Changing How we Talk about Failure with Graduates

I am the parent of a high school senior – the resilient COVID-19 class – and like my fellow parents, I am trying to create rites of passage for my senior when traditional events are canceled or postponed. One of my attempts here has been to crowd-source a cheesy graduation speech to fill in in the absence of a true graduation. Nobody remembers the message of their high school graduation speech, right? So I asked the entire family – all the cousins, aunts and uncles – to share one line they envision would be in a graduation speech, with the idea that I would combine all the single lines into an awkward, cringe-worthy, high school graduation speech. And guess what? My attempts resulted in a huge failure.

Why? 75% of the responses to my request were the same advice – encouraging my graduate to embrace failure. Nothing says COVID class like a crowd-sourced, fake graduation speech about failure!!

It is clearly time to move past the advice of embracing failure. “Fail fast and fail often” is over-rated advice because it has become a cliché. When 75% of my family submits ends it in as their best advice… well, it is time to get some new advice.

We really don’t want to strive for failure, or encourage our friends and colleagues to do so. Everyone I know – from high school students to CEOs – seeks out success. They want to get an A on that paper, they want to crush that client meeting, and they want to be at the top of their game or field. So why are we talking so much about failure?

What we really should be telling ourselves and our teams is to learn from setbacks, with emphasis on learning and resilience. When things don’t go the way we envisioned, or when circumstances get in the way of us achieving our goals, we should invest in the introspection and analysis to identify the learnings from the setback… and move on. Moving on means putting that introspection into action and honoring the lessons of a setback.

Let’s re-frame the language away from failure, which sounds pretty awful, to setback, because we all experience setbacks.

So this graduation season, please don’t tell any graduates to embrace failure. Instead, encourage them to learn from setbacks and put those learnings into action.

Heather Nelson is a Partner at PeopleResults and soon-to-be empty-nester. Follow her on Twitter @HeatherGNelson1.

Heather Nelson