Sandra Bullock had some lovely and inoffensive things to say to a class of graduating high school seniors in New Orleans. And her expression of love for her son was especially touching. But once she’s going to be dispensing advice, shouldn’t that advice be useful and truthful? Perhaps as a celebrity we should cut her slack, but one thought she shared was especially awful. She denied failure:
It is noisy out there and for some reason, people want to see you fail. That’s not your problem; that is their problem. I only remember the moments where I tried beyond what I thought I could do and I do not remember the failures because I didn’t. Nothing’s a failure. It’s just not supposed to work out that way because something better is supposed to come along.
Nothing’s a failure? Not true. Many things are failures. When you first try to ride a bike and the bicycle falls out from under you and you with it, you have failed to ride properly. If you move your arms and legs in a pool, thrashing about and sputtering for air, you are not swimming. You have failed. When you stand over a golf ball and swing your club right at it and all you hit is air, you have failed to connect.
The kids competing in this year’s national spelling bee know the meaning of failure. The ones who are not going through to the semifinals failed to earn a spot. But they also know the difference between failure and success and many have older siblings — some are past champions, others are past competitors — who are supporting their brothers and sisters for trying to succeed and consoling them if they fail.
It isn’t simply that Bullock was wrong to suggest failure doesn’t exist, but she was doing a disservice to the students by failing to appreciate and explain the value and virtue of failure. Megan McArdle has written a whole book on the subject, basing part of her study on her own experiences (and her failures are spectacular), in which she argues that the only path to success is to learn the right lessons from inevitable failures.
In The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success, McArdle explains that failure is necessary in order to learn. And for kids accepting the inevitability of failure is an essential lesson. As McArdle explained in an interview with Parents magazine:
Failure doesn’t feel good. We probably all remember how bad it felt to be the kid who got picked last for the team or tried as hard as we could to win a prize but still fell short. …But one of the most important lessons we learn in life is how to pick ourselves up after we try something—and flop. From babies learning to walk, to scientists figuring out how to split an atom, learning is a process of trial and error. A whole lot of error. The greatest successes are people who have failed again and again, learning along the way what doesn’t work . . . and from that, what does. When we shield our kids from failure, we’re teaching them that failure isn’t just unpleasant, but unimaginably horrible. They are sometimes completely derailed. Learning to cope with failure is one of the most important things anyone can teach. Kids who never confront failure won’t be equipped to dodge the curveballs that life inevitably sends you way, and will flounder once they hit the workforce.
Another recent graduation speaker, this time at the University of Texas at Austin, had just that message for the graduates he addressed. Admiral William H. McRaven offered 10 lessons to change the world and one of them was about the value of failure.
Every day during [Navy SEAL] training you were challenged with multiple physical events—long runs, long swims, obstacle courses, hours of calisthenics…Every event had standards… If you failed to meet those standards your name was posted on a list and … those on the list were invited to—a “circus.”
A circus was two hours of additional calisthenics—designed to wear you down, to break your spirit, to force you to quit. No one wanted a circus [because it] meant that for that day you didn’t measure up…. At some time during SEAL training, everyone—everyone—made the circus list. But an interesting thing happened to those who were constantly on the list.
Over time those students-—who did two hours of extra calisthenics—got stronger and stronger. The pain of the circuses built inner strength-built physical resiliency. Life is filled with circuses.
You will fail. You will likely fail often. It will be painful. It will be discouraging. At times it will test you to your very core. But if you want to change the world, don’t be afraid of the circuses.
Bullock’s celebrity meant that the group of 18-year-olds she faced might listen to her. Some of what she told the graduates was nice, as when she recommended putting some real effort in hugging people (“with both arms”). But she failed to live up to her promise as a speaker when she offered some pap notion of life without failure, instead of telling the students the truth. Bullock has had her own share of failures. Given the fact that she is divorced (relationship failure) and has given some lousy performances in flop films (Two if By Sea and The Thing Called Love, anyone?), she really could have spoken from personal experience. The kids Bullock addressed are going to fail. They might as well get started understanding that fact, embracing it, and learning how to overcome it.