever the case might be, you ultimately have to take the responsibility. When you become the owner of your actions, you take responsibility for the learning experience. You can think about how you could’ve done things differently to avoid the same mistakes next time.
Next time, you can go over to the neighbour and mention the noisy dog, you can set better expectations with your classmate to help him complete his part of the project, or you could’ve have built in more buffer time for an assignment knowing that some sort of emergency can come up anytime.
When you take responsibility, you take responsibility for your life. People will respect you for it.
#2 – Daily Reflection (Putting Learning First)
I use a service everyday called TalkSpace where I have unlimited access to text or leave a voice message with a licensed therapist. I report to her about how my day went and go through a list of six questions and rate myself on a scale of 1 to 10. Here are the six questions I ask myself:
1. Did I do my best to set clear goals today?
2. Did I do my best to make progress toward my goals today?
3. Did I do my best to find meaning today?
4. Did I do my best to be happy today?
5. Did I do my best to build positive relationships today?
6. Did I do my best to be fully engaged today?
And we talk through them… without judgment. Somedays I do better and somedays I don’t. And there’s a reason why I start each question with “Did I do my best…” because it’s not about the result but about the effort I took to become a better version of myself that day.
Daily Reflection is about putting learning first. When you get the opportunity to reflect, you put things into perspective. The challenges you experienced that day make a little bit more sense. You develop compassion for yourself for mistakes you might’ve made.
If you can’t pay for a service like TalkSpace, find someone who is interested in spending a few minutes everyday to reflect or write in a journal. Both are fantastic alternatives.
#3 – Give Yourself Permission to Fail
Instead of looking at all situations as all or nothing. Win or lose situations. Give yourself permission to think of situations or challenges as a learning experience. Keep yours eyes open for new ways your could’ve prepared or executed. And above all, be okay if you do fail. It’s the learning that counts.
Over my career so far I’ve had to opportunity to work at a microcredit bank in Africa, led students on life-changing volunteer trips at Me to We and Free The Children, and worked at a leading billion-dollar technology company. And every single experience has taught me something new. I’ve had many failures like being passed over for a promotion not knowing exactly what I wanted to do in my life. But I want to assure you, the pain? the disappointment? It passes. You move on. And, as long as you learn from them, you get better.
At the company that I work for now, called Actionable Books, we’re changing how organizations learn and develop through bite-sized learning workshops. We have a small team of 8 people and we just received $2 million dollars in investment to help us grow our organization. It’s scary but exciting. We know there are going to be mistakes and failures that we’ll make along the way. But I know that I’ll be applying every lesson I’ve learned starting from here at Appleby to do my best to make it success.
Today’s special service is called the Founders Service. And it’s a tribute to the thousands of students who have passed through this very chapel and hallways of this school. A school that has been built on the genuine passion and energy of students and faculty who believe in the power of learning, character, and community.
This school, our school, is the school it is today because of those who have passed here before us. Let’s honour their legacy by living true to our school motto “Nec Temere, Nec Timide” – “Neither rashly nor timidly”. I challenge you all today to bring your art – your genuine passion and energy for something you believe – and don’t let the fear of failure get in your way. It’ll be the greatest tribute you can give to the generations of students who have come before us and help you build your own foundation during your time here.