Thank you for that extremely kind introduction and for this wonderful opportunity to address you, the class of 2014. This is a distinct privilege for me in so many ways. To return to Gettysburg College where my adult life began is an honor and I have to admit, somewhat surreal. This college and my 4 years here played an integral role in my life. I can still remember arriving in September 1979 filled with a mixture of fear, great apprehension and excitement. But coming to Gettysburg was one of the best decisions I made and not only because I met my husband here. We began dating after meeting in the basement of Lambda Chi at a fraternity party our junior year.
Being here today on this graduation day with my husband brings back memories of sitting in those chairs with my class and looking at our graduation speaker. If you told me then I would be standing here 30 some years later, and I would be wearing an army uniform as a general officer, I would have scoffed at you. Because the truth of the matter is this career – a professional soldier - was not ever part of my plan. I joined the army because of that fraternity boy. He was an ROTC student and I did not relish the idea of taking a bar exam in every state he was stationed during his army career. So I took a chance. I did not let my fear of failure, my fear of the unknown, hold me back. I joined the army.
So you are wondering where is all this going. I clearly understand I was not invited to speak today about my past but instead about your future. But this is not only about you, the graduates. So before I move on I would also like to extend my sincere congratulations to the parents, the siblings, the loved ones that are very much a part of the success of the graduates that sit here before us today.
And to the graduates, you are bright, energetic, and gifted. The life that awaits you, the foundation of which was built here at Gettysburg College, is filled with great opportunity. There are many philosophers who can give you cautionary and inspiring tales of what awaits you. Whether it is Confucius, Emerson, Oprah, or your mom or dad, they can give you words that will inspire you and motivate you to greater heights. But my words to you today come from the greatest of philosophers - Dr. Seuss. In his classic book, “Oh, the places you’ll go,” he opens with, “Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to great places! You’re off and away!” And you will go to great places. But Dr. Seuss also has wise words of caution: “step with care and great tact and remember that life’s a great balancing act.” So today I would like to talk about life’s great balancing act. And I believe in order for you to stay in balance and still make forward progress in life, you sometimes have to be willing to accept risk. So while you will have many successes in life, I want to talk about the fear of failure, and - yes – failure itself. Because if I had let my fear of failure guide my path in life, my fear would have held me back.
So let me see if I can describe my point with a story. I have two daughters who are two years apart. And when my oldest was about 5 or 6 my husband and I decided it was time for her to learn to ride a bike. There are several methods to teach someone how to ride a bike and I suspect whoever taught you used one of the two main methods. You know them -- “deception” and “disregard.” Deception is when a parent pretends they are holding the bike and runs along with you shouting encouraging words. Disregard is when the parent pushes the child down a slope and the child figures out how to balance on their own of course with the parent shouting encouraging words. My husband and I decided to combine the two methods – we decided to hurl our daughter down the slope while running along side pretending we could actually catch her if she fell – and, of course, shouting encouraging words. Well, our younger daughter, who was 4 or 5, demanded that her training wheels come off her bike too. So we each took a daughter and pushed her down the hill . . . Running along side . . . Shouting encouraging words. Daughter number one was going to have none of it; she immediately jumped off the bike. One could say she was smart – she knew she was going to fall – she concluded she was going to fail – so she jumped to safety. Daughter number two was the exact opposite; she pedaled and pedaled until she fell on the ground. Needless to say, daughter number two at age 4 or 5 learned to ride her bike that day. Daughter number one did not learn until the next summer. Bad parenting. Maybe. Or maybe what made the difference was that daughter number two accepted the challenge.
She was not going to let her fear of falling – her fear of failure – stop her from succeeding. She fell, no question. But she got right back up and went down the slope again, going farther each time she tried. With daughter number one, however, Dr. Seuss put it best: “I’m afraid that some times you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win ‘cause you’ll play against you.”
This is a true story. It also just happens to illustrate my point. I am here to tell you that if I had listened to my fear, I would not have followed my husband into the army. I knew nothing about being a soldier. I was scared to death. But I took a chance on myself. I accepted the challenge not knowing if I would succeed. Gettysburg taught me I was capable of doing things I could never dream of.
So I took a chance on myself. I raised my right hand and took that oath. Then I did not look back. Since then, I have made my share of mistakes and missteps. I have fallen. I got back up, dusted myself off and moved forward. The reality is that the “what ifs” of life will paralyze you. You must challenge yourself if you are going to continue to grow.
Soon you will find there are many times when you do not succeed. There will be days when the mistakes and missteps seem to be the narrative. Each of us can think about failure and give a multitude of examples – not getting a job, not getting accepted at a particular school, not receiving your fair recognition, not having an opportunity. But don't jump off the bike for fear of failing or falling. As Dr. Seuss puts it, “I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are.”
Said another way, there are two types of failure. There is the failure from trying and the failure from not trying. Much of our focus is on the failure from trying. This, I would submit, is not the failure that should give you angst. When you face failure after having tried, you gain from your efforts because if you learn from those missteps you will continue to grow and become stronger. Failing is a reflection of your persistence and resolve. I am not here to tell you that when you don’t succeed it does not sting – it does and we all know it.
You can feel marginalized, you question yourself, and it can throw your confidence into doubt. But here is a secret, my fellow alumni: we all feel that way at one point or another. Remember that there is no shame in the failure of trying. Because if you are reaching for success, you will sometimes miss the mark. It is what you do with failure that is important.
The failure that I would urge you to avoid is failure caused by not trying. I submit that those who haven’t failed have never tried. They never challenged themselves to set higher expectations of themselves or to meet those expectations. You have to accept challenges in order to truly succeed.
In the words of president Teddy Roosevelt, “the credit belongs to the man -- or woman may I add -- who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming. . . . So that his or her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
As I look back at my career, there were many times that I could have declined the challenge and not risk the disappointment. I could have opted out. But I expect more from myself. Have expectations. Be willing to risk the disappointment. Risk failing. For only then can you truly succeed.
Dr. Seuss said it -- oh, the places you’ll go. But you and you alone must go there. Sure your support network of family and friends might run along side shouting encouraging words. But you are one who must not let the fear of failure hold you back. Seek the challenges before you. Learn from your falls along the way. Don’t take the safe route and jump off the bike.
So I close where I began, with Dr. Seuss, who ends his book, “today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So. . . get on your way.”
Go Bullets! Army strong!