Undergraduate commencement address – May 21, 2011 Thomas Cobb, RIC Professor of English
(Photo: Gene St. Pierre '77)
We are here today to celebrate your success at Rhode Island College, having graduated after X number of years (it took me twenty-four). And celebrating success is a wonderful thing. Enjoy it, every second of it. But after you’ve enjoyed the success, take a moment to consider what we don’t celebrate as often as we should. Failure.
When I told my friends that I was going to speak today about failure, a few were happy to remind me of some of mine. And I’ve had a lot. And I don’t mind being reminded of that. I’m proud of my failures. Montaigne said, “There are defeats more triumphant than victories.”
Failure is a mark of progress, success is the end of progress.
I’m a writer, and for writers, as for most people, failure is an important part of achieving success. To be a writer is to constantly be searching for the new. Writers write, I believe, to find what they haven’t known before. Writing is not so much writing what you know, but discovering what you don’t know. And that entails a lot of failure. Herman Melville said, “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation.”
And Melville knew a lot about failing. He wrote a book called “The Whale,” which was one of the great flops of literary history, failing to sell even 3,000 copies. It flopped because it was different. It was not what readers had been reading, so they didn’t buy it. The public loves the familiar and often disdains the new. Melville had succeeded in imagination, but failed in imitation. Of course, the book I’m referring to is now known as “Moby Dick,” maybe the greatest of American novels.
If you want to succeed, imitate. The New York Times Best Seller list is full of novels that are imitations, often imitations of other books by the very same author. They are read, discarded, forgotten, but they are sales successes. Melville flopped so badly with “Moby Dick,” he had to take a job as a customs inspector in New York. One hundred and sixty years later, his big flop is still being read and admired.
But it wasn’t a failure, was it? It’s a great book, and Melville never knew how great it was. It’s often difficult to figure out what’s failure and what’s success. Another writer, Anton Chekhov said, “One must be a god to be able to tell success from failure without making a mistake.” Writers know a lot about failure.
There’s an old story about a young tenor at the Met who got his big chance when the lead tenor took sick. The young man came out, sang his solo and was greeted by cries of “Encore, Encore,” from an older man in the audience. He sang the solo again, and again the old man cried, “Encore, Encore.” The young man stopped and said, “This is the greatest moment of my life. I’ve succeeded beyond my dreams, but the opera must go on. I can’t sing another encore for you. The older man stood up and said, “You’re going to keep singing it until you get it right.”
Sometimes we can’t tell success from failure because we see it from the wrong perspective. Edison said that he never failed, he just discovered 10,000 things that didn’t work. And then he discovered some things that did. Samuel Becket, the Irish novelist and playwright, said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
There’s an odd paradox about failure and success. Seneca wrote, “Failure changes for the better, success for the worse.” Failure moves you forward. Success keeps you where you are. And staying where you are is, in the larger sense, the ultimate failure, for the world is always moving forward, changing, and we have to change with it.
Failure, of course, hurts. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. But to succeed, to discover what you don’t know, requires failure. And success and failure are the same things. Success and failure are like ocean waves, and here in the Ocean State, we know something about waves. They are composed of two parts, the crest, which we see rising above the water’s surface, but under that crest is the trough, where all that water has come from. Success is the crest, failure the trough. Together they make a wave, but they are inseparable, one and the same thing.
Fear of failure is the leading cause of not succeeding. A tennis coach in the seventies used to stand his students in mid-court and fire one hundred mile an hour serves at them. Then he would say, “That’s how much it hurts, don’t be afraid of it.” When you fail, you learn not to fear it. It hurts, but only so much. And when you don’t fear failure, you can move on and fail, moving always forward, failing better and better. When you fear failure, you’re likely to succeed, doing only the same thing over and over, imitating your own success and never moving forward. And that kind of success is the greatest of failures.
Here’s a little exercise I give writing students. Pretend I’ve given you an assignment—to drive to, say Pawtucket, all in all a nice enough place. You can’t ask for directions, use your navigation in your car or phone, look at a map, or get assistance in any other way. Some of you know how to get to Pawtucket, some of you don’t.
Those who don’t will start driving, not knowing where they’re going. Maybe they’ll go south and find New York or even Miami, or travel west and find Chicago, or Los Angeles or San Francisco. They can end up anywhere. Where will those who know how to get to Pawtucket end up? There’s only one answer. Pawtucket, all in all a nice enough place. But they have no chance to find something new and wonderful, they will only find what they already know.
Those who go other places have the chance to find the amazing reconstruction of the World Trade Center, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Golden Gate Bridge or the wonderful, deep Atachafalaya Basin in Louisiana, or the delicately beautiful Sonoran desert where I grew up. They will have failed to find Pawtucket, but they will have found things more wonderful than Pawtucket, and, yes, there is a lot in the world more wonderful than Pawtucket. While seeming to have failed, they will have succeeded in ways they couldn’t have predicted. Those in Pawtucket who seem to have succeeded, will have, ultimately, failed.
That, by the way, is not good advice if you’re bleeding and heading for the emergency room. Just go directly there. You can discover something wonderful later.
I’ve known both failure and success. I’m here today, largely because a novel of mine, “Crazy Heart,” was made into a movie. People congratulate me on my success, and that’s nice. But my real success, the novel, was a flop, like “Moby Dick,” but a lot smaller. I was told “no one wants to read about a fading country western singer.” The success I found twenty some odd years later, feels to me a lot like luck.
Often enough, what we call success is luck. Luck is an important part of success, so don’t sneer at it, but it’s not success. Luck is easy, failure is hard won. And you need to study failure as well as you study success. Because remember, failure and success are often the same thing. The trough of failure creates the crest of success.
So go on from here, carrying your success forward, but study on failure, learn to endure, to learn from it, know that in failing, you have likely enough, in an other, more important way, succeeded. Now that you’ve succeeded, learn to fail. It’s a very valuable skill.