Times will be tough for this spring’s crop of college graduates, as many carry the burden of five- and six-figure debt into what promises to be a “jobless recovery.” So it’s no surprise that more than a few of this year’s commencement speakers chose to focus on the subject of failure.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who addressed George Washington University graduates on the National Mall on Sunday, spoke of the inevitability of (personal) failure, observing that it’s how you respond to it that determines the height of your success. Emanuel related how he initially stumbled as political director in the Clinton White House, which led him to act with a little less bravado. “Learn humility and wisdom when you stumble, because it will help you when you succeed,” he told the assembled grads. “Being forced to come back from that failure is why I’m standing here today. You will have failures in your life, but it is what you do during those valleys that will determine the height of your peaks.”
Emanuel went on to discuss Abraham Lincoln, whom he regards as the greatest President in history. “At the other end of this mall is a memorial to Abraham Lincoln, a man who knew something about failure,” he began. “Lincoln rose from humble origins, and endured a string of disappointments and defeats on his way to becoming the 16th President. As President, he presided over a series of Union Army losses that completely shook his confidence in his generals. But Lincoln drew the right lessons from those setbacks and he kept improving and coming back stronger, until finally he had the team and the strategy to save our Union…. His greatness came from how he came back from his failures,” concluded Emanuel.
Meanwhile, over at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig told his audience that they shouldn’t expect to find success in their lives, at least not right away. “In baseball, as in life … hope and faith are critical to success,” he began. In these difficult times, “If you have hope and faith, if you are smart and tenacious and dedicated and willing to sacrifice, you can make a difference and make this a better world. And don’t be afraid of failure,” he added, a sentiment echoed by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn during ceremonies at the Charleston School of Law. If you recall, Clyburn lost his first three bids for elected office before winning his U.S. House seat in 1992.