I have been out of pocket for the last week because my son-in-law graduated from UC Berkeley on Thursday, and is now a Doctor of Psychology. Our friend, the beautiful Dr. Maya Kuehn, spoke on behalf of her fellow PhD graduates, and I was so impressed with her speech, I decided to make it my first guest blog. I believe what Maya has to say about failure applies not only to graduate school, but also to life. I am immeasurably proud of my son-in-law, my daughter, and the bright, socially responsible, nice people they have incorporated into their extended family.
Maya Kuehn-Psychology Commencement Address -May 2015
Hello everyone. You guys, we did it! We made it. I’m so proud of all of us. I have the immense honor of making a few remarks today to represent the doctoral graduates of 2015. My name is Maya Kuehn, I’ve been a grad student here in social and personality psych since 2008, and in many ways on many days, I thought today would never come. But here we are. And I get to speak! I’ll keep it short and sweet, I promise.
I just wanted to take a few moments to reflect on grad school. If you’ve ever spoken to me about graduate school you probably know my feelings on this topic are… mixed. On one hand, it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life: I’ve worked with truly brilliant people, made amazing friends, done original research, lived in a beautiful place, taught over a thousand students, and thrown probably a few too many social events. But on the other hand, it’s been
incredibly difficult, both personally and professionally. Grad school is hard, and I think that’s because, at its core, grad school is about learning how to fail.
I’m sure some of you just shivered at the thought of failure. Seven years ago, I would have done the same. Ten years ago, if you’d asked me, I would have said failure was my worst fear. So I totally feel your discomfort; failure can be terrifying. But I’m asking you to give me a couple minutes to change your mind.
Because guess what? Grad school has helped me conquer the fear of failure, via a twisted, brutal form of exposure treatment. In grad school, failure comes as naturally as breathing. Research fails most of the time, papers get rejected, grants get denied, lectures fall flat, symposium proposals don’t get into conferences, and job applications don’t even get you close to an interview. Unlike high school and college, where we learned that hard work would usually earn
success, in grad school, there’s no longer any reliable correspondence between effort and payoff. Life feels unpredictable, work feels pointless, and everything seems really unfair. And it sucks. A lot.
For we lifelong overachievers who managed to get ourselves into Berkeley, you’d better believe this is a departure from the norm. Never before had I faced this much failure, this often, at this scale, and on this personal of a level. What’s worse is I had to sit with this failure and fully face it. We overachievers especially hate this phase. When you’re growing up and are fairly smart and capable, you can skip gleefully away from a failure in one domain to focus instead on your budding successes elsewhere.But in grad school, there is no escape from failure. We are highly specialized, success has some fairly objective markers, and it’s a small field where everyone knows everyone’s business. Failure is inevitable, and it’s in your face, and it haunts your dreams at night.
But in grad school, even as you learn that failure is very real and extremely likely, you also learn that it’s not the end of the world. They always have beer at Triple Rock, the sun sets and rises again, the fog rolls in and burns off, and life goes on.
Here’s the surprising thing about failure: Once you start fearing it less, you learn that failure can be incredibly liberating. Failure gives you license to start fresh, it gives you room to grow, it makes you get creative, it makes you less defensive, it makes you more empathetic, it makes you challenge your assumptions, it makes you think about your goals, it makes you re-examine the system you live in, it makes it totally acceptable to treat yo- self to a little indulgence, and it makes you seek other forms of fulfillment in your life.
It also makes you draw closer to the ones you love, whom you absolutely need, in good times and bad. Without my family and my friends, there’s no way I would have learned and grown as much as I have from this seven-year waltz with failure – thank you to everyone who has supported each of us over the years, and thank you especially to my mom, dad, grandma, and brother in the audience today.
I think that a quote by Tom Robbins from the awesome novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues beautifully captures my feelings about failure here and now, at the end of grad school:
“So you think that you’re a failure, do you? Well, you probably are. What’s wrong with that? In the first place, if you’ve got any sense at all you’ve learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. But fail with wit, fail with grace, fail with style. A mediocre failure is as insufferable as a mediocre success. Embrace failure! Seek it out. Learn to love it. That may be the only way any of us will ever be free.”
So here’s my indelible nugget of wisdom for all you graduates: be brave enough to go forth and fail. Fail with wit, fail with grace, and fail with style.
But you don’t have to start this instant –for today, savor your success, and celebrate this amazing accomplishment.
Congratulations, class of 2015. Thank you.