BLOG: Presidential Perspectives

Embracing failure on the way to success

Remarks from spring 2024 commencement ceremonies

The following is a portion of my remarks to graduates at the spring 2024 commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 4, 2024 in McGuirk Arena. 

Graduates, we have so much to celebrate today.

You set a goal of earning your degree and worked diligently to get to this day. You are – by definition – already successful.

You put in the hard work necessary to gain the knowledge and experience needed to pursue a career or higher level of education.

Take a moment today to think back on all you have accomplished at CMU. Think about the day you stepped into your first class, and how far you have come since that day.

You are a different person today because you were not afraid to invest your time and energy in bettering yourself.      

Congratulations on your success!

Commencement is a time-honored tradition that celebrates your success, and the trust and hope we have in you that you will have much more success in your future.

However, I am going to deviate from talking about your success for a moment to tell you something that may be difficult to hear… but that is 100 percent true.

Sometimes, in various ways… 


You will!

I know this because even though you are successful today, you have failed before. Everyone has failed. And every one of us will fail again at something.

Embrace that concept.

Not everything you do will be a success on the first try… and maybe not even on your second or third try.

I know that “failure” is a negative word that often brings up feelings of fear, shame and disappointment. But failure can be a very positive thing. Failure is not the end of the road. It is simply a detour on the path to success.

Sometimes things just don’t go as planned… and that is perfectly fine. In fact, it can be incredibly helpful.

The great inventor Thomas Edison faced many failures on his quest to invent an electric light bulb. He had a different way of looking at all those unsuccessful experiments. He famously said: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Each failure taught him something new.

Each failure brought him that much closer to getting it right.

And today we have light bulbs.

Failure does not mean your idea was not valid or that your dream is not good enough. Failure simply means there is something more to be learned, or another direction to be taken.

Failure is frustrating! It can be easy to give up… but that is exactly what you should not do.

Some of the most successful people have experienced great failures and kept going.

Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first television job, and was told she was “unfit for TV.”

Film director Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school at USC... three times.

They obviously did not let those setbacks stop them. They used failure as fuel to push forward.

Failure teaches us valuable lessons that success never could. It builds resilience, perseverance and grit.

It forces us to reflect on our mistakes, learn from them, and grow stronger.

I know this firsthand.

When I was a junior in high school, I decided I wanted to be a CEO of a major international corporation. I wanted to be a captain of industry leading a Fortune 500 company.

I dedicated myself to the endeavor, reading books on corporate strategy and management. I devoured the Wall Street Journal every day. I began buying stocks and developed a small portfolio by my freshman year in college.

After earning my undergraduate degree in business administration, I immediately began working toward an MBA at a top 25 program.

Upon graduation with my newly minted MBA, I had dreams of setting the business world on fire and rising to the upper echelons of the corporate world.

I got off to a terrific start, too. A top Fortune 500 company hired me right out of school... And I was off to the races.

Doing this work aligned with my vision for my future. It seemed like it should be perfect.

But there was a problem.

I found that my favorite time of the day was when I left the office. I felt joy watching my office building get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror as I drove away.

I hated it.

I worked exactly one year for that company and it felt like a major failure when I left. I was worried about what my former classmates were going to think of me. I had dreamed of this job, and I felt I had let down a lot of people.

I felt as if the job beat me.

All of the work I had done to get that job was seemingly for nothing.

But it was for something.

My “defeat” taught me important lessons about myself.

I learned that the skills and talent I developed in business ALSO aligned perfectly with the foundational premise of higher education – to create a better future for all communities and advance knowledge for the betterment of all.

I launched a new career in higher education, and with the help and encouragement of tremendous mentors along the way, I set a new goal of becoming a university president.

Because I learned from my perceived failure, I have been able to oversee the work of many to create opportunities for success for hundreds of thousands of people.

For years and years, I looked back at that first job out of grad school as a complete failure. 

It wasn’t until I came here to CMU and told this story to a class, that a student totally reframed it for me.

They asked me: “How could you possibly consider that first job a failure?”

They pointed out that I was now the CEO of a major organization leading thousands of employees and stakeholders. They saw that I would not be where I am without having gone through that frustrating experience.

They were right, and I no longer see my year in the corporate world as a failure. It was simply a detour on the path to success.

And then there’s my basketball career.

Let’s just say it was… short.

I tried out for my college basketball team. Believe me, I knew it was a long shot.

But I was determined to make a great showing and with my hustle I knew I would impress the coach.

For three glorious days during the tryouts, I wore our university’s uniform. The jersey went down to my ankles.  But I hustled… I dove… I very much tried to defend! 

The coach called me in after the game, and said, “Bobby, I love your heart, your hustle, and your spirit. But I just can’t coach height and speed… Have you thought about becoming a basketball referee?” 

So, I found another way to participate in the sport I loved.

I found a way to be on the basketball court, and at the highest level of officiating.

I had to learn from failure, set a new course and adjust my goals. You likely will have to as well.

We live in a rapidly changing world, where uncertainty and the fear of failure can cause us to hold back and not even try.

Change can be daunting. It is uncertain and often unpredictable.

But the beauty of change lies in its ability to challenge us… to force us out of our comfort zones where we truly learn, grow and improve.

As the pace of change quickens, know that your likelihood of failure only increases.

Charles Darwin – famous biologist and the father of the concept of evolution – said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Change is the only constant in life. Throughout history, humanity has faced challenges and disruptions that have pushed us to adapt, innovate, and evolve.

To thrive in this ever-changing world, we must cultivate a mindset of continuous learning, flexibility, and openness to w possibilities.

We must embrace change and failure not as a threat, but as an opportunity to innovate, collaborate, and shape a better future for all.

I urge you to embrace change, and not to fear failure.

When dealing with change, do as Darwin suggested and be open and willing to adapt to it.

When confronting failure, use it as motivation to keep moving forward. Do as Edison suggested and take the view that each perceived failure is a valuable lesson on the way to success.

Remember: in the end it is not our failures that define us, but how we rise above them.

You now have the knowledge, the skills and – most importantly – the mindset to succeed!

Today, YOU earn your CMU degree.

Continue with the passion and dedication you have developed and displayed at CMU.

We believe in you!

We will be cheering for your continued success!



Blog: Presidential Perspectives posted | Last Modified: | Author: by Bob Davies, CMU President | Categories: President
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