Fail well, graduates

May 26, 2014 

On Thursday, businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will address new graduates at Harvard’s commencement. The speech will no doubt touch upon the subject of success — the entire commencement exercise is meant to imbue graduates with the belief that they can succeed in the real world.

But there is an almost equally good chance Bloomberg will talk about failure as well. In the last 20 years of Harvard commencement addresses, speakers from Bill Gates to J.K. Rowling have used the word success (and its derivatives) 70 times, while fail (and its derivatives) were used 52 times. And that’s not taking into account Harvard Class Day speeches, where luminaries such as Bono and Conan O’Brien have consistently extolled the educational, creative and character-building virtues of failure.

Last year, Oprah Winfrey’s commencement address continued the trend: “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

For those non-Harvard grads who have missed out on two decades of ridiculously successful people encouraging other ridiculously successful people to appreciate failure, this video (slate.me/1p9aAjs) can serve as the CliffsNotes version — and if long-standing patterns hold, it may also serve as a preview of Bloomberg’s commencement address.

Fail on, Class of ’14!

Ben Blatt is a Slate staff writer and co-author of “I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back.”

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