Thank you. I’m truly honored to be with you this afternoon for your commencement from this truly innovative institution that is preparing you as society’s change agents.
I know this might sound a bit odd on this day of achievement and accomplishment, but I want to talk to you all in this short time we have together about failure. I was granted three degrees in my 20s—one from Harvard College, another from Harvard Medical School, and one from the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
But it was not until I was in my 30s and 40s when I failed professionally, personally, and publicly that I truly “graduated” and came into my own.
“What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” That’s not only the question that I pose to each of you this afternoon, but it’s also the Robert Schuller quote that adorns my office wall as graffiti art and the sleek, silver paper weight on my kitchen table. It’s my internal monologue that prepares me for each day and challenges me for every tomorrow. It has been that persistent whisper that “crescendoed” to a yell until I was finally prepared to listen.
If nothing else, I hope to leave you with three ideas to consider:
First, that you are enough. And not only are you enough, you are an abundance if you have the courage to embrace your unique gifts and talents and are not afraid to unleash them on the world.
Second, that failure is not a dirty word, a socially unacceptable outcome that has to be talked about in hushed tones. Reaching for something that seems so improbable, and maybe it is, but means everything to you is the very definition of opportunity and the lifeblood of all social change movements.
And third, failure is ultimately nothing more than a state of mind—your state of mind. It’s so easy to fall prey to doubts and fears. Build a community around you that will love you, stand for you, and be your fiercest champion.
For too many years, I let others and societal expectations define me. I was really good at math and science, so I should become a doctor, right? And I did, in large measure because it meant so very much to my loved ones. I am the first physician in the family, and they are incredibly proud of me. But at the end of the day, that journey was about them, not me. Success, achieving the American dream—that was the narrative—and that meant getting a good job and making good money. And I tried that too. I joined a for-profit business for about a year—until I got fired—and deservedly so. Working at a job that means nothing to you, that means nothing in your heart and soul, and not bringing the full weight of your talents, skills, and commitment to the task at hand should be an unacceptable compromise to each of you.
Each of us has a threshold, a breaking point when the way we are living doesn’t work anymore. The ultimate choice then becomes—do you continue with the way things are or do you change? For me, that life’s turning point happened four years ago. Between October 26, 2006, and December 28, 2007, I lost and buried a father, a mother, a godfather, and two aunts. On August 17, 2007—my 44th birthday—as I was sitting at my godfather’s funeral, I began to realize that the central identity I presented to the world—that of the “good daughter” or the “good child,” never a bother to anyone, always doing the right thing, had been shattered. While I wore the labels of doctor or businesswoman like ill-fitting clothes, the “good daughter” was so fundamental that when it was stripped away, I was laid bare.
I have to say that, with every fiber of my being, I believe that our core identity—who we truly are and what we are meant to do in this world—is as intrinsic as our DNA. It’s etched in our soul and ultimately it’s our job to figure out what it is.
Yet for most of us, our very reason for being remains as invisible to us as those molecular building blocks because of self-imposed limitations, societal expectations, and just the relentless stuff of life. But it’s there. For me, the signs were many—they were everywhere. But for many years I couldn’t see them or chose not to see them.
I’m an African American kid from Baltimore, Maryland by way of North Carolina who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. I sat in classes in my public school with my white friends and ate lunch with my black friends. I loved the holidays, getting my first set of presents at Hanukah and my second at Christmas. I was a mediocre violin player in my high school orchestra stumbling through Bach and Beethoven who couldn’t wait to get home to listen to the latest rap songs by groups like the Sugar Hill Gang, Curtis Blow, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
When I was in medical school, I received support from Echoing Green, the organization I now run, to help start a mobile health unit for disadvantaged city residents. I spent mornings in the hallowed halls of Harvard Medical School and the afternoons on the mean streets of Boston—a short walk across the subway tracks but worlds apart in terms of opportunity and possibility. In my current day job, I walk between the worlds of social justice and social innovation, Main Street and Wall Street, and change versus tradition.
I belong nowhere and everywhere, comfortable across the man-made barriers of race, class, pedigree, and politics. This child of French and Spanish public school teachers turned out to be a translator too, a cultural translator, bridging the divide between groups who, ultimately, have more in common than they do apart.
Our fear of failure is an amazingly powerful, suppressive force. It has the ability to stop us dead in our tracks without ever lifting a finger. It’s like that tag that comes on the side of every mattress—that from the time you were a little kid you knew you could never touch. There isn’t one of us in this room who would dare cut that tag off that mattress for fear of what might happen if we did. Who were the shadowy figures waiting to get us if we cut off that tag? That’s what the fear of failure, always lurking in the background, without ever being seen and that’s what the status quo does to us. In society, the status quo masterfully uses fear as a cudgel—a cudgel of shame—to tamp down on our dreams, our visions of transformation. It says that our dreams are naïve. It says that our vision for a better way is simply not possible. It says that it’s just better not to fail. But without the possibility of failure, there is never a chance for that breakthrough innovation. There is no chance that systems-changing idea will come into being or that quantum leap in productivity and progress that makes civilizations flourish and thrive will come to the fore.
The best thing you can do is to shine a light on failure, talk about failure, and ultimately learn from failure. Embrace it. That’s where the greatest learnings are, and that’s where tomorrow’s solutions lie. In a speech on world peace at American University in June of 1963, President John F. Kennedy said: “Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.” Those words of human endeavor are as powerful a call to action as his call to put a man on the moon. You have labored long and sacrificed much to get to this day. You are prepared to take up and solve the issues of the day—those societal failures that limit the potential of your community, your country, and our world. When I look out at all of you, I see and I feel the power of the collective—agents of change in our society in service of the public good. And it is beautiful to behold.
Finally, I want to acknowledge your loved ones who are here with you today, supporting you, and ask them to continue to do so. The very definition of failure—it means not achieving the desired ends—speaks to the fundamental power of taking risks and striving beyond what seems possible, for your desire is nothing more than the clearest expression of your core identity’s intent. This path toward purpose will inevitably include moments of failure. Many of you will reflexively berate yourselves when you fail rather than give yourself a hand for trying. I hope that your family and friends will constantly remind you, by their very presence, that you are not on this journey to come alone and, by their pride, that this is the first step toward purpose. It’s that attempt. That’s what it’s all about.
In closing, I simply couldn’t resist the temptation, as I’m sure is common at many Walden University events, to reference Henry David Thoreau. However, I’m not going to give one of his many quotes. As I’m sure you all know better than I that Thoreau is famous for his solitude: the cabin in the woods, being on his own, the self-reliance, connecting with nature, etc. etc. Well, in reading up on him in the preparation of these remarks, I came across this wonderful story from his biographers. Thoreau’s mother and sister visited him almost every day to bring him snacks, and once a week he came back into town to visit them and drop off his laundry. That’s hysterical to me. This is a quote from his biography:
“He visited Concord Village almost every day. Thoreau's mother and sister, who lived less than two miles away, delivered goodie baskets every Saturday, stocked with pies, doughnuts, and meals. Thoreau even raided the family cookie jar during his frequent visits home. The joke making the rounds in Concord was that when Mrs. Emerson, wife of Ralph Waldo Emerson, rang the dinner bell, Thoreau came running from the woods and was first in line with his outstretched plate.”
As far as I’m concerned, that story confirms once and for all that no woman or man is an island. Your chorus of champions in ways big and small will continue to accompany you each day on the journey ahead. While I’ve talked a bit about failure, today is truly about success. So I wish you luck, love, and lots of snacks along your way—and again, congratulations to each of you on this important achievement. Congratulations and again, good luck. Thank you.