Harvard University is perhaps the most prestigious academic institution in the world. Oprah Winfrey has often been called one of the most successful women in the world. So it was fitting that this June it was Oprah who was given the honor of serving as commencement speaker to the graduating class of some of America’s most elite students.
But what was truly remarkable was the subject that Oprah chose as her theme. To a group almost certainly assured of great success in life, Oprah stressed the need to understand the message of failure.
“If you’re constantly pushing yourself higher, higher, the law of averages – not to mention the myth of Icarus – predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do, I want you to know this, remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
Oprah’s words resonate with me with special power. As a Rabbi for over half a century, I’ve come to grasp this as a fundamental truth in the lives of many people I’ve counseled – and more significantly in my own life as well.
Of course failure of any kind is never pleasant. It comes clothed with pain. It needs time to recover. But invariably, if we analyze it carefully, failure is accompanied with purpose. As Malcolm Forbes put it succinctly, “Failure is success if we learn from it.”
Failure only becomes a problem when we confuse it with self-identity.
S.I. Hayakawa, the distinguished former U.S. senator from California and a specialist in semantics, alerted us to an all-important distinction between two English words that most of us assume are identical: “Notice the difference between what happens when a man says to himself, 'I have failed three times,’ and what happens when he says, 'I am a failure.'” To think of yourself as a failure is to create a perpetual self-image as a loser.
Failure only becomes a serious problem when we confuse it with our self-identity.
W.C. Fields suggested, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.” But W.C. Fields was not a philosopher. He was a comedian who couldn’t quit, at least when it came to drinking and destroying himself.
The Talmud however, wisely enjoins us to remember that "If one says to you: I have struggled mightily and I have not prevailed, do not believe him" (Megillah 6b). We cannot hope to never fail; that is impossible. What we can do is to continue to rise every time we fall, which will guarantee us success. As King Solomon said, “A righteous person falls seven times and gets up” (Proverbs, 24:16).
If you learn from your experience, if your failure inspires you to surpass yourself and to do it better next time, if you understand that failure is merely a momentary event but never defines a person – then you are an alumnus of the best school in the world, and your failure was the tuition you paid for your eventual success.
The world is divided between learners and non-learners.
We love to categorize people, usually by labeling them by one of two distinctly different characteristics. People are skinny or fat, introverted or extroverted, optimists or pessimists, serious or funny. All of these lead to stereotyping and to generalizations that aren’t completely accurate.
There is one division of people, however, that Benjamin Barber, a political scientist at Rutgers University, teaches that may summarize an ultimate truth about human behavior. Barber was asked his opinion of the common division of people into successes and failures. His insights deserve not only to be quoted, but to be observed and committed to memory by every one of us:
I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures, those who make it or those who don’t. I don’t even divide the world into the extroverted and the introverted, or those who hear the inner voice or the outer voice, because we all hear some of both.
I divide the world into learners and non-learners.
There are people who learn, who are open to what happens around them, who listen, who hear the lessons. When they do something stupid, they don’t do it again. When they do something that works a little bit, they do it even better and harder the next time.
The question to ask is not whether you are a success or a failure, but whether you are a learner or a non-learner.
If I can summarize what he said in one sentence, it’s this: “If we learn from an experience, there is no such thing as failure.”
In Jewish terms, it is couched in the term we use for the person most to be revered and respected. It is a talmid chacham. Not simply a chacham, a wise person, but a student of wisdom, someone who continues to learn from his studies and his experiences.
My Greatest Embarrassment
Oprah’s message to the Harvard graduates resonated with biblical truth. The first of our patriarchs, Abraham, was tested with 10 trials. Torah commentators point out that the Hebrew word for a test, nisayon, is related to the same root as the word for raised or elevated: the ability to overcome obstacles, survive failures and learn and grow from them is what elevates us spiritually and permits us to rise to ever greater heights as human beings.
And from a personal perspective, it was particularly meaningful to me that Oprah stressed the potential blessing of failure at a graduation ceremony – because that is where in my own life I first learned its meaning.
I will never forget my moment of greatest embarrassment. My elementary school graduation ceremony featured a play. As reward for academic achievement, I was granted a leading role. My excitement knew no bounds. I was to play Moses. There could be no greater honor. I practiced my part faithfully. I memorized it perfectly and in rehearsal I performed it flawlessly.
Can you imagine what it was like for me when in front of the entire audience I froze? I was a stranger to the spotlight and I began to stutter and stumble. I felt sick at my failure and couldn’t wait for the performance to be over. How would I ever again face my family and friends who I had so deeply disappointed?
No sooner was the play finished than the principal school stood up to thank everybody. In total shock and amazement I heard him single me out for praise: “We all know that Moses had a speech defect and stuttered – and so we especially thank Benjamin Blech, the star of the show, who played Moses so realistically.”
Any success I have today as a speaker stems from my first failure – a failure that a very wise man helped me turn into the blessing of confidence and success.