Fear of failure? Failure is a terrifying thought for most lawyers. It immobilizes us and can cause numbing stress. But… is the fear of failure warranted? I was once lamenting my possible failure to my best friend from college and she said… “Stop! When was the last time you failed… I mean really failed in business?” I thought about it and realized the answer was never. Did I always get what I wanted? No, of course not. But I learned from disappointment and mistakes and I can honestly tell you that today I’m better off for them.
Oprah Winfrey gave the commencement address at Harvard and imparted some pearls of wisdom about failure that we can all benefit from.
The Oprah Winfrey Show was number one in our time slot for 21 years, and I have to tell you I became pretty comfortable with that level of success. But a few years ago, I decided, as you will at some point, that it was time to recalculate, find new territory, break new ground. So I ended the show and launched OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. The initials just worked out for me. So, one year later, after launching OWN, nearly every media outlet had proclaimed that my new venture was a flop. Not just a flop, but a big bold flop they call it. I can still remember the day I opened up USA Today and read the headline “Oprah, not quite standing on her OWN.” I mean, really, USA Today? Now that’s the nice newspaper! It – it – it really was this time last year the worst period in my professional life. I was stressed, and I was frustrated, and, quite frankly, I was – I was—actually, I was embarrassed. It was right around that time that President Faust called and asked me to speak here, and I thought: “You want me to speak to Harvard graduates? What could – what could I possibly say to Harvard graduates—some of the most successful graduates in the world—in the very moment when I had stopped succeeding?” So I got off the phone with President Faust, and I went to the shower. It was either that or a bag of Oreos. So I chose the shower. And I was in the shower a long time, and as I was in the shower, the words of an old hymn came to me. You may not know it. It’s “By and By when the Morning Comes.” And I started thinking about when the morning might come because at the time I thought I was stuck in a hole. And the words came to me “Trouble don’t last always” from that hymn, “this too shall pass.” And I thought, as I got out of the shower, “I am gonna turn this thing around, and I will be better for it. And when I do, I’m going to go to Harvard, and I’m going to speak the truth of it!” So I’m here today to tell you I have turned that network around!
It doesn’t matter how far you might rise. At some point, you are bound to stumble because if you’re constantly doing what we do: raising the bar. If you’re constantly pushing yourself higher, higher, the law of averages—not to mention the myth of Icarus, predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do, I want you to know this, remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction. Now, when you’re down there in the hole, it looks like failure. So this past year I had to spoon-feed those words to myself. And when you’re down in the hole, when that moment comes, it’s really okay to feel bad for a little while. Give yourself time to mourn what you think you may have lost, but then here’s the key: Learn from every mistake because every experience, encounter and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more who you are. And then figure out what is the next right move. And the key to life is to develop an internal moral, emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.
So… maybe it would be better to embrace the fear of failure. See it as a journey. Close our eyes and hold on as the roller coaster takes us for a ride. As Oprah tells us… learn from every mistake. Build a body of wisdom, with unique experiences that make us who we are and help us move in another direction.
Black Pearl: Find 29 minutes and listen to the entire speech Oprah Winfrey gave to the graduating class of 2013. There are several more pearls of wisdom that will inspire you.