University Commencement Speech

The following is my first draft of a commencement speech to a Graduate school that I’m giving in May. I’d love your ideas and advice.

Family and friends this is a very special group of people. To be awarded an advanced degree requires that the candidate formally or informally make an original contribution to the world’s knowledge. These amazing people are explorers and adventurers. They have demonstrated the courage to push the boundaries of human knowledge. Let us recognize their courage.

I’d like to thank the University for giving me the opportunity for a do over. Speaking at the 2008 commencement ceremony I urged graduates to declare independence from baby boomer conformity. I urged them to think for themselves and to not “sell out” their values as many from my 60’s generation have done.

Over the the past few months – I’ve reflected on that speech and concluded that I made a mistake. Today I correct it.   

Fellow graduates – instead of simply encouraging you to think for yourself…I challenge you to go forth and fail fearlessly.

Yes – I said – fail fearlessly.

It is only by learning to love failure that you can achieve great things.

It’s as basic as the scientific method that you embraced on your journey to this day.

It’s as fundamental as Dr. Deming’s Theory Of Knowledge – PLAN, DO, STUDY, ACT.

It is how we learn anything. It’s how we learn to ride a bike – we try, we fail, we learn, we try again. It’s how we learn to read, to write and to invent amazing solutions to the challenges the world faces.

2019 graduates, you have been given a special gift as a result of your persistence, grit and importantly the support of your family, friends and the University community. 

Now is not the time to become academically “retired in place.” 

Now is not the time to become prudent, proper and puckered.

Now IS the time to become an expert at failing fearlessly.    

Now IS the time to use your degree – as your license to fail.

Use your success that we acknowledge today as a platform for teaching the naysayers, the insecure, and mental scaredy cats of this world about how failure is the foundation for greatness. 

To paraphrase Dr. Deming – how could they know, how could they know, how could they know the value of failing if they’ve never traveled the journey that you my friends have traveled in your journey to this day.

On campus you live in a community committed to learning. As you go forth to the real world – that will not always be the case. To help you I offer you these three simple lessons that I’ve learned:

  1. Fail FAST & Fail CHEAP –  use your creative abilities to find ways to do rapid and cost effective experimentation.
  2. THINK BIG – focus your efforts on projects that are bold and that have the potential to make a meaningful difference in the world.
  3. EMBRACE THE CRAZY – They don’t give patents to people who are prudent.  If your idea is an obvious leap by those skilled in the art, your patent application is rejected. They only give patents to the crazy ones…Author, Stephen King – a man who knows a bit about fear…feels that within all of us is a healthy craziness…Stephen wrote, “I think that we’re all mentally ill. Those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better – and maybe not all that much better after all.”

So you know I’m not preaching without practicing. My team, set out to invent a way to accelerate the aging of whiskey. In one crazed week we failed 72 times in 7 days. We made horrible, horrible whiskey. And with each failure we got smarter and smarter.

Then one morning – we connected the dots – experiment 13, experiment 30 and 70.  Said theatrically we had transformed the space time continuum for whiskey aging.

Double gold medals, and market success followed. And it all was because of a courage to fail fearlessly. Without failure there will be no learning.   

As Ben Franklin wrote, “Up sluggard and waste not life – In the grave will be sleeping enough.”  Deep inside all of us is magical curiosity. A curiosity that fuels our courage to fail, learn and fail again.

In closing, in recognition of your courage – and the memory of my family’s graduates of this great university – my grandmother, mother, father, brother, sister, son, nephew and niece, Jill Twist, who graduates tomorrow – I drink a toast – with our Brain Brew whiskey – I drink to the college of our hearts always.