I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.
However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown.
… I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and … I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
… You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default. Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.
Clear processes are also essential for dealing with one of the hard realities of innovation: failure. In this context, innovation can be seen as analogous to baseball—a star player on offense is one who fails about 70 percent of the time.
As Otis’s Diehl puts it, “What’s important sometimes is not how a company deals with success but how it deals with failure. There is a sense in which the best innovators know how to reward failure, as oxymoronic as that may seem. An initiative that stretches an organization, that results in pushing back the boundaries of knowledge and of products—that’s something that companies have to find a way to acknowledge, even if it does not result in a breakthrough product or process.”
Indeed, the risk of failure may be the most frequent killer of innovation.