May 2010

The importance of failure

Yesterday, the School of Medicine celebrated our 168th graduation, where I shared some thoughts with the students. Because the theme really applies to everyone, and because it involves some of my deepest beliefs, I wanted to also share these thoughts with all of you.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. So…you did it!!! I’m so proud of you!

Today, you officially join an ancient and noble profession. I know all the faith and effort and hard work it took to get here, and I salute each and every one of you for your extraordinary achievement.

This is also a very special day for all those who have helped you reach this point—your families, your friends, and your teachers. And I’m sure you’d like to take this opportunity to thank them.

Commencement is typically an occasion to meditate on the significance of success. Today, I’d like to turn that tradition on its head…and explore with you instead the importance of failure. Now, if you look back over my life, you might think I’ve chosen to talk about failure because I’ve been so good at it!

There was the early “triumph” of the rabbi informing my parents that my knowledge was—and I quote—“too meager to be adequately prepared”…for my Bar Mitzvah!

There was my abysmal early track-record at getting my research funded. I probably wrote a dozen grants, over several years, only to get turned down again and again. I could tell you that the reason was that I was trying to pursue a technology—MRI—that was still in its infancy. But the fact was, I just couldn’t get funded. I distinctly recall my precocious 7-year-old son predicting, in the mid-80s, that Ivan Lendl would win Wimbledon before I ever got a positive reply….And as tennis fans know, Lendl never did win Wimbledon!

I still remember reading the pink sheets (as the NIH critiques were then called) where a reviewer indicated that I was not an expert in magnetic resonance imaging and that everyone already knew everything about the appearance of stroke on MRI. That was in 1983, by the way, before the technology had even been implemented in most medical
centers.

In the course of my career, I was also turned down—and in some cases not even interviewed—for positions, including department chairmanships, that I felt highly qualified for.

In other words, if things have turned out pretty well for me, it’s certainly not because I was a fast starter! Instead, I believe it’s because I learned from my disappointments and missteps. And I’d say I did two things right: I always tried to recognize when I did make a mistake, so it wouldn’t take on a life of its own…and I vowed never to make the same mistake again.

The key point, I think, is not just that everyone stumbles now and then, but that success in the deepest sense can’t happen without failure being part of the mix. You can’t be afraid of making mistakes, or feel you have to make excuses if you do. And—though it’s a tall order—you have to try and see adversity as an ally in disguise.

Think of Harry Truman, who never got a college degree…who sold hats, belt buckles and such in his haberdashery and then went bankrupt at the age of 37…who in fact—other than serving in World War I—never did anything of note before the age of 40…and who is belatedly recognized as one of the greatest presidents this country has ever had.

Or think of Gandhi, who tried and failed to set up a law practice…whose application for a part-time job as a high school teacher was rejected…whose small start-up business got shut down…who got thrown off a train for riding in the “wrong car”…and who ultimately not only transformed his native India, but also inspired— through Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela—world-changing, peaceful revolutions in both the U.S. and South Africa.

Or think of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was ridiculed as an ugly duckling by her mother…endured a lonely and terrifying childhood…and rose to become one of the most admired and revered figures in the entire world. By the way, her advice to “do something every day that scares you” seems to me incredibly wise!

So what is it about failing that’s so important?

Well, first, I’d say that, unless it breaks you, it teaches you resilience. You learn to separate your ego from the importance of what you’re trying to do.

I’m convinced that people to whom success comes easily and early (not me) rarely prove transcendent in the long run. Maybe, as time goes on, they spend their energies trying to avoid failure because they never really got the chance to prove to themselves they could survive it…or maybe they come to crave the accolades, and get caught up in trying to “look good,” and ultimately, in making sure they never “look bad.”

Failure is important because it forges your strength as a person.

And if you define success as accomplishing something meaningful with your life—as I’m sure you do—you have to be certain…right from the beginning…that you distinguish it from success for its own sake.

Whatever you do, you will have moments of feeling you didn’t get what you deserve. And the defining question will be what you do with that.

So let me leave you with these thoughts about the paradox of failure.

First, true success is a matter, not of appearances, but of substance.

Second, if you’re unable to risk making a mistake, you’ll never dare anything that really matters.

And third, whenever failure strikes, someone…somewhere in the mix…has something to learn. Maybe it’s someone else. Or maybe it’s you. Either way, there’s a chance for enlightenment and growth.

So I hope you will go forward from this day understanding that—from anything I know at least—if you hit dark patches where nothing seems to be working, that will probably be a pretty clear sign that you’re on the right track!

Bravo, again, to each of you. Believe in yourselves…and in the transcendent mission you’ve embraced. And remember that every time you make someone else’s life better, easier, more comfortable, you’ll have hit the one kind of home run that echoes forever…whether the record books cite it…or not. Thank you very much.