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Music Convocation Address

May 6, 2015

Each year at this event I give a short speech. This year, it’s a little different, in that I, too, am a senior this year. Now before the juniors, sophomores and first years get their hopes up, I will not be graduating. I guess I’ll technically be starting over as a freshman next year. In my last job, I was a senior by that math, four times. Four times around the wheel—16 years. Using this math—that every four years you become a senior again—Dr. Balensuela would have been a senior at DePauw at least 5 times. Caroline Smith, at least 6; Dr. Edberg and Dr. Edwards, almost 7. And Orcenith Smith… well, I put that number in my calculator and it began to smoke. You’ll have to do that math yourself.

Two years ago on this occasion I encouraged you to follow Rumi’s advice and “let the beauty you love be what you do.” Last year I talked about how precious every moment of time is. After hearing our performance of the monumental ninth symphony of Beethoven this week and reflecting upon his life, I decided that this year, I’d like to take my few minutes to talk to you about…failure.

Now if you are thinking that failure seems to be the most unlikely topic for a graduation speech in the history of graduation speeches, I would agree. And that is sad. In my career, I have sat through dozens –if not hundreds—of graduation speeches that talk about success: how the world is waiting for you, how this is your time, how many fantastic ways you will succeed. (Truth be told, I have given several of these speeches.) The thing is, we are all pretty good at handling success—it’s not that difficult. What we need to think about, and think about carefully, is how we handle failure.

Thomas Edison famously said he had not failed but had instead come up with 1,000 ways NOT to invent a light bulb. Apparently idea 1001 worked. What if he quit at 999? (I don’t know about you but I am glad we don’t have to light the candelabra chandelier every time we have a concert in Kresge.) That ability to fail and not be destroyed is an important skill—maybe the important skill. The major league baseball batter who held the record for striking out—a record that lasted nearly 30 years? Babe Ruth. An NBA player that missed 26 game-winning shots and lost nearly 300 games in his career is in the Hall of Fame. His name is Michael Jordan. Author Geoff Colvin estimated that figure skater Shizuka Arakawa of Japan, fell more than twenty thousand times on her way to becoming an Olympic champion. “Arakawa’s story is invaluable as a metaphor,” Colvin wrote. “Landing on your butt twenty thousand times is where great performance comes from.” A lawyer from Illinois failed in 2 businesses, then ran for the legislature…and lost. He ran for congress and lost—twice. So he ran for Senate and lost there, too. Twice. Yet Abraham Lincoln is not only one of the most loved presidents in history, he is so because of his response to failure. And repeated failure. And repeated, repeated failure.

The concert we heard Sunday, the immortal Beethoven 9, was written by a composer that lost his ability to hear. Taking away the ears of a composer is akin to taking away the eyes of a painter yet Beethoven persevered. Of course he waivered, of course he despaired, of course he questioned. But then he wrote. Usually writing a new symphony every two years or so, it was 12 years after the 8th before he came back with his greatest symphony—some say the greatest symphony—ever. The final, beloved theme is an ode to: joy! Get that: after lamenting the loss of the one sense that he said “should have been more perfect in me,” and citing his “state of endless suffering,” he perseveres to write an Ode to Joy.

Carol Dweck, in a brilliant book called “Mindset” explains this phenomenon. She says we all have one of two mindsets: The “fixed” mindset or the “growth” mindset. She states:

“The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. 

It seems that those of us with the fixed mindset are convinced that we are what we are, our talents and abilities are fixed and that we must hide our deficiencies. Failure is to be avoided at all cost.

She goes on to tell us that the growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. She asks,

Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

Sounds like Beethoven, doesn’t it? Think back to the opening of that final movement. A frightening fanfare sounds like the opening of the curtain, and the cellos and basses seem to ask, “Okay Beethoven, you’ve written nine of these things now, what have you got?” He offers a theme from an earlier movement—“No!” the cellos interrupt. He offers another—not good enough! “Not these tones, but ones more joyful.” And the soloists and the chorus and the orchestra erupt with an ode to joy that has captivated the entire world ever since. Where would he be had he quit? Where would we be?

Ken Rea, in a great book called “The Outstanding Actor” says, “The fixed mindset makes you concerned with how you will be judged, the growth mindset makes you focus on improving.” In his aptly entitled book, “Bounce,” Matthew Syed says,

“It is about stepping outside the comfort zone, training with a spirit of endeavor, and accepting the inevitability of trials and tribulations. Progress is built, in effect, upon the foundations of necessary failure.”

And that is the thought I want to leave you with. Necessary failure. The question is not will you fail? Of course you will. The question is what will you do with it? Will you hide it, shun it, rationalize it, deny it? Or will you embrace it for what it is—inevitable and necessary. We don’t expect you to invent the light bulb or win a gold medal or be in the hall of fame. We expect something far more important. We expect you to become the best “you” you can possibly be—that person who lives a life of meaning and purpose, and beauty, and who realizes that inevitable, necessary failures are what made you that person.

I wish you every success.

And the success of every failure.

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