“Go Forth Unafraid!” Failure is Part of the Process
Congratulations to my nephew who graduated from Dalton School this summer!
I asked Richard Wolffe if I could share his remarks to the graduating class of 2019:
Dalton Graduation Commencement Speaker at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall on June 10, 2019
“Thank you Jim for those very kind words and for your leadership of this great school.
Thank you to your administration team, to the brilliant teaching faculty, and to the wonderful support staff who all together make Dalton the truly special place that it is.
We are all so lucky to be part of this community.
To my fellow parents, to all the family and friends who are here today:
Congratulations for all the thankless hours of support and worry and love that it took to arrive at this point.
I feel your pain. And your joy. I really do.
And yes, you can give them a round of applause for that.
And to you, this class of 2019:
Our hearts are bursting with pride at how you have grown and what you have achieved in what feels – to us, at least – like an alarmingly short time.
Just when exactly did you stop walking and start running so fast?
When did you shift from just talking to finding your own voice?
When did you start seeing your world as you want it to be, not as it was introduced to you?
And when will you clean up your room?
But seriously, our heartfelt congratulations to this class of 2019. You deserve all the applause and cheers for all your hard work and dedication.
This stage of transition – this rite of passage – is as big and grand and important as this very fine theater.
People far bigger and grander than me are supposed to tell you right now about going forth unafraid to make the world a better place.
And I want you to do that too.
But I’ve been lucky enough to see some bigger and grander people go through these transitions, and I thought I’d share with you what I’ve learned from having a front row seat to presidents and presidential candidates for many years.
Because they rarely go forth unafraid. And when they do, they have a good reason or two for setting aside their fear.
Today reminds me of the last flight of the Bush campaign in 2000, just a couple of months after some of you were born.
Now the Bush plane was divided into three sections.
Up front sat the candidate and his key staff in first class; behind them in coach were the correspondents like me; and behind all of us, next to the toilets, were the photographers and TV camera men and women who were by far the most normal people on the plane.
They were also the most fun.
They strung up a small disco ball from the top of the cabin and had a blender making margaritas, or something like that.
Governor Bush, who was tee-total – preferred to hang out with the party animals, as he used to call them, instead of the scribblers, as they called us writers.
On that final flight, the night before that fateful election, a TV producer tried to ingratiate himself with the candidate. “Congratulations,” he said, “you reached the end of the campaign trail.”
Bush’s face drained and he turned on him with a look of disgust.
“That wasn’t the point of it all,” he said with utter disdain.
The poor producer had no idea what he’d done wrong, but I recognized that look in Bush’s face.
I’d seen it on a cold New Hampshire afternoon in a Gold’s Gym near Manchester, where I happened to show up when Bush was working out – at the precise moment he first heard how badly he was going to lose his first primary. By 16 points against Senator John McCain.
It’s much easier to see the point of it all when you’ve risked everything – and failed – along the way.
You might know these presidents for their swagger.
But you see their real character – the part they can’t hide – when they fail. And George W. Bush knew what it meant to fail.
He had grown up as the party-loving, hard-drinking oldest son of an intimidatingly successful politician. His younger brother Jeb was seen as the son most likely to succeed as president one day.
In his early 30s, he ran and lost his first race for public office: a congressional district in rural midwestern Texas. He never forgot the stinging feeling of that defeat.
As a presidential candidate, he used to make it clear why he was there at every campaign stop. “I’m asking for your vote,” he used to say.
To most of us, that sounded like a statement of the obvious. But he sometimes explained why he did that.
After he lost that first congressional race, he returned to one of his campaign stops and got talking to an old voter, who told him he liked him but hadn’t voted for him.
“Why not?” Bush asked.
“Because you never asked me for my vote,” was the reply.
It wasn’t just about the ask. Bush realized that voters wanted to see him work for their support.
He needed to get to know them to win them over, and that meant treating them as real people. That was especially true for someone who grew with such huge privilege.
Say what you like about Bush – and I have said many things he didn’t like – but he could win people over in person.
And one of the main reasons for that – dating back to his school days – was his fear of failure and his experience of failure. Winning people over was his way of covering up for his academic struggles.
Which I’m told is a tactic you all are familiar with.
It might sound strange – that you need to fail in order to succeed – but it is surprisingly constant among the most powerful, successful people I have reported on and written about.
There’s a framed poster hanging outside Bill Clinton’s office in Harlem detailing the many and various ways Abraham Lincoln failed over a 30-year career before he was elected president.
Lincoln failed in business twice, ran for elected office and lost no less than six times, and suffered a nervous breakdown.
Historians have challenged this storyline about Lincoln for some time. If Lincoln had really done nothing but fail for three decades, he would not have been in a position to run for president at all.
But it says something about Bill Clinton himself – the boy from a place called Hope, Arkansas – that he hung this message outside his private office.
I couldn’t avoid the bigger message when I saw it, just a few weeks after Hillary Clinton had lost the Democratic primary contest to one Barack Obama.
At the time, Obama was still an unlikely candidate, even though he had clinched the nomination.
He had struggled his way through the later primaries, especially in Pennsylvania, where news about his controversial pastor had put racial politics at the heart of the contest and the national debate.
Through all the defeats and dismal news cycles, Obama himself was unnaturally calm and reserved. Withdrawn even.
He joked with his friends by asking if they’d still hang out with him if he lost.
To be sure he took the defeats – and the endless debate about his pastor – as personally as anyone else. But he didn’t deal with the pain by taking it out on someone else.
For someone who could rally an arena full of people, he seemed to me to be happiest on his own.
To understand that inner strength – what Joe Biden calls the steel in Obama’s spine – you need to know what Obama was like in high school and college.
He was raised in a white family that frankly found him a handful.
His mother was only 18 when he was born, and his father abandoned him quickly, as he writes about in Dreams From My Father.
What he doesn’t write about so much is that his mother sent him off to live with her parents, as she pursued her own career in anthropology.
His older white grandparents had no idea how to raise a young black man. So at a very fancy high school in Hawaii, he spent his time playing basketball and smoking weed.
Judging from the basketball I’ve played with him, he’d fit right into the Dalton Dads game: he’s not nearly as good as he thinks he is.
Obama followed a girlfriend to Occidental College, where he finally realized he could do more with his life and promptly switched to Columbia, right here in Manhattan.
Where he lived an even more miserable life: broke, buried in his books and pretty much friendless. To give you some idea of what kind of undergrad he was, he used to fast regularly.
Somewhere in that dark hole, looking at Manhattan like a distant visitor, he discovered himself and his discipline. He found the steel in his spine. He learned to write a new story for himself.
Still, his success was hardly settled. He took the crappiest job as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago, where he achieved pretty much nothing but he did write a great application to get into Harvard Law School.
Even then, with all those people saying he was destined to go far, he struggled.
He thought he wanted to be a writer, but his book barely registered, and his mother passed away as he was on his book tour.
His legal and academic careers were going nowhere, when he was elected as a lowly state senator at the age of 35.
He ran for the US Congress four years later and lost the Democratic primary. By a wide margin.
It would take another four years for him to get elected to the US Senate, after spending seven years in Springfield, Illinois, almost entirely in the minority party without any meaningful political voice or power.
You all know what happened after that.
But I would argue that the success he experienced after the grand old age of 43 was because of, not despite, all those long years of struggle, disappointment – of having great potential with few results.
I’m sure I told you – when I spoke at your high school assembly a few years ago – what Obama said to me when he was trying to convince me to write a book about his first campaign.
He said, “You and I both know how to cross lines.”
I took that as a ridiculous piece of flattery. We had nothing in common – the senator-candidate and the journalist. The kid from Hawaii and Indonesia, and the kid from Birmingham, England.
But he did put his finger on the skill set that helped him get elected, and that helped me do my job.
Crossing lines isn’t just about navigating the racial ignorance and fear that corrode our culture.
It’s about winning trust by going out of your way to connect with people no matter their background, their education, or their wealth.
And it comes not from having an unusual life story, but from understanding and respecting other people and their struggles.
For all you straight-A students here today, this might pass you by. If you’re heading to your top college choice and a lucrative career, God bless you. I wish you all the best.
But honestly the students who are the most prepared for what’s ahead are those of you who have struggled to get their middling grades, and who maybe have no idea what’s next in college and beyond.
The undergrads I knew in college who wasted all their opportunities and talents were in fact the ones who were the most comfortable and self-satisfied.
They thought they had nothing left to prove, and that college was the end of the journey. As Bush would say, that wasn’t the point of it all.
At your age, I had missed my grade target in my chosen subject, English, and missed out on my top choice of university. I lost my friends who wanted only to mix with other kids going to the top colleges.
I felt worn down by the casual prejudice and the overt aggression that crossed my path pretty much very day.
Because of my Mediterranean complexion – my mother was Moroccan – most of the racists around me thought I was from Pakistan, a country they didn’t exactly respect.
The smarter racists thought I was biracial and called me a half-caste – an insult I needed to look up in the dictionary.
Either way, it was kind of ironic because I’m Jewish, not Muslim. At least the many kids who were openly anti-Semitic got that bit right.
And most of them ended up going to the British equivalent of the Ivy League.
I’m not going to tell you that I had it bad at high school. Not like one of my friends, who wears a kippah on his head. He was beaten up so badly by a bunch of skinheads that he ended up in intensive care for two weeks.
But I experienced enough to know how to cross lines: to earn trust and to learn quickly who to trust.
So if you’re sitting on stage right now, and you’ve struggled with the taunts and the slights about who you are, or what you represent – from supposed adults, or students, or random people in the street – know this: your struggle has prepared you for what’s ahead better than anything else.
And if you’re lucky enough to have escaped that feeling, it’s not too late to learn.
Get out of your comfort zone before it’s too late – before you get a job and a mortgage. Volunteer in the community wherever you go to college.
I volunteered as a teacher’s assistant in an inner-city elementary school where the streets outside were busy with drug dealers and pimps and all their miserable customers.
The young children I helped ran the gauntlet of a city’s low life every day, twice a day. And I learned more from them than they ever learned from me.
Getting out of your comfort zone means risking failure. It means shedding your remarkable privilege, albeit briefly, and struggling to cross some lines.
Now if you don’t really care about making the world a better place – or you think that’s somebody else’s job – that’s fine.
Get out of your comfort zone just for yourself. You’ll be even more successful than you are today. You might even end up running for president one day.
But you should know that you’ll be a couple of steps behind the student sitting next to you who didn’t just risk failure but tasted its bitterness and came out the other side.
Because they’ve been going forth unafraid for a very long time. So my congratulations again to all of the class of 2019.
But especially to those of you who have that sick feeling in your stomach about not belonging, or not succeeding.
It might not feel like it right now, but you’re far more ready to go forth than you know. Mazel tov and thank you.”
Thank you Richard Wolffe for your words to remember about how failure is part of the process!
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