I have been invited to give my first commencement speech. I was delighted to be invited to speak to the graduating class at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the start of May.

We don’t have commencement speeches in England. My graduation from Oxford (having studied law, rowing and beer, not necessarily in that order of priority) was a baffling ceremony conducted entirely in Latin. I hope my speech in Tulsa will at the very least be more comprehensible, and hopefully more useful too.

So now I turn my attention to what words of wisdom I am going to impart to these students as they embark on the voyage of life. I am fully aware of the responsibility of my task. What can I say to these young adults across the span of a generation that will resonate with them and help equip them for the vagaries of life beyond education?

Actually, I know exactly what I am going to say. The night after my agent first mentioned the possibility of the speech, my subconscious must have been pondering the question, because I woke up inspired and jotted down the framework of the speech on my iPhone before I even got out of bed.

This will be my message: “YOU CAN’T FAIL”.

It was fear of failure that kept me in the office cubicle for 11 years. It was fear of failure that stopped me from being all that I could be. Once I let go of that fear, at last I was free to flourish.

I no longer believe in failure. Even if something doesn’t go as I planned, there is always a silver lining to be found, always some lesson to be learned. Provided I have reaped some reward from the experience, it cannot be deemed a failure. In fact, failures are often more educational than successes, because they invite analysis rather than merely celebration. In my book, the only failures are not to try, and not to learn.

I found these resources quite an inspiration:

Entertaining and empowering: Ellen de Generes at Tulane

Heartfelt: Tony Kushner at Vassar (transcript here)

The famous Steve Jobs commencement speech at Stanford (transcript here)

I listened to this book on audio from Audible.com – words of wisdom from Alan Alda, who seems to have largely cornered the market in commencement speeches:

If you were going to give a commencement speech, what would you say? What would be your gift of wisdom to the graduating class of 2012? I’d love to know!









  • “YOU CAN’T FAIL” … simply sweet and inspiring, Roz! So, with yet another word of encouragement, I will March forward and Spring into my “encore career” on the Vernal Equinox — launching my so-called “retirement” — and begin an adventure in “Slow Living” activism on the road from here there … 

    1st destination: http://SlowLivingSummit.org VT end of May.

    Simply speak simply, Roz!

  • What would I say?

    I would say to them: 1) Eat your vegetables, 2) consider Slow Food, Slow Living, Slow Money, 3) be an Activist for all things Slow, and 4) “be the change you want to see in the world” (Mohandas Gandhi)

  • I would try to say something original, which this isn’t really.  Inspirational? Only if you’ve never heard it before – and almost all of this is quotes from others.

    • Here is another unoriginal quote, Mr Carp: “Any fool can criticise condemn, condemn, and complain – and most fools do.” (Dale Carnegie)

  • The trouble with fear is that giving in to it can be so comforting and thus addictive. It leads a person to a lifetime of looking over their shoulder and thinking “if only”. But fighting that fear can be challenging and, frankly, dangerous. Failure is always a possibility you must learn to accept and deal with. To quote Michael Cain’s character in Batman Begins, “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves back up again.” The only way to guarantee that you won’t fail is not to try in the first place. Ironically, playing it safe like that is the surest road *to* the worst kind of failure and an eternity of regret.
    I found words of inspiration while researching one of my novels, and posted the quote on my Facebook page: “Do the thing you fear to do, and the death of fear is certain” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). Difficult advice to follow, for sure, but then good advice usually is.

  • Hopefully you will post the transcript of your speech after you’ve given it. I’m certain I’m not the only one interested in reading it.

  • My advice would be:
    1 – Don’t take any advice from anyone. Most young people know what they want to do,it’s when they start getting advice from others that the confusion and doubt sets in.
    2 – When some one says ‘If I were you i’d do …’ run away as fast as you can. What they mean is ‘If you were them” and you’re not.
    3 – Most importantly, do it for yourself. Not for your parents, Uncle Bob, in memory of your dead brother, no one but yourself. This applies to occupation, volunteering, causes, belief systems, anything and everything you do. Do what YOU think is best.

  • I would remind them that “all things are temporary”, the good, the bad, and everything in between.     What we know is that everything changes, life (all life) is dynamic.   So enjoy the good while it is with you, and take heart that the bad (or less than good) things in life are also temporary.

  • My grandfather used to say “Not failure, but low aim is crime”.

    Don’t think you’re not old enough to have an impact, don’t think you’re too old to make things happen.

    Morph from an individual achiever to a crowd inspirer.

    Value selling – don’t look down on salespeople – everyone has to be able to sell ideas, themselves, visions, etc.

    Then change all these thoughts into positive sentences. So “You can’t fail” needs a “You can fail and rebound – like on an ocean wave.”

  • I would say: buy the best possible health insurance you can afford, while you’re young and healthy. And do everything in your power to not let that policy lapse.  Also, never get in debt.

    But those are kinda boring and trite things for a commencement speech.

    I’m guessing your speech will be much more uplifting, and perhaps have more of a touch of humor.

    Actually, having written that, now I’m thinking the key to it all really is just that: humor.

    If you can go through life with a sense of humor, everything else will be so much easier.

    • Absolutely! And especially the ability to have a laugh at yourself, no matter what the situation. I get so inspired by the story of Shackleton and his men in Antarctica. Horrendous experiences, but they never lost their sense of humour (or humor, if Shackleton had been an American!).

  • Congratulations Roz. You have been invited to inspire the graduates of a Phi Beta Kappa institution in the heart of the oil patch. Which Rozling placed you there?

    This is a worthy challenge. The environmental and petroleum disciplines are well represented on this campus. TU publishes Petroleum Abstracts and also wins lots of awards in environmental engineering.

    Your theme of objectives and outcomes is widely applicable. The premise that failure is not possible may apply personally, however society can fail in signifigant ways. Your environmental slant might be supported by the sustainable society ideas of David Suzuki. The idea of exponentially increasing expenditures by Chris Martenson illustrate how accelerating economic change could cause chaos.

    I still remember how graciously you answered questions by the grade schoolers in Tampa on your first portage across the colonies.

    Row Roz Row!     

  • Hi Roz!
    One of my mantras is, “There’s no such thing as failure. What I may call failure is a success in learning to do things differently next time.”
    Go well, Malcolm

  • Congratulations Roz! 
    I would recommend, however, that you temper the theme of your commencement address, that “you can not fail,” with a passage or two about ethics. For me, ethics will always trump success. Too many business people these days disregard ethics in their single minded quest for success. In fact, it’s a defacto failure if one disregards ethics in the quest of achievement, profit, fame, social justice, or whatever. So when setting out on any path there’s two very important considerations one should thoroughly explore first, as well as review no matter where the path may lead:

    1) Who are the stakeholders and how will my actions impact them? Stakeholders include, family, friends, community, state, competitors, as well as, and perhaps most importantly, enemies. One should ask, “Am I doing what I’m doing out of malice or spite or am I trying to help my enemy see the error of their ways?” Of course, that also requires that we make every attempt to view and understand the situation through the eyes of our enemy as well. We may discover that we are the ones in error, not our opponent. So always consider all stakeholders from not only your perspective but theirs as well.

    2) Usufruct. What’s that you ask? (Roz likely knows given she has studied law.) But for the rest of us it’s a concept that would solve our environmental problems. Usufruct’s modern day equivalent might be “conservation,” but actually it goes much further and can be used to cast a much wider “ethical” net if you will. From the Oxford dictionary: Usufruct (Roman Law) is “the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance.” So the idea is that you can use something, like this planet we call Earth, but we must be mindful of the other creatures–as well as future generations–that have an equal right to use the Earth as well. We should not spoil the Earth’s ability to be fruitful and provide the needs of others now and into the distant future. (It’s the only planet we have (and they will have), but everyone here already knows that.) Another way to consider usufruct is how Thomas Jefferson used it in a letter to James Madison (1789): “I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident: ‘That the earth belongs in usufruct to the living;’ that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it… We seem not to have perceived that by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independent nation to another.” In that letter, Jefferson went on to suggest that the U.S. Constitution be torn up every 19 years such that each successive generation may create their own compact under which to live and not be encumbered by the previous generation’s rules.

    So I’d recommend to graduates starting out that they always consider both stakeholders and usufruct as they move through life to their journey’s end. If they do that, then indeed, they’ll never fail.

    Also, Roz, balancing drive and ambition with virtue and humility is a fine art. I might suggest you take a look at the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu (I recommend the translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane Engish) for some guidance in that regard.

    Hope that helps! And thanks for all you do Roz!

  • Courage, Mon vieux. Although your fame may be based on physically tenacity, surely you have the most well read ears on the planet. Thanks to your 150 days last year.

  • Here are the points that I use:

    Whatever your passion is now; be prepared for the possibility
    that it will change as you mature.

    If you have a career path planned, expect to discover that
    it isn’t what you expected, or that it’s oversubscribed, or that it will change
    radically or even disappear.

    Have a back-up career. We will always need good mechanics
    but we have more than enough waiters and baristas.

    Always have a spare pair of oars

    At sea, watch the weather forecasts. In business, watch the

    You don’t have to be an employee. Contractors get more
    notice when they’re laid-off.

    If you plan to work in government or a non-profit, first
    spend a couple of years working in a for-profit business so you can learn where
    money really comes from.

    When things seem to be getting really rough, check your

    If someone tells you that you cannot fail, or that you can
    be anything you want to be, inquire why there are so many out-of-work actors.
    There is at least on thing at which you will succeed, if you can find out what it is.

    Whatever you do, make sure you know where your towel is, and
    always be scrupulously honest with yourself as well as the rest of us.

    You have been honoured by this invitation, Roz, and it is well deserved.

  • Roz, just saw your latest post. Is there co-incidence?
    Earlier this afternoon, I presented a text to my ESOL*) students. I have had it for a long time, believing it to be an excerpt of Nelson Mandela’s Inaugural Address of 1994.
    As I told my students, these words have encouraged me to achieve things I never
    would’ve thought possible.
    The fact that they are not by the
    great Nelson Mandela, but actually by Marianne Williamson (from her book, A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, Harper Collins, 1992) does not diminish their power. To me, as a woman, it makes them even stronger.  And I have taken them to my heart even though I do not believe in the God evoked in these lines.

    Here they are:
    deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we
    are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that
    most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
    talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a
    child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is
    nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel
    insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were
    born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just
    in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we
    unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are
    liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates
    others.”*) ESOL = English as a Second or Other Language

  • Have you read David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech? One of the best I’ve read: http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

    • At last! Only two weeks later, I finally found time to read it. Absolutely amazing. Very profound. What a great loss. Thanks for the link.

  • I was at the commencement and loved your speech.  It was very positive and uplifting, mixed with the perfect amount of humor.  I only wish I was the one who was able to buy you the beer after your speech!
    The University of Tulsa is an excellent school, and I think they did themselves well by choosing you to inspire the students.
    Good luck in your future endeavors!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *