August 2, 2021

What If Failing Is Prevailing?

Over this summer, the Class of 2021 is transitioning into the launch phase of their professional careers and, in many cases, their adult lives. You will recall that the launch phase of a corporation is a time of great uncertainty. The enterprise has started in earnest; you have letterhead and a good or service that has been brought to market; and all involved are just waiting to see if the big bet is going to pay off.  

When I think back to my first job after college in the audit department of PriceWaterhouse (PwC) on K street in Washington, DC, I remember being a bit concerned about juggling my work responsibilities with managing my life: remembering to pay my bills on time, to call my parents regularly, and not to let my social life affect my professional one.   

I will never forget being sent back to the office after my very first audit assignment. It was after only the second day. It was supposed to be a five-week job, and I was just not getting it or at least not getting it fast enough. You can imagine the thoughts I had: What am I going to tell my parents when I get fired? How much money did I waste getting this degree? How am I going to feed myself?  

Back in PwC’s audit room, I sat and waited for work with all of the other first-years who were unassigned. Just then, a senior manager walked in, looking for someone who had a few weeks open on their schedule. Well, I had plenty of time—and luckily, my bad report from that first assignment had not beaten me back to the office. And so, I joined him to work on a high-tech IPO. What I learned on that job helped to prepare me for what later became known as the dot-com bubble, in which there was a wave of tech companies going public. I learned a lot tackling an IPO as a first-year; it gave me the experiences that I relied on over the course of my tenure at PwC. What initially seemed to be the worst day of my short-lived career turned out to be one of the best and most fortuitous.  

The dots that line up to map a prosperous endeavor or successful career can only be connected when looking back upon it. In the moment, failure is something that we view as an enormous barrier to our continued or future success. It is akin to holding a pebble very close to our eye; it looks like a huge boulder. It is only with time and distance, as we hold the pebble in the palm of our outstretched hand, that we gain perspective to realize that, in the grand scheme of things, it was only a pebble, a small speed bump on the road to the rest of our lives.  

My advice to the graduates of the Class of 2021 is to embrace the enduring truth that failure awaits you. It is inevitable. Those who prepare themselves well and are willing to walk the gauntlet of uncertainty are sure to look back on a career filled with in-the-moment missteps, recognizing them as the foundation for the professional success that lies ahead of them. There will be moments when you will wonder if you will ever recover from a setback. During these times, remember the Stockdale paradox: You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. Failure is part of everyone’s future, but it is only those who are surprised by it who don’t recover. The goal is not to be perfect in all that you do; the goal is to work hard to succeed, to be ready to pick yourself up after each and every fall, and to try, try, and try again.

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