How Wonderful and Terrifying

It’s graduation time. If Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, as the song proclaims, graduation is the most wonderfully terrifying. For what comes next?

As an English professor, I see this with my students. Unlike degrees such as accounting where the career path is obvious, my students are prepared to do so many different careers that they often don’t know where to start — and too often believe the lie that they “only” can teach.

I can relate. I believed that lie all those years ago and majored in journalism, rather than English, because I wanted to escape the inevitable fate of teaching. It took five miserable months of working as a business reporter to acknowledge how bad a fit journalism was.

One weekend, I found myself eating an entire carrot cake solo and considered how many mornings I sat in my car on the verge of tears not wanting to go into the office. I quit without a plan and moved home with my mom.

As J.K. Rowling proclaimed in her 2008 Harvard commencement address, I was very lucky to have failed, for we benefit from failure.

Rowling explains that Harry Potter is a result of what by conventional standards was a failed life with Rowling struggling financially as a single mother when writing the first book. Rowling told the graduates, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.” (I acknowledge that the 2022 Rowling is problematic, but the speech is profound.)

I suppose it would have been better for me to have failed earlier, that is switch my major while in college rather than refusing to admit I truly disliked journalism.

Journalism is an extremely important discipline, and I admire those who work diligently and even on occasion risk their lives to share information. But it wasn’t right for me. I refused to admit that because I didn’t have much money and needed to finish college. I didn’t feel I had the time or luxury to switch majors. Also, I’m stubborn. I like to call it persevering. Sometimes, I’m just stubborn.

If only someone had given me a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss, a book that finds itself a best seller every May.

After assuring readers that they are “off to Great Places,” the book reminds them that “I’m sorry to say so/but, sadly, it’s true; that Bang-ups/and Hang-ups/can happen to you.” I might change Dr. Seuss’s wording to will rather than “can.”

For failure not only has its benefits; it is inevitable.

This is what I failed to acknowledge when I was an undergraduate contorting myself in every direction to be someone I was not. Rather, I believed that failure would mean that I was a failure. It would not point to an isolated moment in time, an act or choice, but to a character flaw.

One study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average American had held 12 jobs in his or her lifetime. Some certainly moved to better jobs. However, I’m sure some were fired. Some left, as I did, due to feeling miserable with no firm plan in place. (Oh, the luck of making my discovery at the age of 22 with a kind mom.) So some of those job changes likely represent “failure.”

In the long run, I’ve benefitted from that journalism degree. I struggled in graduate school going from journalism to English, but here I am working as an English professor. The skills I learned as a journalist have been helpful. I deal well with deadlines, and I learned how to interact well with total strangers (many of whom did not want to talk to a journalist).

More importantly, I have learned to recognize the difference between perseverance and stubborn inflexibility, and I’m not so afraid of failure.

You don’t necessarily need to buy the Dr. Seuss book for any graduates you know, but it would be a wonderful gift to assure them that you are proud and that it’s absolutely fine to fail — because we all do and, if we look at it the right way, we truly do benefit.

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Kathryn Duncan

Kathryn Duncan

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Kathryn Duncan is an English professor and author of the book Jane Austen and the Buddha: Teachers of Enlightenment.