What Doesn’t Kill Us Can Indeed Make Us Stronger

The Honorable Gregory W. Slayton is a Dartmouth '81. He has lived in every inhabitable continent in the world except Australia and was the United States Chief of Mission to Bermuda from August 2005 to August 2009 under Presidents Bush and Obama. Gregory was a Silicon Valley CEO and venture capitalist from 1994 to 2005 and now runs Slayton Capital. He is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at UIBE in Beijing. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Tuck School of Business.

Sweetheart: as your dad I just have to say how proud we all are of you. You’ve had a great run of success in your young life – as have virtually all of your classmates. You and your classmates are at Dartmouth because you did exceptionally well in high school and on your SATs. You guys were (and are) successfully involved with a number of extracurriculars. And you are doing great things at Dartmouth. That is all good. But I’ve got some bad news for you sweetheart: failure is coming. In fact, here on earth there are truly only two things that are inevitable – and no, one of them is not taxes. Failure – and death – are the two things that are virtually inevitable here on earth. And that too, believe it or not, is a good thing.

Why do I say that? What in the world can be positive about either failure – or for death? Let’s separate the two for a moment. The truth is that there are many, many benefits to be gained from failure IF we have the right attitude and a learning spirit. Failure can teach us much about ourselves and our very real weaknesses – and can (if handled correctly) strengthen us for the road ahead. What is important is to remember that having a failure is NOT the same as being a failure. Not at all. In fact, perhaps the greatest challenge of failure is learning from it, growing through it, and not allowing it to define who you are. That is one thing you must not allow to happen.

In fact, that’s the whole reason I am writing this, to help you realize that failures on the road of life are inevitable from here on out. But you (or your classmates) would not know this reading or watching popular media. Like the subject of death, failure is something almost no one wants to admit to or even talk about today. And that is a great shame – for it is a reality for all of us. And how we deal with failure is a big determinant of whether our life overall will be a success…or not.

My own life has been an incredible mix of victories and defeats. I’ve had the honor of being on the cover of Time magazine, being a (moderately) successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist, graduating with honors from Dartmouth and Harvard Business School and serving our Nation as a senior US diplomat. But I’ve also had my share – maybe more than my share – of failures. Some of them have been extremely painful to not just to me personally…and my entire family. And some of them have forced me to wonder “Am I a failure?”

Like everything else in life – what you believe determines what you will do. And that is why it is so important to learn from our failures, mourn them if necessary, but really learn from them…and grow through them. One of the most interesting research papers. I remember studying at HBS concerned successful CEO’s and other equally qualified people who never became CEOs. The difference was not that the CEO’s had less failure – or less painful failures (which had been the researcher’s initial hypothesis). It turned out that the successful CEO’s each had experience major professional failures in their lives – at a rate and scope no different from their non-CEO counterparts. What was different is that they were able to put those failures into perspective, to learn from them and to grow through them. In other words, they defined (and learned from) their failures and they did not allow their failures to define them. And that is the key.

It certainly isn’t easy when you receive a rejection notice from that company you were dying to work for – or your first choice grad school (or the person you thought you might marry). No, it is not easy. But here are three things that will, if you take them to heart, help you to overcome – and even benefit from – failure.

1. WHO you are is not changed in any way by an occasional failure – or even a number of failures. This is why close family, true friends and a deep faith are so vitally important in bad times as well as good. Because they each help us know who we truly are, and they all value us for who we truly are rather than the title on my business card. In the good times they help us too – reminding us not to believe our own press releases or what the crowd is saying at the time (remember, the very same crowd that was praising Jesus on His way into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday were calling for His execution a week later). So build a strong family, true friendships and a deep faith. Each will help you immeasurably in the good times – and the tough times – that are to come.

2. WHAT can you learn from this – and Why? Most of us want to blame others, or bad luck, or poor circumstances for our own failures. Don’t do that – because that short-circuits the learning process. Better to mourn, if need be, and then to think deeply and honestly about what you can learn about yourself (an unexposed weakness that came to light perhaps), about others (learning who to trust in life – and who not to – is a lifelong process) and about the world we live in (it’s a much tougher place than most Ivy League grads understand). But the key here is to be honest with yourself – and with a few others who truly care for you and can help you learn from the experience. So think about what went wrong – and how you will handle those challenges next time (and btw: there will be a next time – that is for sure). Why do that? Because life seems to like giving us the same test over and over until we pass it.

3. HOW will you grow stronger, wiser and better from this difficult experience? There is a choice that each of us has in every failure: do we get bitter…or get better? That old proverb is a cliché for a reason: it is true. So you need to resolve right now that you are going to grow through the tough times by applying the lessons you learn (see point #2 above) to your life. Resolve that you will address that newly exposed weakness or learn to be more astute in your partnerships and relationships.

One final word on failure and humility: they are linked. Everyone dislikes proud and arrogant people – but very few of us recognize pride and/or arrogance in our own lives. That’s one of the reasons that failure is such an important part of life: it teaches us humility…one of the most important elements of a successful life.

As a great old Pastor once said to a group of Ivy League honors graduates: “for those of you in the audience who have had no real failures yet, who have had an unbroken string of success, I have just one thing to say to you…” At this point, everyone in the audience thought he was going to say “Congratulations” or “Keep up the good work” or something equally innocuous. Instead he said “you are almost certainly a very shallow person – and life is going to try to help you cure that via failure. You would be well advised to learn from it…for it will make you more human, more humble and yes, more fully alive.”

So, do not avoid failure – for the only way to do that is not to try. Our prayer is that you would look failure straight in the eye when it does happen, learn from it, grow through it and never, ever be defined by it. Because that is the secret I want to share with you: the only way to achieve long-term victory is by learning from – and growing through short-term failures. May you master the failures that will inevitably come - so that you become more human, more humble and yes, more fully alive.