Failure Is an Option


The season of commencement speeches is upon us. High school and college graduates sit patiently waiting to have their names called (most likely mispronounced) as family and friends watch from uncomfortable bleacher seats.

Graduation represents a new chapter of life, and the unknown can be frightening.

During commencement speeches at the University of Pennsylvania and Dillard University, legendary actor and producer Denzel Washington told graduates, “Fail big. That’s right. Fail big.”

“It’s a new world out there, and it’s a mean world out there, and you only live once. So, do what you feel passionate about,” Washington said. “Take chances, professionally. Don’t be afraid to fail.”

Moving through an academic environment that discourages mistakes, students are conditioned to avoid failure. But the simple truth, great success is achieved through failure, sometimes a series of failures.


Importance of Goals

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”–Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Washington encouraged the graduates to dream big and set goals. “So, have dreams, but have goals: Life goals, yearly goals, monthly goals, daily goals. I try to give myself a goal every day. Sometimes just to not curse somebody out. Simple goals, but have goals and understand that to achieve these goals you must apply discipline and consistency…You have to work at it.”

Movement vs. Progress

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”—Benjamin Franklin

Progress is more than movement, and success comes with a plan.

Washington acknowledged the importance of hard work. “Working really hard is what successful people do. And in this text, tweet, twerk world that you’ve grown up in, remember just because you’re doing a lot more doesn’t mean you’re getting a lot more done. Don’t confuse movement with progress. My mom told me, ‘You can run in place all the time and never get anywhere.’ Continue to strive, continue to have goals, continue to progress.”

Take Risks

“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”—Muhammad Ali


Washington said, “I found that nothing in life is worthwhile, unless you take risks. I’m sure in your experiences in school and applying to college and picking your major and deciding what you want to do with life that people have told you to make sure you have something to fall back on…But I’ve never understood that concept. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything except my faith. I want to fall forward, I figure at least this way I will see what I’m going to hit.”


“There is no passion to be found playing small and settling for a life that’s less than the one you’re capable of living.”—Nelson Mandela


“If you want something you never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.”—Thomas Jefferson


Famous Failures

Before Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx revolutionized the woman’s undergarment industry, she sold fax machines door-to-door.

Failure served as a stepping stone for Blakely’s success, which includes being named one of the youngest self-made woman billionaires in the world.

In a 2019 interview, Blakely credits her success to her father, who encouraged her to fail. “We’d sit around the dinner table, and he’d ask, ‘What did you guys fail at this week?’ If we had nothing to tell him, he’d be disappointed,” she said. “He knew that many people become paralyzed by the fear of failure. My father wanted us to try everything and feel free to push the envelope. His attitude taught me to define failure as not trying something I want to do instead of not achieving the right outcome.”

Creator of the “Happiest Place on Earth,” Walt Disney was told he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”

“I think it’s important to have a good hard failure when you’re young,” Disney said. “Because it makes you kind of aware of what can happen to you. Because of it, I’ve never had any fear in my whole life when we’ve been near collapse and all of that. I’ve never been afraid.”

Before J.K Rowling penned the Harry Potter series, which has sold more than 500 million copies, she was a broke, single mother trying to make a living.

Now one of the richest women in the world, in a commencement speech at Harvard University, Rowling said, “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.”

Considered the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Jordan didn’t let that failure stop him from pursuing his passion for playing basketball.

Six NBA championships and five MVPs later, Jordan missed more than 9,000 shots during his professional career and lost nearly 300 games. Jordan said, “On 26 occasions, I have been entrusted to take the game-winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Talents Are a Gift From God

“True desire in the heart for anything good is God’s proof to you, sent beforehand to indicate that it’s yours already,” Washington said. “I’ll say it again, true desire in the heart, that itch that you have, whatever it is that you want to do, whatever it is you want to do to help others to grow and to make money, that desire, that itch is God’s proof to you, sent beforehand already to indicate that it’s yours. And anything you want, you can have. So, claim it. Work hard to get it. When you get it, reach back pull someone else up. Each one, teach one. Don’t just aspire to make a living, aspire to make a difference.”

Congratulations to the 2021 graduates—I wish you much success in your failures.

Thressea Boyd, Editor
South Georgia Business Magazine





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