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Steve Nowicki: The Value of Failure

Steve Nowicki: The Value of Failure

Duke dean tells incoming students they will succeed if they seek challenges

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Editor's Note: Steve Nowicki is professor of biology and dean of undergraduate education.  This speech was delivered at the opening convocation for first-year undergraduates Aug. 24 in Duke Chapel. Video of the convocation can be watched online here.

Steve Nowicki, dean of undergraduate education, addresses the Class of 2015 Wednesday. Photo by Jared Lazarus

Durham, NC - Women and men of the Class of 2015:   Let me add my welcome to you, Duke's newest students!  Let me also extend my welcome to your parents and family members -- those people who brought you here to this special place and time.  And by "brought you here" I don't just mean providing the transportation to get you to Durham, but rather the support, encouragement, and love you've been given over the last 17 or 18 years that's allowed you to make it this far.  A curiosity of our Convocation is that we banish family members to remote viewing locations.  We blame this on the Fire Marshall and the limited space we have in the Chapel, but in fact it's our sneaky way of helping you parents and family members come to grips with the fact that in a short time you'll be leaving, and your sons and daughters will be staying.  But let me assure you that we know the essential role you played in bringing us the accomplished men and women who enter this school today as our newest class. On behalf of the university, I thank you.  And, don't worry ... we'll take good care of them. 

Now back to you, Class of 2015 ...

There's an old story about a dean at the law school of a top university who always began his convocation speech with the admonition:  "Look to your left, look to your right ... because one of you will not be here next year!" -- the implication being that the academic journey these students were about to embark on would be so intense, so demanding that it would surely scrub every other person out of the program.

As I said, this is an old story.  I wondered recently if it was also a true story, and so I did an internet search of the expression "Look to your left, look to your right ..."  And this search revealed to me the remarkable fact that this story has been attributed to deans from many institutions from all across the country, with reports of its first use going back as far as a hundred years!  More remarkable still is that many of the attributions I found were not just passing mentions, but instead detailed arguments claiming ownership of the story for a particular institution, with the authors suggesting that this ominous warning was first delivered to students at their institution, and that other deans who may have said the same to students at other schools were merely copycats.

Now, I found this remarkable not because the internet yielded competing claims about the story -- the same would be true for most other urban myths.  Rather, I found it remarkable because I wondered, who would want to lay claim to such a tortured perspective on education?

Imagine if when you visited a beach, the lifeguard announced "Look to your left, look to your right ... one of you will drown before the day is up."  Or, imagine if on entering a four-star restaurant, the head chef greeted you by saying "Look to your left, look to your right ... one of you will have food poisoning by the end of the evening."

Now I admit that a college career is quite different from a day at the beach or an evening at a fine restaurant.  You're about to embark on a rigorous course of study at one of the world's great universities.  I expect that at some point in the next four years you'll find yourself working harder than you've ever worked before and challenged in ways you have yet to imagine.  But at Duke, it's our expectation that each and every one of you will succeed.  And we see it as our job to help you do so.

And so, with that preamble, I am going to say to you as dean "Look to your left, look to your right ..."  But our Duke version goes like this:  "Look to your left, look to your right ... you've just seen two awesome people who are going to do great things at Duke and beyond."  And the people on either side of you saw the same when they looked in your direction.

Allow me to riff on this phrase a bit more.

Now, look to your left, look to your right ... get to know those people, because they will be here next year.  In fact, they'll be with you for the next four years, even for the rest of your life.  And don't just get to know them casually, work to understand them deeply.  At Duke, you'll find many of the world's leading thinkers to serve as your faculty and mentors, and you'll find some of the world's finest facilities in which to pursue your studies, including state-of-the-art laboratories, futuristic classrooms, inspiring spaces for creating and performing art, and one of the most outstanding libraries in the world.  But your fellow students also represent a rich resource, a resource to help you expand your perspective, hone your interests, and pursue your passions.

Now I imagine that many of you already know the two people on either side of you -- perhaps they're friends you've gotten to know in the last 24 hours, or people you met on Facebook even before you arrived, or just acquaintances you met on your way into the Chapel.  That's a great start, but I want you to go further.  Look to your left and look to your right again, but this time keep looking down the row in both directions until you see someone you don't yet know.  I want you to make note of who those people are and to make sure you introduce yourself to them before the day is out.

I'll go further with this:  Look to your left, look to your right ... ask yourself, what can I learn from those fellow students of mine?  What can I teach them?

Look to your left and look to your right again ... demand excellence and honor from your fellow students, as they should demand it of you, for it's the collective excellence and honor of its students that makes any institution truly great.

Look to your left, look to your right ... support your fellow students when they need your help, and treat them with respect, because they're part of your family now, and you're all now part of our Duke family.

So, yes, I do want you to look to your left and look to your right, but rather than seeing those people on your right and left as likely drop outs in the coming year, you should see them as sources of inspiration, sources of learning, and sources of support.

OK -- now that I've told you that we at Duke don't subscribe to the twisted view of some legendary dean that we expect half our students to fail, what I'm about to say may strike you as contradictory ...  You see, now that I've set you up with a safety net of friends and mentors, including those awesome people you find on your left and right, I'd like you to consider failing.  Yes, you heard that right -- I actually do want you to fail.

Wait!  Don't misunderstand me!  I don't mean I want you to fail in a big way.  Certainly not to fail out of Duke, as I assume was meant by that infamous dean.  No, not at all!  But I do want you to consider the virtues of failing in a constructive way.

You see, there's "Failure" with a capital "F" -- let's call it "failing big time" or "massively screwing up" -- and there's "failure" with a lower case "f" -- let's call that something like "not being perfect."  It's failure with a lower case "f" that I want you to consider -- the "not being perfect" version of failure -- because if you try to always be perfect, then you'll only do things you know you'll succeed at.  And if you never attempt anything where you might not succeed, where you might fail, then you can never know what you're really capable of, you'll never know the full range of what you can possibly do.  And so, now that I've assured you that we expect you to succeed at Duke overall, I want to suggest that you risk some failure, just a little bit of failure.  I want to suggest that you allow yourselves the luxury of chancing failure once in a while.

Let me elaborate.  I'll give you three reasons why I'd like to you fail, the first of which I've already told you:  It's only by being willing to fail that you can know who you really are.  Albert Einstein -- who knows a little something about success -- once said, "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."  Right on, Albert.  By trying new things -- whether that means taking a class in a subject you've never thought about, or joining a club that does things you never imagined doing, or just getting to know people unlike anybody you've known before -- you push your envelope, you expand your horizons, you learn your full potential.  But, when you try new things, you might just fail at one of them.  That's OK -- a little bit of failure goes with the discovery of how to be truly successful.

Here's the second reason:  You might as well get over your fear of failure because some failure, some day is inevitable.  Even if you stick to what you know you're good at, challenges have a way of finding each of us.  Some challenges are small and some are big, and we always do what we can to meet those challenges with success.  But no one can be successful 100% of the time.  Consider this:  The very best batters in professional baseball successfully hit the ball and get on base only about a third of the time.  That means they fail about 2 out of every 3 chances they get -- and those are the superstars!  So even if you're doing something you're really good at, you will sometimes fail.  Get used to it -- a little bit of failure goes with striving for excellence.

My last reason for asking you to fail is this:  To allow yourself the luxury of failing is liberating.  You all have been very successful up to this point in your lives.  That's a wonderful thing and that's what helped bring you here today.  But as you look to your left and look to your right at those awesome fellow students sitting next to you, you might just think "Gosh, they're all so awesome, I have to make sure I seem just as awesome to them."  It's good to put your best foot forward, of course, but if you take that attitude too far, if you always try to seem perfect, if you never admit that you aren't perfect (and, of course, nobody is ...), then you risk not being really being yourself.  And if you're not yourself, you can miss the opportunity for making truly deep connections with your friends, with your mentors, with those people who can most help you to learn and grow.

If on the other hand you admit you might fail, if you face up to it when you do fail, and if you accept the fact that some failure is inevitable in a life that strives for excellence, then you can relax.  You can be yourself, you can stretch yourself, and you can take the chance that you might not succeed at something because, hey, nobody's perfect.  And we've got your back, as they say.

I have one last word about failure and that's this:  To fail well is to fail wisely and to learn from that failure.  When I encourage you to consider the merits of failure, I'm not suggesting you just go out and randomly try things you might fail at!  And I'm certainly not suggesting you live a life of thoughtless risk!

No, the value of failing at something must be measured by the worth of trying it in the first place, which is in turn measured by what you can learn from it.  You see, what I mean by failing wisely isn't really failing at all -- it's learning how to be truly successful.

But how can you know?  How can you tell when something is worth trying even if you might fail?  How do you best learn from those times when you do fail?  Well, the answer starts like this:  "Look to your left, look to your right ..."

Those people you'll find on your left and right all around Duke -- including your faculty and your classmates, and the many other mentors you can find here -- they're the ones who can help you understand when you might push yourself a little farther, and what you can learn if you happen to fail.  Duke is a place where you can find guides to success not only on your left and on your right, but all around you, and we are delighted to have you join us.  Welcome to Duke.

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