By Thomas Knook ’13

On November 18, 2011, this college unveiled a fundraising effort for broader and deeper scholarship funds, a stronger and more comprehensive academic environment, and a more financially independent institution overall. The program is called “Now is the Time,” and it’s been incredibly effective: since its beginning Whitman has raised 120 million dollars and counting.

In light of this, school officials have asked me to introduce the newest step in their campaign. This step is a wide-ranging outreach program aimed at newly graduated alums and young alums alike. I’d like to present the newest movement in our college’s history: “Now Is the Time: To Fail.”

It might seem incongruous to be talking about failure at commencement, an event which is traditionally one of the more significant markers of achievement. But, more than anything, what I have learnt at Whitman is that success and failure go hand in hand.

You could say Whitman breeds success stories. Unsurprisingly, there are dangerously high levels of success in front of me right now. But the one thing that I feel is truly under-appreciated about the Whitman College education is how well it prepares each and every one of us to rebound and thrive after royally screwing up.

Some people just go on to runaway success right out of the gates; maybe a few of us here will go on to own catering franchises at small liberal arts colleges. Most of us will not be lucky enough to find ourselves in a position to rip off college kids.

Everybody fails at some point. Bill Gates green-lighted Windows Vista. George Lucas made the prequels. Steve Jobs failed for thirty years before he got turtlenecks figured out. For every “Wicker Man,” or “Bad Lieutenant,” there is a “Ghost Rider.” Eric Idle starred in the 1990 hit movie “Nuns on the Run.” That man has a lot to answer for. Robert Downey Jr. shot up, John McCain got shot down, and 50 Cent was shot nine times, and we celebrate each of them for their endeavors.
Failure is inevitable. How we react to it is therefore crucial. To me, what’s important is not if or how someone failed, but if they harnessed the incredible powers of change and growth that come from the failure. Thankfully, this response is a skill that can be learnt and taught, and is the unlikely byproduct of a Whitman education; the development of agile, self-aware, latitudinal, and critical thinking, and effective writing and speaking allow us to rebound quickly from disappointment. It’s not something that you’ll see in the admissions brochures, but it may be the most important thing I’ve learnt.

I've seen people learn it. I’ve learnt it myself. I remember coming home from the one advanced class I took as a freshman in a daze, wondering what the upper-classmen were even talking about. My teacher at the time didn’t think much of my work either. It took me a few months, maybe even a semester or two, to finally catch up and understand their thoughts. Soon I could drop a dichotomy or paradigm or hegemony as well as all the other kids.

Part of accepting failure is having the humility to know that success is not a given. This stack of diplomas opens up incredible opportunities for every one of us; it does not, however, entitle us to these opportunities. There is an overwhelming collection of research which suggests that having an undergraduate degree is the key—across all intersections of race, gender, class, etc.—to a greater quality of life. But holding the key doesn’t automatically give you the right to open the door. There is so much more work to be done after today, and some of it will end calamitously; that’s okay.

Another part of accepting failure is understanding that failure and success mean different things for different people. Today, for us, success means graduation. Today, for others, success means eating. We are very lucky at Whitman to have learnt ways to be flexible  and adaptive around failure. For many here in America and around the world, failure is not an opportunity; it’s a dead-end. I acknowledge that my “failures” would seem nonsensical to many, even in the boundaries of Walla Walla. This doesn’t minimize my experience; it broadens it. To understand my role in the world means I no longer take success for granted.

And let me be clear; I’m not saying we should feel guilty about being graduates of a well-known liberal arts college. I’m saying that humility is knowing the social context within which we’re situated. It’s also being able to ask for help when you’re veering off course and saying “thank you” when others pull you out of the wreckage and dust you off. I have been pulled out of a fair share of wreckages, so I have to finish with thanks. Thank you to all those who stood and graduated here before us; without you I’m not sure where we’d be. Thank you to all the faculty I’ve gotten to learn from, but specifically: thank you to Keith for telling me, “Bad things happen to good people, and you’re certainly one of those.” Thank you to Chris for telling me, “Make bold choices. Better to be brave and screw it up than to make toast in the corner.” Thank you to Shampa for telling me, “Whatever you end up doing, you shouldn’t be able to sleep at night.” Thank you to my friends and family; without you I’d be a graduate of a prestigious college with no friends or family. Just kidding. But most importantly, thanks to all of you, my classmates, for teaching me more than any book or professor ever has. Let’s go fuck up. Now is the time.

Thank you.