I was proud and honored to be asked to give the commencement address at my high school, the Vivian Webb School in Southern California. I was introduced by Student Body President Chloe Soltis, who told the audience of about 500 people about my academic, political and professional successes. I chose to focus on my failures. Here’s what I told them…
Thank you, Chloe. Greetings to the Class of 2013!
And greetings to your parents and loved ones, and to my own parents, who are sitting in the front row. Congratulations to all of you for making it to this moment. To the graduates, for surviving four years of a rigorous Vivian Webb education, and for surviving Half Dome. To the parents and grandparents, you’ve been working toward this day for 18 years or so, getting your daughter to the point where she is ready to spread her wings. This is a big deal, and I’m honored to be here to help you celebrate.
I’d also like to acknowledge that that despite my spellbinding oratory abilities, the graduates probably aren’t hearing a single word I’m saying. At MY graduation, I just wanted to get to the parties later. So to the graduates, if you want to tune me out, that’s cool, I’m posting my speech on Facebook right… now. [pauses to focus on laptop]
Chloe’s introduction made me sound like quite an accomplished person. And now that you’ve heard about the successes in my life, I’d like to focus on my failures. That’s right. You’re going to hear about the bad decisions I’ve made and some of the things that just didn’t work out.
Right about now, Mr. Stockdale is wishing he had reviewed my speech before I got up here.
My political career began here on my first day at Vivian Webb, when I decided I would run for freshman class president. I learned the very basics of running for office when I was here: getting to know the voters – my classmates – and the issues that matter to them, and doing everything I could to convince my class that I was the best person for the job.
Last year I gave a talk to both Vivian Webb and Webb titled “What It Takes to Run for Political Office.” I’m sure the graduating class remembers every word of my presentation… but for the benefit of the families in the audience, I’ll summarize it now.
Here’s everything you need to do to get elected:
Get involved in your community for several years
Pick an office to run for
Learn the issues that matter in your race
Study the competition closely
Take a personal inventory of your own assets and flaws
File the legal paperwork to get on the ballot
Open a campaign bank account
Call every single person you’ve ever met in your life and ask them for money
Announce your candidacy
Put up a website, a blog, a Twitter account and a Facebook page
Find and hire really good staff
Attend every community meeting and give speeches at every opportunity
Hold fundraisers and house parties
Make promises that you THINK you can keep
Get the endorsements of newspapers, organizations and elected officials
Convince all of your friends and family to volunteer for your campaign
Debate your opponent
Put up lawn signs and send mailers
Respond quickly when you get attacked
Shake every hand and kiss every baby you can get your hands on
And do it all better – and faster – than your opponent.
That’s all. Nothing more. Easy, right?
Well I didn’t know all of this when I first decided to run for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which is the equivalent of the City Council. In 2006, I had lived in San Francisco for only 7 years, and I decided to run against a very popular and well-funded incumbent. I had won almost every race I had ever run when I was in school… how hard could it be? Haha… How hard could it be.
Running against an incumbent is an uphill battle – political experts will tell you that if you do it: (1) you’d better start your campaign two years before the election, (2) your opponent should have some kind of weakness or scandal you can capitalize on, and (3) you need to have name recognition and a LOT of money. Of course, I didn’t have any of these things. I started my campaign only 6 months before the election. My opponent was well liked and scandal-free. I didn’t have any money or fundraising experience. And while I had previously chaired the City’s Elections Commission, I was a virtual unknown.
Before I got in the race, my opponent had the endorsement of every single elected official in town, and a huge war chest. He was close to Mayor Gavin Newsom and former Mayor Willie Brown. He knew the district inside and out, and he seemed to know everyone he saw on the street by name. He knew which potholes needed to be filled, which playground was getting an upgrade, which bus line was overcrowded. I didn’t know any of this.
And to top it all off, the District included the Castro, which is perhaps the biggest gay and lesbian neighborhood… in America. No straight person had ever been elected to represent this District since Harvey Milk was elected in 1977. My opponent was gay and I am straight. And I was toast.
You can see where I’m going with this.
I was called stupid, naïve, arrogant, overly ambitious. The newspapers dug around in my past and found things they could exploit. Really REALLY bad pictures of me were posted on the internet. One journalist wrote that because I had been to Burning Man several times, that must mean that I have done a lot of drugs and I wasn’t a serious person. The President of the Board of Supervisors bet me that I would not even get 30% of the vote.
In that race, I said the wrong things to reporters. I yelled at my staff for things that were not their fault. I spent more money than I had raised. I stopped exercising, and didn’t take care of myself physically or mentally. I gained so much weight in that campaign that I had to buy a whole new wardrobe. Politician costumes… are expensive.
But I also worked harder than I ever have. I met thousands of voters. I raised enough money to be a serious contender. I had a hundred volunteers making calls, stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors. I earned the support of some key organizations in town, and got SOME good press. I KILLED IT in the debates. …And I lost really badly. How badly? I got 29% of the vote. That’s right, I not only lost the race, I lost the bet.
BUT! I learned. An immense. Amount. About running a campaign, about how to talk to the media, about how NOT to run a campaign, how NOT to talk to the media. Just as important, I learned a lot about myself – my own strengths and weaknesses as a candidate, as a leader.
I introduced myself in a BIG way to the political world in San Francisco. I got 9,109 votes, thankyouverymuch, which was more than several other WINNING candidates got in other Supervisor races that year because their districts were smaller. The next time I ran, I would have name recognition and a fundraising base. The next time I ran for office, I won.
After the election, the same people who called me stupid, naïve and arrogant called me up to congratulate me on a race well run. Kamala Harris (who is now California Attorney General) had supported my opponent, but she called me the day after the election to tell me that I did better than anyone expected. Political organizations asked me to join their Boards of Directors after the race was over. News outlets started calling me for comment when an issue came up that I had campaigned on.
Sure, I lost. But it was also the best thing I ever did. I worked really hard, showed them what I was made of, beat everyone’s expectations – even my own, and I kept my chin up. And because I did, doors opened for me.
Some of the world’s greatest innovators and leaders also started as failures.
- Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because he “lacked imagination” and had “no original ideas.”
- Abraham Lincoln had two businesses that failed, and he was defeated in 8 elections.
- Vera Wang failed to make the U.S. Olympic figure-skating team. Then she became an editor at Vogue and was passed over for the editor-in-chief position.
- Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school three times before becoming one of the world’s most acclaimed directors.
- Oprah Winfrey had a number of career setbacks including being fired from her job as a television reporter because she was “unfit for tv.”
They took big risks, and sometimes they failed. But the secret to their success was learning from these life experiences. Mistakes are the way we learn, they are how we grow. Failure is a valuable tool – IF – you give it your best, learn as much as you can, and move on quickly. If you do these things, opportunities will open for you that you didn’t even know existed.
And here’s what NOT to do, by the way. Don’t dwell on your mistake as if it’s some kind of judgment on your character. Don’t blame others for decisions that you were responsible for. Go deep, and be honest with yourself about why you missed the mark this time.
In my campaign for Supervisor, I learned to handle losing with grace. I learned that I was terrible at raising money, and so I volunteered to fundraise for other local candidates so that I could practice making calls. I got involved in powerful local organizations, so that I could understand their issues better the next time I ran. And I learned not to refer to myself as a “freak” when talking to reporters. (Yes, I really did that. They titled the article “Alix Rosenthal is a freak of a candidate” – and 7 years later, it’s still one of the top hits when you google me – yeah, horrible.)
But enough about me. What does this all mean for the Class of 2013?
- It means that you shouldn’t be afraid to sit in the front row of class and raise your hand.
- That question that you worry might sound stupid? Ask it. What is there to lose? You’re smart. So if you don’t know the answer, some of your classmates don’t either.
- Take that class that is outside of your major, even if you’re not sure you’ll get a good grade. Try a new sport, or a new activity. Unless that activity is binge drinking at fraternity parties. That is NOT a pathway to success. Trust me on that one.
- Go after a leadership position. It will prepare you for all kinds of career opportunities in the future.
- And if you fall, ask yourself, “What did I learn from the experience? What have I accomplished while trying?” Dust yourself off and ask, “What’s next?”
[And by the way, this has nothing to do with my speech, but hey – if you’re going to send someone risqué pictures of yourself, use Snapchat, not email, OK? You know what I’m talking about. Your 40-year-old self will thank you. Parents, we’ll explain it to you later]
My point is this: the sweetest victory is the one that’s the most difficult to achieve; the one where you took the most risk; the one that required you to work the hardest, without knowing, until it’s over, if all your hard work will pay off.
And hey – life is messy. You WILL screw up. The real beauty is in how you handle your mistakes… hopefully you will handle them with grace, introspection, creativity and resolve.
And so this is my wish for you, graduates. Fail big. Fail often. Push yourself. Be fearless. Your future successes depend on it.