“I want to tell you to get out there and fail.”
I hope you fail hundreds of times in your life, thousands of times. I hope you fail at the thing you care
most about in the world. I hope you never stop failing, through your entire life.
And I hope that every time you fail, you learn, you grow, and you go on to succeed at something even greater than what you set out to do.
Because the most dangerous thing we can do, the greatest disservice we can do ourselves, is to only try
the things that are sure to succeed. It’s so easy to get trapped in fear and doubt, and so tempting to sit
back and say “that’s too hard, I’m not smart enough, I don’t have the talent or the training… I would
just be wasting my time, and people would laugh at me.”
But if we can push down that voice inside us, and try things that push us outside our comfort zone, we will improve. We’ll learn, we’ll make connections, and sometimes we’ll even succeed! But to do any of that… we need to get over our fear of failure.
I thought about quoting JFK here, but I decided on something that might be more familiar to our
graduates. So, to quote the ineffable wisdom of Jake the Dog from the cartoon Adventure Time, “Dude,
sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something.”
At this point I should probably introduce myself. Which is something I am not great at, because I never
know what to introduce myself as.
I’m Jeremy. I’ve had the great joy and privilege of teaching elective classes here for four years. I’m also a professional circus performer. I graduated from college right as the economy imploded, and so without formal training or qualifications, I set out with some friends to make a circus troupe. Despite some months where all I could afford was tomato soup and a World of Warcraft subscription, in the end I’ve spun and juggled fire for clients like Dell, Audi, Cirque du Soleil, the US armed forces, Boston Ballet, and hundreds of cities, fairs, and universities across North America.
But more importantly… I have bombed shows. I have forgotten lines, dropped props, bumbled
choreography, left a prop bag behind in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and set my friends and myself on fire more
times than I can count. I’ve also had David Hasslehoff personally tell me he doesn’t like me in front of
thousands of people, which definitely was on my bucket list.
The reason I’m telling you all this is twofold: one is so you can see I’m no stranger to failure, and laugh
about it with me. The other is to tell you that the path to success is long, strange, and unknowable. It’s
different for everyone, and I want to make sure you know that Clearway students have an advantage
over many other students that is very easy to overlook.
Everyone at Clearway has had the experience of going through some discomfort, getting tossed off the
easy railroad track of “how life is supposed to go.” Some people don’t get that wake-up call until much
later in life, and it leaves them lost. But every one of you is already on your own individual path,
conscious that you need to find and acknowledge your own strengths and weaknesses and blaze your
own trail. And that is a huge advantage.
As the Clearway mission statement so eloquently puts it: “We are a community that celebrates the
diversity of the individual and the many paths to success.”
In Clearway, you have a community of peers and teachers who respect you for who you are, and who, even after you graduate, will help you as you blaze that trail through the jungle. You’re surrounded by the people who will spot quicksand for you, and tell you when that vine you’re about to grab is actually a snake.
We’re more powerful together. We make each other strong.
The Clearway community encourages trial and error, trying things on for size and finding a different
approach if the first one fails, talking through mistakes and finding a new path instead of giving up. I
know that is a spirit and a philosophy you will take beyond this school out into the world, whatever
path you find yourselves on. Growing up and moving on doesn’t mean you get to stop learning,
experimenting and making mistakes, messing up spectacularly and moving on in spite of it.
To quote George Bernard Shaw (who is NOT a cartoon dog), We don’t stop playing because we grow
old, we grow old because we stop playing.
Never stop playing. As my positive psychology students can tell you, play is the way we learn and try
on new roles and skills we’ve never tried before, in a space where it’s okay to fail. Playing trains us for
real tasks that matter. Find space in your work and your life, whatever that is, for play.
When I decided to leave full-time circus life and do a graduate program in Human Development and
New Technologies, I had no idea what I was doing. I started making and using games, playful learning,
as a way to teach skills without fear of failure. To that end, I am proud to say I have failed this school
and its students countless times. Every semester, I take on at least one ambitious class that doesn’t go as
well as I would like it to. But my students and I always learn together and from each other, and we
always have fun and find a way to play in both our successes and our failures. If I could teach only one
skill, it would be that.
The world might tell you it’s not okay to fail, or that play is a waste of time. I want to tell you to reject
that. Listen to your critics, and make sure you’re hearing voices that challenge you and your
assumptions, but make sure to also seek out and listen to supportive voices that encourage your biggest,
craziest ideas, the ones that really get your mind racing. And be sure to be the kind of friend who
encourages those around you, who will come pick someone up at the bus station at 4 am when their
dream doesn’t work out and they can’t afford a cab home.
Reject the kind of failure that leaves you with a dead end. Always find the lesson you learned, and
instead of obsessing on what went wrong, find the interesting path forward. Keep trying, keep failing,
take a break when you need to, but remember that it only takes one success to erase a thousand failures.
To use one of my favorite examples, we don’t know the name Steven King because he was rejected
thousands of times, we know his name because he kept learning from failure and pressing on in spite of
I hope I haven’t said the word fail too many times. I’ve never been a fan of commencement speeches
that promise that the future is a spotless meadow of sunlight interrupted only by hundred dollar bill
bushes and friendly unicorns. It’s quite a world we have out there. I can’t tell you “do what you love
and the money will follow” with a straight face or a clear conscience, but I can tell you that Mary
Poppins was onto something when she said “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.
You find the fun, and snap, the job’s a game.”
Graduates. Don’t be afraid to find your own path. Don’t be afraid to step off it and find another. Make
time to play and never stop learning. Love yourself and those around you, and when you see them fail,
be there to pick them up and say “that was awesome, let’s do it again!”
You and I are both leaving the walls of Clearway, but the school, the community, and the support of
Clearway will never leave us. You are going to be great. You already are. Thank you.