Learning to Fail

by Patrick Millikan ’07

August 30, 2007

Good afternoon, and happy Mother’s day. I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to you, my classmates, and your families. At first, I was unsure how to approach this speech, and if I was up to the task. While many of us are looking forward to what the future will bring, I have been led in my preparation for today to look back, and try to make tangible what it is that makes this place so special. I am not sure if I have achieved this, but unfortunately for you, I am going to speak anyway.

We all have learned many things in the past years. After all, that is the purpose of going to college, and your presence here this afternoon is evidence of your success in that purpose. But the teaching of facts and history, of formulas and equations, occurs on any campus nationwide, and many students will leave their schools knowing as much, if not more, than we do. So what makes our education special? Each of us knows this place is unlike any other, but I would argue few of us know what it is about Wabash that causes this distinctiveness. Wabash men go on to see success in all types of professions, but what makes us so likely to do so? What is it about Wabash that prepares us so well to succeed?

I believe that what makes a Wabash education special goes far beyond the pages of books and the writing on chalkboards; indeed, we learn much more here than the aforementioned facts and formulas. Wabash teaches many of these intangible lessons, aiding us in our maturation and growth. I will touch on the two that I believe are the most important, and will serve us the best as we venture forth.

All of us have seen the myriad of pamphlets and packets Wabash sends to its prospective students. Each is brimming with stories and statistics, relating the success of Wabash men. In the schools of business, law, and medicine, Wabash sees year after year some of the highest acceptance rates in the country, and those acceptances prove the aptitude of her students in the classroom. It is no secret that Wabash teaches her students how to succeed, but we learn something else in the process; something less celebrated but equally important: how to fail.

Each Wabash man has experienced in his time here a moment of failure. It might come in the classroom, the athletic arena, or in a number of other environments. That failure need not necessarily be low grade, or a dropped ball, but a moment when we were disappointed in ourselves; a time when we did not meet our own expectations. Each of us has failed at some point. This place is built for it. But the lesson that is so valuable does not come in the failure, but in how you respond to it.

For me, the failure came in organic chemistry. For those of you who took the class, you know it is challenging, and for those of you who didn’t, you are the smart ones. The class was indeed difficult, and I worked hard to make it through. Near the end of the second semester of the course, I received a test grade that was…disappointing. I was unaware that they handed out grades that low. I thought that I would have gotten at least that many points for writing my name on the paper. I had failed. Luckily for me, I wasn’t alone, and a makeup test was scheduled for after Thanksgiving break.

Here was my first chance to respond to failure. Since the football team was in the playoffs, I spent my break here, practicing in afternoon, and studying the rest of the time. I was completely dedicated, convinced that I would redeem myself through a great score, and come out of the class with a high grade.
The day of the test, I felt great. The exam went well, and I left assured of my victory. A week later, when I got the grade back, I was not as energetic. I had failed again. Literally. My score had gone up, but not nearly enough to create a respectable grade. This time, there was no makeup test, no system in place to put me back on my feet. It was up to me.

I didn’t give up. I went to the professor, who was more than happy to work with me, and with his help, I managed to pull a decent grade overall. I had failed, but through dedication and help from professors who just love to teach, I overcame my failure.

My story is not exceptional. The vast majority of Wabash men have had similar experiences, and responded with the same energy and dogged determination. Those of you here today found success, and for that I congratulate you.

I believe that this is something unique to Wabash, and uncommon at the larger, less personal schools many of our friends attend. Here we are tested, and when we fall, we are told to get up and to do it again. We are encouraged, but not nursed, through challenge, enabling us to eventually succeed if we want it enough. Through our experience here, we learn the qualities of determination and perseverance, qualities that are often overlooked in many places today. That is one of Wabash’s most prominent strengths, and a lesson that I feel will serve us all well in the future. By learning to fail, and accepting that failure as a step on the road to success, we train for a world of ups and downs, thereby making ourselves capable of thriving, whatever the circumstances.

The second lesson required some time for me to put into words. If I get it right, then I feel you will all agree with me. Wabash teaches wisdom. Most who consider wisdom think of it as only arising from experience, and that by definition it can not be taught or passed down from teacher to student. This is almost always the case, but I feel Wabash is again an exception to the rule.

Quite simply put, the foundation of wisdom is knowing what it is that you don’t know; being conscious of your own lack of knowledge. Wabash, with its focus so sharply placed on the importance of a wide breadth of subjects, allows us to not only learn much, but become aware of how little that "much" is. This is humbling, but as with failure, it has many benefits. This lesson helps Wabash men to avoid the typical arrogance that may arise from graduating, or the sense that we have it all figured out. By understanding or own knowledge, we become comfortable with and capable of asking questions. We then learn from others, increasing our understanding, but still maintain that there is much more to learn. Wabash has taught us that in attempting to figure out life’s mysteries, we will only expose more to be explored and discovered.

These lessons are not simply the product of books and tests, but of our time spent here, amongst great men and women who have conveyed so much more than they realize. It is likely that many of us are leaving this place unaware of all we have learned. Preparing these thoughts allowed me a glimpse into the knowledge I have been given, and for that I am grateful. I have a feeling that, in the years to come, we will all find that it is so much more than we know now.

As you leave this place, go with the confidence that what you have learned here, tangible or intangible, concrete or abstract, has prepared you for what lies ahead. We venture forth in uncertain times, but I believe that our years here have been spent well in preparing us for that uncertainty. So as you go forth, with all that Wabash has given you, including a determination to fight through and learn from failure, and the wisdom to know what you don’t know as well as what you do, I wish you the best of luck.

You won’t need it. 


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