A GRADUATES’ BRIEF GUIDE FOR DEALING WITH INEVITABLE FAILURES

By Jonathan Walker Stapleton

As a friend of mine likes to say, “No matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey, you’re welcome here.”

I don’t know if you saw me craning my neck.  I think there are translators around here.  I was supposed to get a script in to them.  And I think that might be as far as I will be following it, so I apologize for confusion.  I’ll be getting back to it, but I’m going to go off the road here a few times.

I blame it on my showering this morning.  If I hadn’t showered, I probably wouldn’t have had thoughts.  And thoughts led to other thoughts.  And then I got out of the shower, and I went and grabbed my speech, and I went back into the bathroom and I started writing more things down.  And the reason I went back to the bathroom is that I really composed this while I was weeding the garden, and I had some great ideas in the garden, but then when I went to the computer and I tried to put them down, I think the framework made it, but the message didn’t.  So I’ve been looking at this speech thinking ‘what does this all mean,’ and I remembered in the shower.

By the way, there are some things that Grace mentioned that you’re going to see here.  Actually, there are a lot of themes that Jamaal, and Grace, and Izzy, mentioned in their speeches.  So look out for superpowers and procrastination and Siri.  Oh, Siri – I’m thinking about the garden – I recommend that, if you want a lot of ideas, weed the garden.  Clean your room.  Clean your shop if you have one.  Stack wood.  Take a shower.
Just turn the water off and stand there, because it’s not good to waste
water.  But the thing that doesn’t give me ideas is this iphone.
In fact I think this is the number one killer of epiphanies.  It’s good
for writing your ideas down once you have them.

This speech… the translator’s speech has some bits about failure… What it’s really about – what I realized in the shower that it’s about, is trying hard, making mistakes, forgiving ourselves, moving on, and then repeating this process over and over.  It’s my attempt to give you a few more tools to take with you into life.  Hopefully there’s something in it that you can use.

Before I move on to the specific topics that I typed out – the topics that the translators have, I want to say that the greeting that I gave in the beginning, ‘no matter who you are, or where you are in life’s journey, you are welcome in this place,’  –that’s been bouncing around in my head since a staff meeting that we had discussing the issues around Pepe The Frog – and what we could do about them. 

In case you haven’t heard of Pepe, he’s a green cartoon frog, and a hate
symbol, and a lot of other things.  To me, over the last few days, what he
has been symbolizing is a complicated problem that we feel like we ought to have all of the answer to, but we don’t.  And when you have such a
problem, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a stand – and when I say ‘take a stand,’ I don’t mean acting necessarily, but deliberately deciding whether you’re going to act or not.  So we take a stand, and the fact that it’s a complicated problem means that we’re likely to fail.  But when we fail
with good intentions, we need to forgive ourselves, learn from the failure, and then try again.

I want to emphasize the part about feeling like we should have all of the answers, because I think that’s important for you.  I feel like I and other teachers have drilled into you over the last 12 years, or however long you’ve been a student, that you’re supposed to give us the right answer; that there is a right answer.  That all you need to do is follow directions, and you’ll get there.  I thought about saying that all changes today, but a lot of you are going on to college, and you’ll still be expected to give right answers.

But in real life you’re going to fail a lot.  That’s to be expected.  It’s even to be embraced or commended.  And that’s really my speech in a nutshell, so if I forget everything else, I could really stop there.  The rest is just supporting
details.

I first started thinking differently about failure when I heard an NPR radio essay.  It was written for [the series] This I Believe.  It was called Failure Is A
Good Thing,
and it was written by [columnist] Jon Carroll.  The essence of his message was that failure promotes growth.  He argued that if we play it safe, and we only do what we have already proven that we can do,
then we may be successful, but we don’t grow.  He said we should embrace
failure as a natural part of learning.

I had a chance to witness a humorous application of this when I was teaching at Burlington High, right after I heard the essay.  A teacher brought in a student.  The student had his head down, and he had two pieces of a meter stick, on in either hand.  And she said to him “tell Mr. Stapleton what you did.”  And he wouldn’t look at me.  And he said “I didn’t mean to break it.  I just wanted to see how far it would bend without breaking.”  And that was Carroll’s point.  There really was no other way to find out the full
potential of a meter stick.  There had to be a sacrifice.  I forgave
him, and I hope he forgave himself.

I do try to apply John Carroll’s premise to my teaching.  I try to provide just the right balance of challenge, failure, and success.  I don’t always do it well, but I try.  In contrast to what I try to orchestrate in the classroom, real
problems are not designed to maximize your personal growth.  They don’t
have simple solutions, necessarily.  They don’t have answer keys.
There’s no guarantee that their answers even exist in a literal sense.
I’m talking about problems like climate change, immigration reform, health care reform, school shootings, and, of course, Pepe the Frog.  These are really big problems, but even something as simple as what you’re going to choose as a college major has no clear answer quite often.

I don’t mean this as a warning.  I’m not scolding you or trying to be harsh.  What I’m trying to do is give you permission to cut yourselves some slack.  You don’t have to have the answers.

Class of 2019, I apologize if I’ve given you the impression that life’s problems are as straightforward as those on the Physics final.  They’re not.  Or if I’ve led you to expect real life problems to be as intrinsically motivating as making water rockets, whipping things with towels, shooting supersonic tampons – that’s a little bit of hyperbole, but the tampon went really fast — or hammering nails on the teacher’s head.  Again, they’re not.  And if I have mistakenly given you the idea that adults have all of the answers.  We don’t.  But we can still be helpful.  I looked up the definition of an adult when I was writing this, and the first definition was “a grown person,” which isn’t very helpful.  I kept going down the list, and I finally got to one that sounded good, but it turned out to be a verb.  So, apparently, I can adult.  I’m not sure if I’m adulting right now, but when I do adult, I am
behaving “in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially by
accomplishing mundane but necessary tasks.” 

So, that’s our superpower.  Going back to Grace’s speech, I didn’t procrastinate on this.  I did make the mistake of going out and weeding the garden, and showering, and that kind of thing.  And I wrote it and rewrote it.  But I’ve been working on this non-stop since I heard I was going to have to do it. So I guess I’m an adult.  I had doubts.

I talked earlier about Jon Carroll’s glorification of failure.  I’m not sure if he glorified it, but he recommended that we embrace it and seek it, as a way to grow.  But I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that you intentionally take unhealthy risks.  I’m suggesting that you do things like singing in front of the class, running the first half of your 5k faster than you think you might be able to, sharing an unpopular opinion that you believe in, dancing like a fool in public, and giving graduation speeches.  I’m suggesting that you push yourself out of your comfort zone and thereby grow.

In general, however, you really should try to avoid failures.  You’re still going to have plenty of them.  You don’t need to seek them out. At some point you’re probably going to screw up so badly that you just want to crawl in bed and hide forever– or under the bed.  This may have happened to you already.  I’ve done it recently.

My tool for dealing with paralyzing failure is the serenity prayer (written by Reinhold Niebuhr –NEE-BURR). It’s the one that goes, “grant me the serenity to accept the things that I can’t change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  There are a lot of things you can’t change.  You can’t change the fact that you failed.  You can’t change the weather.  Your parents, the color of your skin, or the politics of the moment.  The only thing in life you have control over is how you act right now, in the present.  When I find myself paralyzed by failure, feeling so bad about things that I don’t know what to do and I don’t want to move on.  A trick that I use is really an application of this.  I step
outside myself, and I think of myself as a character in a story.  And the
story is my life, but I’m looking from the outside at that character.  And
the character has gotten into a pickle, and I ask myself, what do I want my
hero to do.  Sometimes it take a little time, but that helps guide my next
step.  The corollary to this is that, when you judge yourself, judge
yourself not by the hand you were dealt, but by how you played it.  [This
applies] even if you dealt it yourself.

Back to my greeting at the beginning – I’ll repeat it, in case it’s not ringing in your head – “No matter who you are, or where you are in life’s journey, you’re welcome in this place.”

So… the Serenity Prayer works for acute failures, and it also works for mild failures that sneak up you.  Some day you may decide that you’ve gotten yourself into the [wrong place on] your journey.  You don’t like where you are.  You could beat yourself up over it, or you could recognize that the past is something that you can’t change, and have the courage to make the right choice now.

So, finally, one last tool that I want to offer you is a tool for dealing with inevitable failures, or at least failures that seem inevitable.  And, to take a line from this poem that I’m about to read, [what to do] when there’s no hope in sight.

I first heard this poem, which is my tool, 21 years ago on a backpack trip with my wife and some good friends, in the Bob Marshal Wilderness of Montana.  As soon as we hit the trail, our friend Pat announced that he was going to recite a poem for us, but he wouldn’t recite it until we got to a sufficiently miserable location that was worthy of the poem.

So after about 40 miles, on the way up a very steep pass, we finally got to hear it.  It’s called The Quitter, by Robert Service.

When you’re lost in the Wild,
and you’re scared as a child,

And Death looks you bang in the eye,

And you’re sore as a boil,
it’s according to Hoyle

To cock your revolver and . . . die.

But the Code of a Man says:
“Fight all you can,”

And self-dissolution is barred.

In hunger and woe, oh, it’s
easy to blow . . .

It’s the hell-served-for-breakfast that’s hard.

“You’re sick of the
game!” Well, now that’s a shame.

You’re young and you’re brave and you’re bright.

“You’ve had a raw
deal!” I know — but don’t squeal,

Buck up, do your damnedest, and fight.

It’s the plugging away that
will win you the day,

So don’t be a piker, old pard!

Just draw on your grit, it’s
so easy to quit.

It’s the keeping-your chin-up that’s hard.

There’s one more stanza, and this is going to be my final message to the class of 2019.  This is the part that resonates with me.  Because a lot of times things seem hopeless, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on.

It’s easy to cry that you’re
beaten — and die;

It’s easy to crawfish and crawl;

But to fight and to fight
when hope’s out of sight —

Why that’s the best game of them all!

And though you come out of
each gruelling bout,

All broken and battered and scarred,

Just have one more try — it’s
dead easy to die,

It’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.

Class of 2019, thank you for asking me to be your speaker.  Thank you for inspiring me and motivating me every day.  And thank you to Mark Mendes for teaching me that greeting.

Editor’s Note:  Jonathan Walker Stapleton, my son, was born June 17, 1972 in Savannah, Georgia, reared in Statesboro, Georgia, graduating from Statesboro High School in 1990 as the Star Student of the 12th Congressional District of Georgia, graduating from Rice University in Houston, Texas in 1994.  He now teaches physics and earth sciences at Essex High School in Essex Junction, Vermont.  He was selected to deliver the commencement address this year by the graduating seniors at Essex High School.

Here is a video showing Jonathan in action delivering his speech.