In May of 2007 I gave a commencement speech for the Westwood College graduating class. I had a lot of fun giving the speech and I learned a lot from it too.
I was not quite sure what to expect from the commencement, because not only was it my first time giving a commencement speech to a graduating class, it was also my first commencement ceremony I had ever attended. From my personal experience it would appear that graduation from college or university in the United Kingdom is not as big a deal for the families as it is in the United States.
I was not quite sure what to expect on the day, my contact at Westwood College did not get back to me on the expected audience size. I was not expecting a large audience, perhaps a few dozen students and their immediate family. When I arrived at the location I was astounded to find it being hosted in a huge auditorium on a beautiful wooded campus.
The auditorium where the commencement ceremony was being held, had over 400 graduating students with their friends and family in attendance. It was standing room only with around 1,400 people in attendance and was by far the largest audience I had ever given a speech in front of, up until that time.
Since giving the talk, I have improved my speaking skills and also surpassed that audience size by a wide margin. The atmosphere in the auditorium was very much upbeat and almost carnival-like. If you listen to the audio recording of my speech, you can certainly hear the jubilant celebration of the crowd as the students begin the next chapter in their lives. Making these events interesting and a celebration of education and taking the next step in life is one of Westwood College’s best characteristics and I applaud Miguel Aranda, Glennon Neubauer and all the other hard working Westwood College staff members, that help to make the Southern California campuses what they are.
I get a real thrill out of public speaking, I think it is one of the best skills I have ever acquired. The ability to communicate has certainly opened doors for me, and given me an unprecedented return on the monetary and time investment with regard to new business and opportunities for my company and for me personally. If I had the opportunity to live my live over again, public speaking and communication skills are one of the first skill sets I would learn and throw all of my energy into.
I have included the speech in this article, exactly as it was written, and also the audio recording of the speech as I gave it that evening after having rehearsed and practiced almost continuously for about three days. When it came time to give the speech, I made use of 3”x5” index cards for my speech notes, which I had to refer to about three times.
Please forgive the quality of the recording of the introduction given by Miguel Aranda, my SONY lapel microphone, which is very good, is only capable of so much given that I was about 15 feet away from Miguel, and he has his back to me, whilst he was talking. Once I begin speaking, the quality is much improved.
The file is encoded as an MP3, with a VBR (variable bit rate) which I hope will maintain the quality but also keep the file size to something reasonable.
Excuse me if I seem a bit nervous this evening, the last time a college invited me to their campus it cost me a hundred thousand dollars in tuition fees.
When I was asked by a member of staff earlier where I would like to sit, on stage or in the audience, I chose the audience.
I avoid getting up on stage if at all possible.
I fell off a stage at age six, when I played an animated, talking mushroom in my school’s production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the experience has haunted me ever since.
When I was talking about this commencement address to some people around the office they were surprised I was asked.
“You?” They said, “but you can’t go 10 seconds without using foul language.”
So for those parents in the audience worried about this, don’t worry, I won’t use any language you wouldn’t hear in your son’s or daughter’s college dorm any day of the week.
One of my coffee mugs at the office, I don’t recall where this particular mug came from. This particular mug has one those inspirational slogans on it, something that you could find on inspirational wall posters in corporate conference rooms across the country.
The slogan reads "What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?"
What indeed? You could do anything you wanted.
In case you hadn’t heard, and I’m sure this will come as a shock to many of you, life is full of failure.
And that’s a good thing.
But how most people define failure isn’t how I define it.
A few public failures that we might have heard of.
An obvious one, Albert Einstein, his best work in theoretical physics whilst failing at so many other things.
Bill Gates. A college drop-out.
Steve Jobs, both a high school drop-out and a college drop-out.
Thomas Edison, failed thousands of times in his experiments until he got something just right.
James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson vacuum cleaner, tried thousands of variations on one particular product until he was satisfied with the result.
All of them failed repeatedly.
But we remember them or know them as a successful person today because they never gave up trying.
So long as it isn’t life threatening, or illegal, you can treat every endeavour in life as one where you cannot fail.
I wouldn’t recommend applying this attitude to bank robbery or your first un-trained attempt at open heart surgery but the principle is sound.
So many people are educated to never to be wrong, they have the fear of failure or of being wrong about something instilled in them from the first day of school. In high-school, on your SATs, later at college, there is only ever one right answer.
For these people, their failure is that they are often afraid to experiment or unwilling to learn on their own.
They require tuition from expensive degree granting colleges to feel that they have learnt anything.
The best lessons in life are learned when you fail at something.
I think more schools should attempt to teach failure.
What a class that would be.
To teach failure you have to encourage students to ask the “what-if” question.
Perhaps Westwood College could invite George Bush to be the commencement speaker for that graduating class.
Thomas Edison when asked about the viability of his particular type of light bulb and other inventions that he had worked on, stated "I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work."
I’m sure many in the audience learnt to ride a bike when they were children?
I’m sure you mastered it years ago and could ride one even today.
Some of you may have actually ridden on your bicycle to college in the past week.
Oh wait, who am I kidding, this is L.A.
Did you fail at riding a bike?
Did you ever for one moment believe that you would fail?
All the other kids on the block could do it.
If you have older siblings they were probably riding around too.
So why not you?
You didn’t stop.
You just kept trying.
Absolutely positive that this was something you could do.
Until one day, you could ride a bike as easily as falling off a… well, you get the idea.
So I want to redefine failure, instead of it being a binary on or off, black or white, right or wrong viewpoint we should look at failure as an analogue system, a continually varying signal that offers feedback on what we are doing.
We failed the first time we tried to ride a bike, we failed a second time, and if you were like me, you probably failed quite a few more attempts, and failed them in painful and interesting ways too.
I learnt to ride a bike at an accelerated rate.
The farm that I grew up on was at the top of a steep, winding mountain road, and speed has a way of educating very quickly which is the front brake and which is the back brake in a just few short, painful lessons.
I still have the scar on my chin that reminds me of what I learned.
What would you do if you could not fail?
I believe that failure does not come when we fail to reach our objective but when we stop attempting to reach them.
I have a small video game development company that I started a little over five years ago, and every year since then we have doubled our revenue.
Now I started this company whilst sleeping on a friend’s couch, living out of two suitcases, living on a tax refund for the previous year.
I was determined not to fail. Failure for me at the time, the easiest thing in the world, would have been to go and get a regular job.
No matter how hard things got, no matter that I wasn’t sure whether I’d have money next week for food, I knew that if I persisted I could not fail.
I believe my company will exist for as long as I’m alive and people want video games. It will only fail when I stop trying.
Once you have left school, left college, life is not graded on a curve; it is not graded at all except in your ability to earn a pay cheque.
Don’t be afraid to fail, because it is by failure that we improve and learn.
Don’t be afraid to be wrong.
If you only pursue those things in life where you cannot fail, you won’t grow as a person, you won’t experience life’s full potential, and you won’t ever achieve very much.
I hope today that I am looking at some of the biggest failures that history will ever see.
Act as though it is impossible to fail and it will be impossible to fail.
Just don’t rob any banks.
Listening to the audio and reading the written speech, you should notice that the speech varies a little in places, as I changed it to match the audience. On occasion, I messed up one or two lines, having to quickly change what I was about to say. I am putting that down to nerves and my speech impediment working hand-in-hand to trip me up.
After I gave this speech, mingling with the audience, students, and Westwood College staff members, I received some great feedback that I have applied to future speeches and talks I have given.
If there was one piece of advice that I could give anyone at any time of their life, it would be to learn to communicate, both verbal and written, learn to speak publically, learn how to connect with other people in your personal life and in business.
The easiest step you can do to improve your communications skills, right now, today, is to join and attend your local Toastmasters group. The skills I learned there are directly applicable to my life, my business, my work, and to speaking publically.