Published June 20, 2017
Billie Jean King spoke at Northwestern University Friday, capping (pun intended) this year’s round of commencement speakers. 2017 had some memorable moments, including Mark Zuckerburg calling for a national minimum wage during his address at Harvard and three dozen students walking out on Vice President Michael Pence at the University of Notre Dame. But no commencement address was more closely watched and analyzed than the one Hillary Clinton gave at her alma mater, Wellesley.
I don’t want to parse the speech she gave, because what is most striking about Clinton’s speech is what she didn’t say. Here is the opportunity she missed: To share with young women what it is like to win the popular vote but still lose the election, and nevertheless get up in the morning to fight another day. In one way or another, this sort of thing happens to all of us (although in a less public and spectacular way).
It’s too late now, but here’s what I wish she would have said.
We All Fail Big In Life Sometimes
Years after they graduate, many people remark that they can’t recall the name of the person who gave their college commencement speech, much less any advice they offered. Whether you remember that Hillary Clinton spoke to you years from now isn’t really important to me. But the advice I am going to offer today is.
Your graduation is a day filled with excitement and hopes and dreams. And I don’t want to dampen your enthusiasm or deter you from pursuing your passions; I want you to strive to make a mark on the world. But I also want to be honest with you. And I know that perhaps some of you are wondering how I am doing given the events of the past year.
You may have heard that things didn’t exactly go the way I planned. That’s because, as much as we plan, prepare, and work to direct our lives in a certain way, other things often happen despite our best efforts. Some that happen are beyond our ability to control.
I lost an election everyone said was not possible to lose. In your life, the experience may be similar. You might fail the bar exam, or be denied admission to medical school. You might be passed over for a promotion, even though you are the most qualified person at the office. You might be fired from a company where you thought you’d work until retirement. You might start a business with a brilliant idea, but the business fails.
Many commencement speakers are eager to tell you that anything’s possible if you try; that if you only work hard enough and reach for the stars, you will achieve your goals. But, perhaps because they don’t want to discourage you on what is such a happy day, many also don’t offer any advice on what to do if things don’t work out the way you’d hoped.
What to Do When You Fail
The first thing I’d like to point out is that failure does not give you permission to feel sorry for yourself. Remember: As a graduate of Wellesley, you have an education that already places you in an elite and envied position, and not just compared to women in the Third World, but also compared to women in impoverished areas of our own nation—Chicago’s inner-city or rural Kentucky, for example. You now hold a degree from what is often considered the finest women’s college in the country.
So, as difficult as it is to do, when things happen to you that are not fair, that are not right, or that disappoint you, don’t indulge yourself in a pity party (or at least don’t for very long). If you feel you’ve been wronged, you should of course speak up and defend yourself. But if your best efforts can’t rectify the situation, then be a person who sees the opportunity in the defeat.
Have you ever heard of the saying, “Thank God for closed doors?” It means that when things don’t go the way we’ve planned despite our best efforts, our paths may be directed in a new way. A more interesting way. And, yes, perhaps, even a better way. The lost election, the exam failure, the job loss can actually be a gift, a blessing in disguise—but only if you allow it to be.
Sometimes Life Is Better than the Best Plans
Second, I want you to know that some of the best things in life are the things we don’t plan. Maybe you will meet the man of your dreams and marry sooner than you had thought you would. Or perhaps you will start volunteering at a nonprofit and realize that you want to leave the for-profit world and devote your life to a cause. The exciting part of life is that it doesn’t need to read like a script, a series of boxes that you check off. Allow the unexpected, the surprise, to influence how you think and how you decide to live your future.
Third, I want you to understand that failure is hard. It stinks. People will say “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade!” I wish I could tell you it is as easy at that. It is not. But I have learned that what lessens the pain is to actively cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
I am so grateful for the people who supported me and believed in me, for the election I did win as a senator, for the promotions I did receive. From being our nation’s first lady to secretary of State, I have had so many wonderful experiences and opportunities that it would be absurd to focus on one lost election for very long.
Of course I was disappointed. I was angry, too. I felt that I let so many people down. Not only did I lose, but I lost before the eyes of the world. But, you know what? In the greater scheme of things that loss is not what defines me. The setbacks you may have along your way won’t define you, either.
Finally, I want to assure you that no bad time in your life lasts forever. You will go through times when you may even question your own existence, but you need to know that the adventure of your life unfolds chapter by chapter. You won’t know the end of the story until you get there. As a wise Catholic nun once said, “Don’t put a question mark where God has put a period.”
When the inevitable disappointment comes along, don’t waste valuable time asking why, replaying the day or the moment or the loss over and over in your head. It won’t help you move forward. Go for a walk in the woods and regroup. Remember all you have available to you as a citizen of this country, a country whose freedoms give you the ability not just to succeed, but to get up and try again.
Don’t let your disappointments stop you. Let them propel you. Congratulations, class of 2017.
Mary Hallan FioRito is an attorney and the Cardinal Francis George Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.