How To Fail Your Way To Success: Fall Forward – Denzel Washington.
In this moving and personal speech, Academy Award-winner, Denzel Washington reminds us that sometimes you need to fall down a thousand times before you can soar.
As he addresses the graduating students in this commencement speech, Denzel affirms that “You will fail. Accept it. You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. I should know. In the acting business, you fail all the time. If you don’t fail, you’re not even trying. So you got to get out there and give it your all.”
Then concludes by saying “Never be discouraged. Never hold back. Give it everything you’ve got. And when you fall, fall forward.”
Fall Forward – Denzel Washington.
…I’ve found that nothing in life is worthwhile unless you take risks, nothing.
Nelson Mandela said, “There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that’s less than the one you’re capable of living.” I’m sure in your experiences in school, in applying to college, in picking your major, in deciding what you want to do with life, people have told you to make sure you have something to “fall back on.”
But I’ve never understood that concept, having something to fall back on. If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything except my faith.
I want to fall forward.
At least I figure that way I’ll see what I’m about to hit.
This is what I mean; Reggie Jackson struck out twenty-six-hundred times in his career, the most in the history of baseball. But you don’t hear about the strikeouts.
People remember the home runs.
Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that?
I didn’t know that because the 1,001st was the light bulb.
Every failed experiment is one step closer to success.
You’ve got to take risks and I’m sure you’ve probably heard that before but I want to talk about why it’s so important.
I’ve got three reasons—and then you can pick up your iPhones.
First, you will fail at some point in your life. Accept it.
You will lose. You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There is no doubt about it. That’s probably not a traditional message for a graduation ceremony but hey, I’m telling you, embrace it because it’s inevitable. And I should know, in the acting business, you fail all the time.
Early on in my career, I auditioned for a part in a Broadway musical. A perfect role for me, I thought, except for the fact that I can’t sing. So I’m in the wings; I’m about to go on stage but the guy in front of me is singing like Pavarotti and I am just shrinking getting smaller and smaller. So they say, “Thank you very much, thank you very much; you’ll be hearing from us.” So I come out with my little sheet music and it was “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations, that’s what I came up with.
So I hand it to the accompanist and she looks at it and looks at me and looks at the director, so I start to sing (Washington begins to sing very awkwardly) and they’re not saying anything so I’m thinking I must be getting better, so I start getting into it. But after the first verse, the director cuts me off:
“Thank you. Thank you very much, you’ll be hearing from me.”
So I assumed I didn’t get the job but the next part of the audition he called me back.
The next part of the audition is the acting part of the audition. I figure, I can’t sing, but I know I can act. So the paired me with this guy and again I didn’t know about musical theater;
So the paired me with this guy and again I didn’t know about musical theater; musical theater is big so you can reach everyone all the way back in the stadium. And I’m more from a realistic naturalistic kind of acting where you actually talk to the person next to you. So I don’t know what my line was, my line was “Hand me the cup.” and his line was “Well, I will hand you the cup my dear, and it will be there to be handed to you.” I said, “Okay. Should I give you the cup back?” “Oh yes you should give it back to me because you know that is my cup and it should be given back to me!”
I didn’t get the job.
But here’s the thing, I didn’t quit. I didn’t fall back.
I walked out of there to prepare for the next audition, and the next audition, and the next audition. I prayed and I prayed, but I continued to fail, and I failed, and failed but it didn’t matter because you know what? There’s an old saying, you hang around a barbershop long enough, sooner or later you will get a haircut.
You will catch a break.
Last year I did a play called Fences on Broadway and I won a Tony Award. And I didn’t have to sing, by the way. And here’s the kicker, it was at the Court Theater; it was at the same theater where I failed that first audition thirty years prior.
The point is, and I’ll pick up the pace, every graduate here today has the training and the talent to succeed but do you have guts to fail?
Here’s my second point about failure:
If you don’t fail, you’re not even trying.
My wife told me this great expression, “To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did.”
Les Brown, a motivational speaker, made an analogy about this. Imagine you’re on your deathbed and standing around your death bed are the ghosts representing your unfilled potential. The ghosts of the ideas you never acted on. The ghosts of the talents you didn’t use. And they’re standing around your bed angry, disappointed and upset. They say,
“We came to you because you could have brought us to life,” they say. “And now we go to the grave together.” So I ask you today, “How many ghosts are going to be around your bed when your time comes?” You’ve invested a lot in your education and people invested in you.
And let me tell you, the world needs your talents
…I just got back from Africa a couple of days ago so if I’m rambling on it’s because of jet lag. I just got back from South Africa. It’s a beautiful country, but there are places with terrible poverty that need help.
And Africa is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Middle East needs your help. Japan needs your help. Alabama and Tennessee need your help. Louisiana needs your help. Philadelphia needs your help.
The world needs a lot and we need it from you, we really do, we need it from you the young people.
So get out there. Give it everything you’ve got whether it’s your time, your talent, your prayers, or your treasures because remember this, you’ll never see a U-haul behind a hearse.
I’ll say it again. You will never see a U-haul behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you. The Ancient Egyptians tried it and all they got was robbed!
So the question is, what are you going to do with what you have?
And I’m not talking about how much you have.
Some of you are business majors. Some of you are theologians, nurses, sociologists. Some of you have money. Some of you have patience. Some have kindness. Some of you have love. Some of you have the gift of long suffering.
Whatever it is, what are you going to do with what you have?
Now here’s my last point about failure, sometimes it’s the best way to figure out where you’re going.
Your life will never be a straight path.
I began at Fordham University as a pre-med student. That lasted until I took a course called “Cardiac Morphogenesis.” I couldn’t read it; I couldn’t say it; I sure couldn’t pass it.
Then I decided to go pre-law, then journalism. With no academic focus, my grades took off in their own direction down.
I was a, 1.8 GPA one semester, and the university very politely suggested it might be better to take some time off. I was 20 years old, at my lowest point.
And then one day, and I remember the exact day, March 27th, 1975, I was helping out in the beauty shop my mother owned in Mount Vernon. An older woman who was considered one of the elders in town and I didn’t know her personally but every time I looked in the mirror she was staring at me and she just kept staring at me.
Every time I looked at her she just kept giving me these strange looks. She finally took the dryer off her head and said something to me I’ll never forget, first of all she said, “Someone give me a piece of paper.”
She said, “Young boy, I have a spiritual prophecy…
You are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people.”
Keep in mind that I was 20 years old and flunked out of school and like a wise-ass, I’m thinking to myself: “Does she have anything in that crystal ball about me getting back into school?” But maybe she was on to something because later that summer while working as a counselor at a YMCA camp in Connecticut; we put on a talent show for the campers. After that show, another counselor came up to me and asked,
“Have you ever thought of acting? You should. You’re good at that.”
When I got back to Fordham that fall I changed my major once again, for the last time. And in the years that followed, just as that woman getting her hair done predicted, I have traveled the world and I have spoken to millions of people through my movies. Millions who, up ‘till this day, I couldn’t see while I was talking to them and they couldn’t see me; they could only see the movie. But I see you today and I’m encouraged by what I see. I’m strengthened by what I see and I love what I see.
One more page, then I’ll shut up. Let me conclude with one final point.
And actually the President kind of brought it up; it has to do with the movie Philadelphia.
…It’s about a man, played by Tom Hanks, who’s fired from his law firm because he has AIDS. He wants to sue the firm, but no one’s willing to represent him until a homophobic, ambulance-chasing lawyer, played by yours truly, takes on the case. In a way, if you watch the movie, you’ll see everything I’m talking about today.
You’ll see what I mean about taking risks or being willing to fail.
Because taking a risk is not just about going for a job.
It’s also about knowing what you know and what you don’t know.
It’s about being open to people and ideas.
In the course of the film, the character I play begins to take small steps, to take risks. He is very, very slowly overcomes his fears, and I feel ultimately his heart becomes flooded with love. And I can’t think of a better message as we send you off today, to not only take risks but to be open to life, to accept new views and to be open to new opinions, to be willing to speak at commencement at one of the country’s best universities even though you’re scared stiff.
While it may be frightening, it will also be rewarding because the chances you take, the people you meet, the people you love, the faith that you have that’s what’s going to define you.
So members of the class of 2011, this is your mission. When you leave the friendly confines of Philly, never be discouraged. Never hold back. Give everything you’ve got. And when you fall throughout life and maybe even tonight after a few too many glasses of champagne, remember this, fall forward.
Read the full speech here or watch the video below.