The best/worst graduation speech ever

A couple of years ago, I attended a graduation ceremony at Emory University.  The keynote speaker was the chief of surgery at one of the nation’s leading hospitals.  I didn’t know him, but apparently he was a huge deal.

As you might expect, he had a laundry list of credentials but wasn’t the most dynamic communicator.  He opened with all the usual pomp and circumstance that comes with graduation speeches.  But then he made the switch from flowery, forced graduation rhetoric and started to tell a story.  This story alone goes down in my book as the best/worst graduation speech I’ve ever heard.  It went something like this:

When I graduated from medical school, I was dubbed the up-and-comer.  I had opportunities other classmates didn’t have, and I was seen at an early age as a specialist.  I remember the pride I felt for making it to where I was.  I remember the hard work, sacrifice and dedication.  I had earned my place.

My first surgery as a doctor was on conjoined twins.  They were attached at the head.  I relied on my training, my education and my instinct.  We made it through hours and hours of surgery and all was going well.  We got into the ninth hour and the vitals were stable; the surgery was a near perfect success.

But then it happened.  These beautiful babies’ blood pressure started to drop.  One complication arose after another and before I could stabilize the situation, both of these babies died.

I was brought in for this specific surgery.  The parents were told I was the best.  I was the one person in the nation that could pull this surgery off, and I failed.  The children died.

This was the story the great doctor told.  He didn’t qualify it, offer analysis or tie it up in a pretty bow for the graduates.  It was without a doubt the worst delivered story I had ever heard.  It wasn’t passionate, carefully articulate or inspirational.  It was sad and depressing.

By the end of his speech, though, he came back to this story and said:

I told you this story not as inspiration but to illustrate one very important point.  Over the course of my career, I’ve performed thousands of successful surgeries.  There are literally thousands walking around this world because of the education, dedication and care I’ve put in to my craft.  But there are also hundreds who have passed away.

After the surgery with the twins, I could have quit.  I could have felt the pressure of not measuring up.  I could have let my ego get absorbed into my insecurities and never push the envelope, attempt innovative surgeries or further my field.  Instead, I chose to learn from my failures.

Graduation does not mean you will succeed in all you do. It means you are preparing yourself to fail.  Failure is inevitable.  Your career is not defined by how many times you succeed but rather how you respond to the failures that lie ahead.  If you choose to learn from them, to own them as part of your story, then life will be meaningful and purposeful for you.  May you fail and learn to accept failure as part of your job. The world needs more of us failing.  It’s the only way we learn.

Like I said, the best/worst graduation speech I’ve ever heard!

Barrett Owen

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Barrett Owen is the associate director of admissions at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology and pastor of National Heights Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga. He blogs weekly at Liminality: Exploring the holy, in-between spaces.

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  • Kent Kingston

    Nice article. Pity you didn’t name Dr Ben Carson as the speaker! And yes, I think he’s right. Our wisdom and maturity are best seen when they’re tested by failure.

  • Barrett Owen

    Thanks for responding. It really was a moving speech.

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