It’s May, and I am ready to give my commencement address. The only problem is that I have not been invited to give one. Too bad. It’s a good one. I have entitled it “The Two Lincolns.” Actually, I haven’t written it yet, but if I did it would include the following points. I would open with this: “Has anyone been to Lincoln, Nebraska?” “Ridden on the Lincoln Highway?” “Seen the Lincoln Memorial?” “How about taken a good, hard look at the face of a penny?”
As a seasoned speaker, I know how important it is to build rapport with my audience. Once I have done that, I would greet the Board of Trustees, the President of the University, the various vice presidents, administrators, faculty, distinguished guests, parents, grandparents, godparents, surrogate parents, and students. Then I would pump my fist and say, “Let’s hear it for the Class of 2015!” (This actually happened this weekend. It reminded me of a warm-up comic).
My next point–actually, my only point and something that I would want everyone to remember–would be about failure. Yes, failure, and not just to be different or counter all the positive psychology posts you find on Twitter. I told this to a graduating senior the other night who asked me for help with a short address she was giving to award recipients. I had to explain that the only way success can be rightfully measured was in the context of failure. The whole point of an awards ceremony celebrating student success was to drive home the importance of failure. She looked at me.
I like Kevin Costner’s character in the movie Bull Durham, who explains the difference between a .250 hitter and a .300 hitter. It’s basically one feeble, little hit a week. A dribble. A dying quail. “You get one extra dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium,” he tells the rookie pitcher. And how do you do that? You make sure you have enough at-bats. That means never giving up.
“Solve metus,” Aeneas told his comrades, dispel your fears. “Durate!” (endure). It’s always good to throw in some Latin with people dressed like Thomas Aquinas.
This is the perfect time to segue to Abraham Lincoln (public speaking is all about segues). There are, of course, two Lincolns. The first is the mythic one of popular lore: the sixteenth President of the United States who kept the nation united through its bloodiest war; the leader who freed the slaves in the South; an orator who delivered the Gettysburg Address; a statesman of grand eloquence and skill who was loved by many and is considered to be our country’s greatest president.
But there is another Lincoln, a shadow Lincoln. This one lost his job; failed in business; suffered a nervous breakdown; was defeated more than half a dozen times running for office, including twice for the United States Senate; lost a nomination for the vice presidency; and lived to see two of his sons die before him.
If the shadow Lincoln wanted to date your daughter, you’d throw him out of the house. If he were sitting in front of you applying for a job, you’d never hire the poor guy, even if he had Web design experience. Too many people, it seems, want the winner version. They want to hear about successes, conquests, salary figures with more zeros than a Pearl Harbor movie. And they want their commencement speakers to be illustrious people with stellar records. Maybe that’s why I have not been invited to speak.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if I don’t have accomplishments. I am not complaining. But I tend to think of my accomplishments as dying quails that I happened to hit, because I had enough at-bats. And I would not talk about them at commencement. I would talk about failure and how the reason I am standing in front of a graduating class is because of the shadow Brancatelli, not the “successful” one. You see, there are two Brancatelli’s just as there are two Lincolns. Just as there are two of you.
To students obsessed with perfection and terrified of failing, it could be the most emancipating proclamation of all.