You Won’t Believe How Much Harvard Commencement Speakers Talk About Failure

Turning business setbacks into comebacks.
May 19 2014 12:00 PM

“Down in the Hole”

What’s the key to a successful Harvard commencement address? One word: fail.

J.K. Rowling, Bono, Oprah Winfrey and Conan O'Brien.
Epic fail: J.K. Rowling, Bono, Oprah Winfrey, and Conan O'Brien.

Photo-illustration by Slate. Photos by Danny E. Martindale, Kevin Winter, Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Next Thursday, May 29, business executive and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will address new graduates at Harvard’s commencement. The speech will no doubt touch upon the subject of success—the entire commencement exercise is meant to imbue graduates with the belief that they can succeed in the real world.

But there is an almost equally good chance Bloomberg will talk about failure as well. In the last 20 years of Harvard commencement addresses, speakers from Bill Gates to Robert Rubin to J.K. Rowling have used the word success (and its derivatives) 70 times, while fail (and its derivatives) were used 52 times. And that’s not taking into account Harvard Class Day speeches, where luminaries such as Bono and Conan O’Brien have consistently extolled the educational, creative, and character-building virtues of failure. Last year, Oprah Winfrey’s commencement address continued the trend: “There is no such thing as failure,” she told the Class of 2013. “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

For those non–Harvard grads among Slate readers who have missed out on two decades of ridiculously successful people encouraging other ridiculously successful people to appreciate failure, this video can serve as the CliffsNotes version—and if long-standing patterns hold, it may also serve as a preview of Bloomberg’s commencement address. Fail on, Class of ’14!

Ben Blatt is a Slate staff writer and co-author of I Don't Care if We Never Get Back. Follow him on Twitter. Email him at ben.blatt@slate.com.

Andrew Bouvé is the co-executive producer for Slate video.

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