Steve White's notes on business
May 12, 2021

One Piece of Advice Every Commencement Speech Should Include

You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it. That’s probably not a traditional message for a graduation ceremony. But, hey, I’m telling you—embrace it. Because it’s inevitable.

You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it. That’s probably not a traditional message for a graduation ceremony. But, hey, I’m telling you—embrace it. Because it’s inevitable.

Denzel Washington shared these words with an audience of graduates at the University of Pennsylvania. While the advice may sound a touch harsh, what follows in his commencement speech is a powerful message about the importance of what he calls “falling forward” when you fail. 

Washington explains that too often, we hear people tell us to make sure we have something to fall back on. He bristles at this advice because it sounds like a plan for quitting. By Washington’s definition, falling forward means that you never quit. And by falling forward, he explains that at least you know what you’re falling toward. You don’t quit. You keep preparing for the next opportunity and the next. 

I feel a deep connection to this philosophy because it aligns with my belief in an uncompromising approach to life. This is an unwavering drive to stay true to what’s most important to you and a willingness to fight for your values. If you embrace life in this way, every failure becomes a lesson that keeps you alive, growing, and moving closer to your goals. 

Consider a few leaders who fell forward instead of falling back:

  • FedEx founder Fred Smith wrote a concept paper for the world’s first overnight delivery company while attending Yale in 1962. The paper earned a “C,” and the professor told him the idea would have to be feasible to earn a better grade. Rather than let his novel idea fall prey to one opinion, Smith fell forward with his plan and launched the company nine years later. 
  • Though Arianna Huffington is one of the most powerful businesswomen today, she is the first to say she’s no stranger to failure. After her first successful book, thirty-six publishers rejected Huffington’s second manuscript. Understanding that failure is often the key to success, she is now the author of thirteen books and the president and CEO of Huffington Post Media Group. Her tenacity proved to be exactly what was needed to move past a series of rejections.
  • Soichiro Honda applied for a job at Toyota as an engineer but was passed over for someone else. Out of work, he started making scooters for children at home, which he sold to neighbors. With the help of his family, he founded the Honda Motor Company despite discouragement he received from Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). Instead, he won permission from MITI and produced an unprecedented sportscar. Honda has been the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer since 1959 and one of the most profitable automakers in the world today.

Let’s take a brief look at the characteristics Smith, Huffington, and Honda might have shared so you can reflect on your own state of mind when you experience failure:

Maintain an uncompromising mindset

Each were driven by a passion or singular idea they thought was possible. They honored their inner voice. This passion helped them overcome diversions along the way.

View failure chance to learn

As each visionary faced objections or obstacles, they likely modified their approach to earn the approval of a gatekeeper or funders. Failure didn’t appear to be rationalized. They acknowledged it and pivoted.

Recognize that failure is a stepping-stone

False steps were considered one move closer to the correct path. These leaders sustained a positive outlook and knew they failed because they attempted something, which is the cornerstone of progress.

My most memorable story with failure happened at the beginning of my career when I hadn’t yet learned about falling forward. You could say that that getting fired on the heels of a promotion left me a little bewildered. Fortunately, a would-be mentor stepped up to show me how to make this life event a falling-forward opportunity. It was at that moment when I learned the value of Denzel Washington’s advice in his commencement speech. 

While many caps and gowns will return to the stage again this summer, take note of Washington’s hard-won insights. Failure is a guarantee in life. What will you do with it? Will you choose to fall forward and be ready for the next opportunity? I hope so. What waits for you on the other side of failure could be your next great moment.

Live your why,


Now that you’ve read this post, may I ask you something? Are we connected on LinkedIn? It’s where I love to share nuggets of business wisdom and deepen my connection with curious readers like you.

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  1. Charles S Gilford

    Inspiring and motivating…

  2. Rob

    Very inspiring examples of leadership and dedication to their vision. I wish I’d had these handy when I’ve fallen forward in the past and had to get through those difficult times. However, I did have Steve’s leadership and positivity over the last decade to keep us moving forward to persevere and eventually realize the vision.

    Thank you, Steve!

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