by Dr. Allen C. Guelzo
Dr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Civil War Era History at Gettysburg College and a leading scholar of Lincoln and the Civil War. On May 4, he delivered the commencement address for Lincoln Memorial University. His remarks, which are framed around the institution’s namesake, are presented below:
President Hess, distinguished trustees and faculty, and honored graduates, students and guests: I have come to you today to talk about failure.
That will surprise many of you, since any failures among this graduating class are, logically speaking, not supposed to be here. We are all here supposed to be successes. What’s more, commencement addresses are routinely expected to be celebrations of success, or exhortations to success; they are not expected to take so morbid a turn as to talk about failure, and thus rain on the academic parade. And backing all that up are the great maxims of our society, “Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry, and you cry alone.” “Nothing succeeds like success.” “Everybody loves a winner.” Success is glamorous; failure is a reproach, and such a bleak reproach to our personal qualities, that we can hardly even bear to use the word. The word failure has become what the word cancer was a generation or two ago — something to be discussed only in hushed tones, behind closed doors. But unless you are something other than human, you will experience failure. And an important part of your education is learning how to meet it; in fact, the most important part of your character will be shaped by how you encounter and overcome it.
I take as my guiding star today a comment made — we think in 1856 — by the man for whom this college is named, Abraham Lincoln. In 1856, Lincoln had, to the outward appearance, all the trappings of success. From early poverty he had risen to become a prominent lawyer, and in the mid-1850s his legal practice, especially with the railroads, had made him one of the most financially successful lawyers in Illinois, with an annual income that could easily translate into six figures, in modern terms. He had served in the Illinois legislature, he had been elected to a term in Congress, and had just made a nearly-successful run for the Senate in 1855. In the year we think he wrote the comment I’m going to read, Lincoln had been nominated for vice-president on the ticket of the new Republican party (even though in the end he fell short of getting the nomination). Any one of you who had racked up ribbons like that before their fiftieth birthday might well feel entitled to think of themselves as successful, and that’s probably how we would think of Lincoln.
But he did not. Instead, he compared himself to an even more well-known Illinoisan, Stephen A. Douglas, and in 1856, Lincoln did not like what he saw in that comparison.
“Twenty‑two years ago Judge Douglas and I first became acquainted. We were both young then; he a trifle younger than I. Even then, we were both ambitious; I, perhaps, quite as much so as he. With me, the race of ambition has been a failure‑‑‑a flat failure; with him it has been one of splendid success. His name fills the nation; and is not unknown, even, in foreign lands.”
“I affect no contempt for the high eminence he has reached,” Lincoln added. But it was obvious that by his own standard, Lincoln felt that he had spent his life for nothing.
One hundred and fifty-four years after Lincoln’s death, we read those words and smile, knowing that in the years following those sad reflections, Lincoln would become the most revered figure in our history. But he did not know that then, any more than we can know now what lies before all of us. And as numerous as his successes had been on many scores, he had not succeeded in the one thing which was the most important to him – public leadership. Perhaps we could say to Lincoln that he had simply set his sights too high, that if he counted his blessings, he would see how much he had to feel content about. I don’t think that would have been a very good tactic to employ on Lincoln. Or perhaps we could try bucking the tall man up with some inspirational reflections – sing him a tune about climbing ev’ry mountain, walking through storms with your head held high, and so on. I don’t think it would have done him a bit of good. Nor should it. Lincoln’s talents for public leadership were real, and more real than Stephen A. Douglas’s. In a world of fairness, Lincoln should have been in Douglas’s seat. And he knew it. And not being there was, he knew, a mark of failure. As it was for Lincoln, so there will come times for all of you when you will have to drink of failure to the dregs. Will you smile then? Has what you have learned in life and here at LMU prepared you to deal, not just with success, but with failure?
First of all, I want you to remember that not all failures are failures — they only seem that way in the eyes of a society which measures success by trophy homes and prestige toys. And not all successes are successes. For instance: there was once a man so enamored of showing off the wealth he had accumulated that he decreed that, when he died, he should be buried in his gold Cadillac. When the day for his funeral arrived, his corpse was duly propped up behind the wheel, and his pall-bearers pushed the gold Cadillac into the cemetery and down a ramp into a specially-dug grave. As the gold Cadillac, with its deceased owner still at the wheel, descended into the grave, one of the grave-diggers, beholding the scene, remarked to another: “Man, that‘s livin‘!”
And (I repeat) not all failures are failures. Some of you will dedicate your lives to callings which are noble but poorly rewarded in our world. Today, when you are young and strong and full of passion for your mission, you will push away the thought of how meagre those rewards are likely to be for the joy of serving others. But there will come a time – perhaps in the form of a cutting remark from a neighbor or a family member, or a class reunion you can’t afford to attend, or the ingratitude of the people you’re trying to help — when your strength and enthusiasm will wane, and you will wonder if you have been the butt of life’s joke, a failure. At that moment you must ask yourself – by whose standard? If you can stop and ask that question, with regard only for that inward monitor which gives praise and blame according to what you love and value the most, then your courage, your persistence, your perseverance makes you the most successful of all. And in their hearts, everyone will know it, and wish they had your success, not theirs. Our culture is full of people who have acquired tremendous wealth; the misery they live with is that they go begging for significance.
By whose standard do you judge success and failure? Unless you have that standard within yourself, you will never know how to measure either. There was once a doctor named Williams who determined to devote his life to serving the poor and disabled in a great city. His patients often had nothing to pay him with, and he had only a small office at the top of a flight of stairs, over a liquor store, marked with the single sign, “Doctor Williams is upstairs.” The years passed, and Doc Williams died. His friends found that he was so poor himself, that there was no money left over to erect a marker on his grave. But one wise man knew what to do: he took down the old office sign and planted it on the doctor’s grave: “Doctor Williams is upstairs.” By our superficial standards, Doc Williams was a failure. Or was he?
The second thing I want to tell you is how often failure is the crucible out of which real success arises. Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda Motor Corporation, once said: “Success is 99% failure.” And on the strength of that, I must tell you that I will feel sorry for you if your course in life leads you from one easy triumph to another, because if it does it will give you the arrogant notion that you are totally self-sufficient, and need no one else in the world to teach you anything. I have met people like that; they are wealthy, they have all the toys, but they are some of the most dreadfully stunted human beings I know. They never failed; and therefore, they never learned anything which might be more important than winning, such as confession or forgiveness or recovery.
Failure is a teacher. It brings us back to fundamentals; it disenthrones our egos and makes us see ourselves for what we are and shows us what we do not yet know. Do not be afraid to make mistakes; my mistakes (and they are more than a few in number) are my most important possessions, because they are what I have learned from. A reporter once asked a bank president to identify the secret of success. “Right decisions,” he replied. “Great,” said the reporter, “Now, how do you get to know how to make right decisions.” “Simple,” the president replied, “Experience.” “Well,” said the exasperated reporter, “how do you gain experience?” The president replied, “Wrong decisions.”
Failure also tells us who our friends are. As Oprah Winfrey once remarked, “Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”
Part of what makes Abraham Lincoln so admirable, so interesting to us even today, was that he had tasted the bitterness of failure, and was willing to take the bus with those who had failed. In 1860, he took time out from his presidential campaign to write to a friend of his son, Robert, who had failed the entrance exams at Harvard. “I have scarcely felt greater pain in my life than on learning yesterday…that you had failed to enter Harvard University,” Lincoln wrote to eighteen-year-old George Latham. There was empathy, the understanding of one who had been there, not the haughty superiority of one who looked down the nose. “And yet,” Lincoln continued,
“there is very little in it, if you will allow no feeling of discouragement to seize, and prey upon you. …I know not how to aid you, save in the assurance of one of mature age, and much severe experience, that you can not fail, if you resolutely determine, that you will not.”
Listen to Mr. Lincoln. Like him, I hope your paths will be strewn with success. Like him, I also know that it may be spiked with failure. Learn to embrace the failures as much as the successes, so that like him you may become what is more important even than being a “success” – becoming mature, resolute, persevering, hoping for all things, enduring all things, expecting all things.