Failing Forward: The Inspiration of Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington’s recent commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania is again making popular the idea of “failing forward.”
This is not some kind of new age platitude to make you feel better about losing…
As Denzel points out in his speech, for those willing to try and for those willing to test their true potential, failure is not only possible, it is inevitable; at least once in a while.

“I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks – nothing.”

Too many people today are addicted to safety and security. Safety and security are, in the best of times transitory states and in most cases they’re simply an illusion. You can plan and take all the precautions available to you and still end up confronting circumstances and conditions beyond your control. No matter how safe and secure you feel at any moment, you could, in a split second face an emergency, a natural disaster, an accident, illness or injury. You could be attacked or assaulted. You could be the victim of identity theft or burglary.

Now I’m not trying to scare you; well, maybe a little, but not the way you might think.

My experience has taught me not to depend upon anything that can be taken from me as the ultimate source of my happiness…

When you think about security, you’re usually thinking about tangibles. You want to secure your property, your money and your future. You want to protect your health and your home. This is all prudent and wise, but at the same time take care that in focusing so much on security you don’t lose your most valuable assets: Your talents and abilities.

You can only fully realize your talents and abilities by taking risks. You must be courageous enough to expose your talents and abilities to the scrutiny and criticism of others. You must develop the confidence to express yourself despite the risk of rejection, opposition and…failure.

Denzel continues:

“I’m sure people have told you to ‘make sure you have something to fall back on.’ ‘Make sure you have something to fall back on, honey.’ But I’ve never understood that concept; having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything…I want to fall forward.”

Successful people fail, they fall. They’ve learned to take the fall. They’ve learned that each failure is one small step in the process of building success. They’ve learned to discriminate between experiencing failure and being a failure. Everyone trying will fail at times; becoming a failure is a choice.

“You will fail at some point in your life – accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself; you will suck at something. There’s no doubt about it.”

Quite a motivational speech, eh?

“Now I know that’s probably not a traditional message for a graduation ceremony but hey, I’m telling you, embrace it, because it’s inevitable – I should know.”

He goes on to describe the challenges of becoming an actor; the rejection, the criticism, the failure and the perseverance, discipline and focus you need to get through it all until you eventually succeed.

What if instead of trying to secure yourself from failure, you embrace it? I’m not talking about being foolish, foolhardy or stupid. I’m not talking about the puerile misinterpretation of “going with the flow” so many people use as an excuse for complacency, mediocrity and dependency. I’m not talking about being careless or selfish. I’m talking about actively embracing the inevitable failures and adversities that are unavoidable when you dedicate yourself to realizing your full potential.

After talking about failing his first big audition, Denzel offers this key advice:

“Here’s the thing: I didn’t quit; I didn’t fall back. I walked out of there to prepare for the next audition, and the next audition, and the next audition. I prayed – I prayed; and I prayed. But I continued to fail, and fail, and fail – but it didn’t matter because you know what, there’s an old saying: You hang around the barber shop long enough, sooner or later you’re going to get a haircut. So you will catch a break and I did catch a break.

“Last year — I did a play called “Fences” on Broadway…won the Tony Award…But here’s the kicker: It was at the Court Theater; it was at that same theater I failed my first audition thirty years prior. The point is…every graduate here today has the training and the talent to succeed; but do you have the guts to fail?”

Sure enough if you don’t want to get hit, don’t step in the ring. However – if you never step in the ring you can never know victory and triumph. You cannot be a winner without risking the chance of losing; winning and losing are two sides of the same coin.

“If you don’t fail; you’re not even trying. I’ll say it again: If you don’t fail; you’re not even trying.”

That’s a fact.

After all of this I’m going to say, don’t seek failure; just accept it as part of the game. What you seek is opportunity; failure is payment for opportunity. Opportunity is what you create from failure – as long as you commit yourself to failing forward.

Watch Denzel Washington’s entire University of Pennsylvania commencement speech here…


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4 Comments

  1. Awesome post, Jim. I always enjoy perusing the commencement speeches…somehow I missed Denzel’s.

    So many good lines. I particularly like: “If you don’t fail, you’re not even trying.”

    Not failing = Not trying = Failing… and that is failing back because you miss the opportunity to learn and grow.

  2. Very insightful, Jim.

    My favorite line ” . . . do you have the guts to fail?” Too many people have tied their self-worth to success at (fill in the blank), and cannot fail, because it will devastate their psyche. Ultimately, do you have the guts to be vulnerable enough to fail?


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