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Perspectives June 13, 2012

Failure is our ONLY option

My Commencement Speech at the University of Maryland

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On May 20th, I had the honor of giving the commencement speech to the graduating class of 2012 at the University of Maryland, College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences.  After FastCompany and Wired UK  posted excerpts of the talk, we decided to post the full talk (hopefully a good video of the talk will show up soon!).  Thanks!

-dj

Wow, you guys look awesome.  I wish you could see yourselves.  Oh wait you can!  Amazing what technology can do.  I’m going to take this picture and post it to Twitter so you can all see what this moment looks like and the world can share it with you.

Ok on the count of 3, say 2012!  Hey you!  With the black hat and gown.  Smile!

Come on!  I think the class of 2012 has a little more life than that…  Let’s try that again!

To begin I’d like to thank Dean Banavar, the Distinguished Faculty, Former Colleagues, Family Members, and most of all you – the Class of 2012.

I am truly honored to be here today. Back at what I consider my home, this great University and College.

I’d also like to thank you all for the grief you’ve caused me in preparing this talk. While you have been finished with your finals, I’ve been cramming for this speech. And before I start, Dean, Faculty, Professors, and Graduates, I have a confession to make. I’ve cheated, and I need to come clean.

Have you ever been in one of those moments where you realized that gee, what’s the harm if I take the quick shortcut, who’s going to notice? (of course none of you did anything like that while here at Maryland) Well, I decided to take the opportunity to give myself an edge.  As a Silicon Valley tech guy, I decided to use technology and the world to help me prepare for this commencement address. So, I asked people on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Quora to figure out what wise words you should be imparted with and also what they remember from their graduation speakers. You know what most people remember? Nothing! Zilch! Nada!

So knowing this I realized, I can say anything I want!  Although, I’m sure someone will post this on YouTube.  But seriously, as I got feedback from around the world and wracked my brain about what to say, one theme began to emerge…

On your day of such great accomplishment, I’d like to talk about something we rarely celebrate: failure.  And why we are counting on you to fail. Now bear with me, and you’ll see where I’m going.

We’re all products of failure. You don’t remember it, but your parents definitely do. From the first time you rolled over, to your first steps. These successes were a culmination of failures. Need further proof? Make sure to ask them over dinner to recount your potty training.

The funny thing is you can read all about me in the bio or my LinkedIn profile and you’ll see that I received my Ph.D in Applied Math from here 11 years ago.  I’ve worked for the Department of Defense and been to Kazakhstan. But you won’t see all the failures that made up the journey.  What you can’t see from my Facebook or LinkedIn page are what’s behind the most important moments of success all the failures.

While growing up in California, to simply say I was bad at Math would have been an understatement.  My freshman year of high school, I was kicked out of my algebra class and had to spend the summer retaking it. This (unfortunately) would become my regular paradigm for the next few years. By the time high school graduation came around, two things happened to me.

First, I almost didn’t graduate. For the record, I did actually graduate, but it was only because a very kind administrator took pity on me and changed my failing grade in chemistry to a passing one.

Second, I got a girlfriend. Since I didn’t get into any of the colleges I liked, I opted to go to the local Junior College with her. Do you remember that moment when you first got here and tried to figure out what classes you’re supposed to take? Well, I had a winning strategy.  I enrolled in all the same classes my she was taking.

One problem, the first class was Calculus. Wow, did I get my ass kicked that first day. It was then I realized that I wasn’t just stupid; I was really stupid.

As I looked around at everyone else nodding along with the instructor (including my girlfriend), it dawned on me, I hadn’t failed because of the teachers or the material. No, I failed because I didn’t try.  I didn’t even put my self in a position to fail.

I was fundamentally afraid of being uncomfortable and having to address the failure that comes with it.

To me it was like when you get to the top of the high dive, walk out the edge, looking down that the clear blue water (you can even see the dark lines at the bottom of the pool) everyone telling you to jump, and then running back down the steps.  I couldn’t commit.

So what did I do about my Calculus class? I committed. Instead of dropping out (my usual method), I went straight to the local library and checked out all the high school math books I could find. I then spent the next week going through them. And it was awesome. Suddenly I was failing at a problem, figuring out what I did wrong, and then course correcting. This feeling of being able to iterate was very new to me.

Now, five weeks later that same girlfriend asked me one afternoon why I was spending so much time on my math homework. It was then that I uttered the fateful words that I will never forget:

“I don’t know – It’s not like I’m going to become a math major or something”

Much to my great surprise, I ended up becoming a Math major. (Actually, I think my parents are still surprised).   Then the same thing happened when I got here to the University of Maryland for my graduate work.  I got my ass kicked by everyone, again.  I failed my first graduate class and even got the 2nd lowest score on my first Ph.D. qualifying exam. (The lowest score was actually by a guy who didn’t even show up.)  I really, really wanted to quit, but that wouldn’t be the uncomfortable path.

So I stayed in the game by failing, getting back up, and continuing to push forward. It was probably one of the toughest and loneliest years of my life. The next time the qualifiers came around, however, I had the highest scores.

The big take away I have from this is that tenacity and failure go hand in hand. Without both, you can’t move forward.

Now it’s easy to say go forth and fail! But that’s not really that useful. What’s most important is how you fail. The best method is to fail fast. To help explain it, I want to tell you about one of my most recent experiences at a company called LinkedIn. Some of you may have gotten a few emails from us…

LinkedIn wasn’t the first social network in a very competitive space nor did we know exactly where we were going. It was an extremely tough fight. What allowed us to succeed was our mantra of failing fast in order to survive.  We would build products quickly, test them out, many of them failing, then learning about went wrong, and then trying again.  In fact, if you looked at all the projects, code, design, and people’s time that was invested into building the company most people would be shocked by how much didn’t work.

As my good friend Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of LinkedIn, says: Entrepreneurship is jumping off a cliff and assembling a plane on the way down.

I think that’s a great analogy. First because it’s a statement that you have to fully commit by throwing yourself at the problem. Second, to build that plane in time, you have to be comfortable failing, learning and repeating the cycle until you accomplish your goal.

If there is one thing that you take away today, remember this – fail quickly, don’t fail slow. I know it can sound a bit contrarian or even conflicting, but your goal is to move from a path of eventual failure to a path of success through iteration.

For the cliché, but very necessary sports analogy – you are aiming for a homerun by taking as many chances at bat as you can.

It’s essential you take risks, just make sure you have put yourself in a position to fail quickly. Failing slow is painful for you and painful for your loved ones to watch. It’s like watching your best friend being in a relationship that is clearly doomed, but they just won’t listen.

So what’s the world’s advice (remember I cheated) on how to achieve success though failure?

First and foremost, find your passion and work on what you love. There is a good chance many of you don’t know what your passion is yet. (That’s okay, after all, it too me over a decade to find out math is my passion). In fact, if you analyze LinkedIn’s data, the trends show that your generation will change jobs more times than any previous generation. That’s great in my opinion! You should try lots of things out.  Why? Once you find your passion, you’ll never give up, take no for an answer, or have the patience for those that stand in your way. You’ll become an entrepreneur in your own right, by making your passion a reality.

Now before we go on, we need to clear up something on entrepreneurship. Some people think entrepreneurship means going off and doing a startup. I think those are people who have either watched The Social Network one too many times or are following Facebook’s stock price a little too closely.

My definition of entrepreneurship is “finding what you believe in, and creating something meaningful by failing at it over and over again until you eventually figure out how to make it a reality.”

When a few of us had the idea to build the first digital library in Iraq, it wasn’t because we wanted to profit at it or to have an IPO, it was because there was a need. People were 30 years out of date (to put that in context, 30 years is just when the computer mouse was becoming a reality). And to figure out how to make it work, we had to try a massive number of things (most that didn’t work).  But it became our passion and we refused to accept defeat.  Today that digital library is one of the cornerstones of the Iraqi education system.

Secondly, surround yourself with people you value and those who value you. Just like your body responds poorly to junk food (ok maybe in 10 years when it responds poorly to junk food), your mind and energy levels also respond to the company you keep. Keep the company of those that inspire you to do better, the people that aren’t afraid to tell you the unvarnished truth. It will hurt to hear, but it will allow you to iterate faster. Embrace those that will pick you up when you are down, because they will become your greatest allies in life.

Thirdly, experience other people’s lives and continue to share your own. You’ve already done this. I remember many late nights cutting across the Chapel on the way to Wawa being in deep conversations with people who would become my closest friends and trusted advisors. You all know what I’m talking about. As you went through this journey, you opened up to each other. You shared your dreams, passions, heartaches and failures with those around you.  Don’t let that go away.  That’s where you learned about the human condition and what it means to have true relationships. The virtual ones will keep you in contact, but they don’t mean anything unless you have a common foundation of shared experiences.

Lastly, strive to regularly put yourself in uncomfortable situations.

The world is changing as we speak. Right now there are two people in a garage with a dog (don’t ask me why there is a dog, but there always seems to be one) creating the next iPhone, Facebook, Google. Those of you that are graduating today with your undergraduate degrees, you are the first generation to go through your entire social years (puberty onwards) with Facebook. During your entire educational experience you’ve had access to Google, mobile phones, and the Internet.  And yet already during your time in college you have seen the introduction of the tablet. The notion of using a desktop or a laptop is already outdated to any preschooler.  Given this rapid pace of change, the only advice that I can give you to stay on top of the curve is to keep learning. This means putting yourself in uncomfortable situations where you fail and subsequently teaching yourself new skills as a result.

Why is this so important?

Class of 2012, you are all about to embark on your next great journey. While many of you will travel far and wide, we are all counting on you to fail fast. While our society is moving forward faster than ever before, we are also facing a world with massive challenges.

  • Our  health care system is going through a great debate.
  • Clean water is rapidly becoming a luxury.
  • We know the importance of education, but the majority of the world is restricted from it.
  • The capital and human costs associated with keeping our nation safe continues to rise
  • And, we have a disparity in the rights, both moral and physical, for all humans both here and abroad.

The solutions to these problems won’t come from just having debates, relying on technology, or even worse, pushing the inevitable on to the next generation. The resolutions to our challenges will come through the process of trying, failing quickly, and then trying again with increased resolve.

Finally, a graduation speech wouldn’t be complete without this most critical advice. Wear sunscreen. Yes, it’s the advice that is given over and over, but there is truth in it. If you’re stuck in bed with a cold, or a bad back, the world won’t stop and wait for you. In fact, many of the best leaders I know, take religious care of their bodies. The race is long and your body has to last for it.

There you have it – my advice to you. We love to say things like “Failure is not an option”.  But believe me, the most important thing the University of Maryland taught me is, “Failure, is our only option.”

So if you can only remember one thing from this speech; remember: Every failure is an opportunity to succeed. Fail fast, don’t fail slow.

Class of 2012 – this shared experience at college will always bind you together, and on this fantastic day remember that your success will be determined by how rapidly you learn from you failures.

Congratulations class of 2012, I wish you a future of fast failures!  May you go forth and fail so that we can all succeed!

We love to say things like “Failure is not an option”.  But believe me, the most important thing the University of Maryland taught me is, “Failure, is our only option.”