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Speakers to grads: Go forth and fail

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in Leaders & Managers

’Tis the season for commencement addresses. Last year brought a batch of good ones, often on how failure can lead to success.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said he had no intention of commanding newly minted graduates to solve the world’s problems.

“Most of us would do well to solve our own problems,” he said. “Often, as most of us know, the real battle is conquering ourselves. I am no good at telling people what to think or how to live their lives. As those of us who take responsibility for our lives, and don’t blame others, know only so well, life has a way of humbling, if not humiliating, us.”

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom quoted Winston Churchill defining success as moving from failure to failure with enthusiasm. Newsom pointed out that NBA All-Star Michael Jordan was rejected from his high school basketball team.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, told Harvard grads that seven years after her own graduation, she had “failed on an epic scale.” Now the richest woman in Great Britain, Rowling had lost at both marriage and holding a job, and was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless,” she said. “The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”

By pretending to be someone other than herself, Rowling hit rock bottom and used it as the “solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable,” she says. “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.”

— Adapted from “Rowling’s Harvard Speech Doesn’t Entrance All,” Tovia Smith, National Public Radio, and “Messages of Exhortation, Counsel and Congratulation,” Sam Dillon, The New York Times.

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