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Why Denzel Washington told Penn grads to fail (and why we should, too)

[ 16 ] May 18, 2011 |

What made speaking for commencement at the University of Pennsylvania irresistible to Denzel Washington? Was it the prestige of receiving an honorary doctorate, the thrill of inspiring thousands of graduates and parents?

None of the above, according to the Star Tribune. “I had to come exactly because I might make a fool of myself,” said Washington. “I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks. Nothing.”


Image by Charline Tetiyevsky via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

His speech went on to enumerate a few of his early failures: almost flunking out of school, a miserable audition for Broadway. His message was that failure is inevitable if you do anything worthwhile; accept that, learn from your failures, and keep going.

I love this advice. I think it’s much needed, at commencement and throughout our lives. It’s easy to stay safe in our routines or settle for just okay. But there’s so much more to life than that. It’s also easy to think we can’t do any better than we are. But in almost every case, we can.

Yesterday was a pretty awesome day for inspiration. In addition to Denzel Washington, Jon Morrow wrote How to Quit Your Job, Move to Paradise, and Get Paid to Change the World, and Stacey Curnow wrote How To Quit Your Job (Even When Youโ€™re Scared Out Of Your Mind).

Suddenly, I sense the universe may be getting impatient with my efforts to liberate myself. But could it possibly be more impatient than I am?

The past few months have seen a lot of changes around here. I’m stepping up my game, doing the shit that used to scare me, working on building my dream into reality.

All of this has required me to take risks, make dramatic changes, and grow, grow, grow.

Having tried it both ways, I can tell you, do the scary stuff. It’s so worth it. Each thing I’ve tried has seemed almost impossibly scary before I did it, a bit uncomfortable as I did it, and nothing but awesome in the rearview. The more I do, the more awesome I feel. It’s exhilarating. I don’t know when I’ve felt so alive. Now, like Denzel Washington, if something is scary, you can just about count on me to dare myself into it. If I don’t, my awesome coach Jonathan Mead will.

It’s a little over a year ago now since I first had the idea for this blog. Day 17,011 could have been just like any other day, and every day after it could, too. In fact, many of them were.

But I just can’t see staying in my beige box and living the B+ life forever. Every disaster reinforces this notion in my head. My job is fine, and I’m lucky to be employed during this recession, but the fact is, if I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, the first thing I’d do is quit.

Well, we all have a terminal illness. It’s called life. You have to make it count–nobody can do that for you.

Reading the posts about Jon and Stacey quitting their jobs was very inspiring for me. They took the leap, left behind the false security of conventional life, and started building their own paths. Jon did this despite major medical problems. Stacy did it despite having a husband and son to support.

It’s easy to make excuses for why we couldn’t possibly do something. Following your dreams can be hard and scary. You will have failures along the way. Even if we hate what we’re doing, it seems easier to keep doing it than to change. But Stacey and Jon did it anyway. Look at all they’ve accomplished.

I’m hot on their trail. What about you?

I’m not saying everyone should quit their job. If you enjoy your job and find it meaningful, more power to you! You’re already where I’m trying to get.

I mean look at the bigger picture. What do you need to do to follow your dreams? What small steps can you take today to get started? It’s time to start taking risks and making things happen.

“Do you have the guts to fail?” Denzel Washington asked. “If you don’t fail, you’re not even trying.”

About Cara Stein: I'm a Breakthrough Coach and Creative Director On Demand. I'm also an idealist who has stopped trying to play it cool. I offer alignment, clarity, and unshakeable belief in yourselfโ€”and then I help you bring your vision to life with great sales copy and graphic design.

Comments (16)

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  1. Cordelia says:

    Yes, yes, YES, to all of the above!

    The more I get in touch with what really matters with me, the less and less the risks and fears seem to grab me. There comes a point where the difficulty and danger of changing is dwarfed by how much you really want something.

    Cheers to you for coming into your own and embracing your fears! It isn’t the presence of fear or failure that matters; it’s what you do in the face of it.

    Can’t wait to hear where your journey takes you next!

    • Cara Stein says:

      The more I get in touch with what really matters with me, the less and less the risks and fears seem to grab me. There comes a point where the difficulty and danger of changing is dwarfed by how much you really want something.

      Yes!!! You’ve hit it exactly.

      I know you’re kicking ass and taking names in this area, too–keep it up! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Amy says:

    so, i am big on failure too! i am willing to take risks and wonder, what if? it seems that when i worked hard on letting go of attachments to particular outcomes, i was free to try, experiment, and fail without judgment.i just wrote about failure and kids the other day on my blog

    i just found your blog recently and am really enjoying it! thanks!

    • Cara Stein says:

      That is awesome! I love the chain mail adventure. I think education does everyone a huge disservice when the message is that the only worthwhile goal is getting the one right answer. How does that prepare anyone for life?

  3. Hey Cara!

    Wow, I’m grateful and humbled that you talk about me in this AWESOME post.

    I love the image you paint of the universe possibly getting impatient with you. Like, “I’ve created all these amazing opportunities for you and you’re still spending hours not completely *thrilled* with your work? Hellooo?!”

    You see, the job I quit, as a nurse-midwife, was meaningful *and* lucrative, but most aspects (like hospital bureaucracy and staying up all night) didn’t thrill me. The part where I got to help women give birth to their dreams did, so therefore I knew where I wanted to focus all of my energy.

    One of my mentors, Pam Slim, says you should test often and fail fast. I love her and I totally get what she’s saying, but I really want to take objection with the word failure – at least as long as it means “look like a loser and die in a ditch.”

    Every time we use the word “failure” I want us to think “learning” – as if there is no failure, only learning.

    Thanks again for this awesome post. I so excited to see which path unfolds for you. Know that I’m cheering you on every step of the way.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thanks, Stacey! Your story is very inspiring! Sometimes I wonder if I’m crazy to be giving up the security and great pay of my job. Not too often any more, though–that stuff just can’t compete with doing something you’re passionate about. But it’s still good to know I’m not the only one! ๐Ÿ™‚

      I definitely agree with you about failure/learning. I’ve had a big mental shift on the whole notion of failure lately. I used to worry a lot: “what if my business fails?” but that’s not really how it works. You try stuff, some things work, some things don’t work the way you wanted or expected, you keep learning, you keep trying. Until you quit altogether, you’ve never failed, and even then, if you choose to do something else you want more instead, it’s still not a failure.

      Thanks for the support! You rock!

    • Karen says:

      I agree completely. The very word “failure” has the stigma attached to a depressed state of mind. Often this person is so lost in the depression that they often can not see past it to look at the lessons learned. Changing the connentation of that word would indeed change lives. Just my two cents on it as I live this even as I write this.
      Cara, I am glad I found your site.

  4. Shannyn says:

    Every time I hear this message, I get so excited! I think it’s because it feels great to be reminded that other people have the same crazy idea- that failure is not the antithesis of success, instead it can be used as a tool or learning experience, it can be a necessary step towards success, or it can be a funny story if nothing else! I love it when others voice the idea that failure happens, and it doesn’t encompass all that we are as people, entrepreneurs, students or friends…

    I feel that failure *can* lead to innovation, it’s part of the growing process that we embrace until we hit teenage and are told it’s “bad.” But honestly, how did we learn anything as kids? We fell off bikes, stumbled through our first steps, got our hearts broken, got chosen last (or not at all) for the team…

    Failure might be part of a balanced diet! Thanks for posting Cara, I always love reading what you write!

    • Cara Stein says:

      But honestly, how did we learn anything as kids? We fell off bikes, stumbled through our first steps, got our hearts broken, got chosen last (or not at all) for the teamโ€ฆ

      Exactly! If kids acted like most of us adults do, nobody would ever learn to walk, they’d just sit around pretending they already knew how!

      Thanks for your comment–I like your insights!

  5. Carla says:

    Hi Cara, thanks for this today. I’ve been reading for a while, wanted to reach out and say hello ๐Ÿ™‚ I too have been getting my ducks in a row, so to speak, to move on to what’s next. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what that “next” is, what my dream is, what I’d love to do above all else, but I’ve decided that *this* right now is NOT it, so I’ve gotta make a move.

    I’ve also been feeling like the universe is screaming at me, like it’s been flashing signs & waving flags and using bullhorns to tell me exactly what I need to hear. I’ve always had my head hung low, focused on something else, but I’m afraid it’s too loud to ignore now. So I’m jumping ๐Ÿ™‚

    Kudos on chasing down all your scaries and punching them in the face! (At least, that’s how it plays out in MY mind! ha!) I loooove your expression “living the B+ life” So true!

    • Cara Stein says:

      Hi Carla! Thanks for writing, and good luck with your new adventures! I’m excited for you!

      If you want help figuring out what to do next or what you’d love to do above all else, you should really check out Jonathan Mead at Illuminated Mind. Helping people figure out their passions and find a way to make a living from them is his specialty, and he’s really great to work with.

      Kudos on chasing down all your scaries and punching them in the face!

      Thanks!! I love this image!

  6. Laurie says:

    Bravo, Cara!

    “Each thing Iโ€™ve tried has seemed almost impossibly scary before I did it, a bit uncomfortable as I did it, and nothing but awesome in the rearview.”

    I can so relate to this! Time after time after time, until I’m beginning to get to a place where my beforehand worrying and fear is a lot less powerful.

    As one who’s recently liberated herself from a longtime job, I can tell you, the feeling of flying on your own is worth every risk, fear, and possibility of failure you can think of. If you’ve never read Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” now would be a good time. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Blessings to you, Cara, as you continue to find your awesome! And may we meet again somewhere on the freedom road. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Cara Stein says:

      Laurie, thank you so much! I was just doing calculations last night about what it would take to support myself and freaking out. I really appreciate your reassurance as someone who is doing it!

      Thanks for the blessings! I really enjoyed hanging out with you in real life! ๐Ÿ™‚

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