Steve Nowicki: The Value of Failure

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

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

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
, 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

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!

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.