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Tennessee Wesleyan College Commencement Speech

By Jim Hall
May 15th, 2010
Hall & Associates LLC


“20-20 Hindsight”
Commencement Address
The 153rd Commencement Ceremony
Tennessee Wesleyan College

President Womack, members of the faculty, esteemed alumni, proud family, and above all, members of the graduating class of 2010, I would first like to thank the College for inviting me to speak at such a happy and truly momentous occasion. Not only is it an extraordinary honor, but it is also a welcome excuse to visit your lovely, scenic campus. This institution brings together the best of our region: natural beauty, a thriving populace, and the history that defines it. As a native East Tennessean, I can say that I am truly honored and humbled to be speaking here today.

Graduates, we are here today to celebrate your achievements. One speech or one speaker cannot mark such a significant occasion but we gather in this ceremony with its pomp, its robes, its traditions because we are celebrating many things with this commencement exercise. We celebrate this institution, the free society it serves, those who prepared you and those who sacrificed so that you might experience this moment.

As I look out at all of you on this special day, it is clear you are well-acquainted with success. You are about to be rewarded for your hard work and perseverance. Thanks in large part to the preparation you received here at Tennessee Wesleyan, I am confident that again and again in your lives you will succeed in the tasks you perform. But I’d like to take a moment to talk about something you may be less familiar with, something you will also surely encounter in the walk of life no matter how hard you try to avoid it: failure.

I want to talk today briefly about the merits of failure, the opportunities it presents, and the importance it can play in your life. I would be happy if in doing so I could alleviate the fear of failure, something which I know grips many recent college graduates. I suspect that only time and experience can do that, but I will do my best to shine light on how failure can aid you in your pursuits.

By the time I was appointed Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board in the early 1990s, I was well-acquainted with failure. A veteran of statewide and national political campaigns, I knew disappointment well. Most of you are too young to remember Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, but you’re at least familiar with who they were and maybe even some of their accomplishments. (If not, I’ll have a few words for your history and government professors this afternoon.) But I’ll bet you’ve never heard of President Mondale, President Muskie, or President John Glenn. These were men whose campaigns I and thousands of others toiled on only to come up short. Despite good ideas, preparation, and hard work, victory eluded us. I became familiar with the sting of defeat, and learned to accept it as part of politics – an unavoidable workplace hazard – and I would pick myself and go it again.

Fortune eventually put me in the right place at the right time, and, after a serving as Ned McWherter’s gubernatorial campaign manager and as a member of his cabinet, I went back to national politics, this time running Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign here in the Volunteer State. Shortly after he took office I received a presidential appointment as Chairman of the NTSB, the government agency charged with independently overseeing transportation safety throughout our country.

My service as a member of the Board was the most rewarding opportunity of my professional career. But it was also the most challenging, because, in many ways, the NTSB’s mission is innately tied to failure. The Board’s fundamental job is to promote safety in transportation. It may sound simple enough, but unfortunately it is very difficult to identify a new safety risk before it causes an accident. Therefore, whenever there was an airplane crash or a major accident in any other mode of transportation, it was our duty to go to the scene, investigate the accident, and issue recommendations to all involved to make sure the same mistakes never recurred. The underlying question we tried to answer was, “What went wrong?”

Thus, for eight years it was my job to be concerned with failure. And let me tell you, as bad as it felt to lose a campaign, nothing I have ever seen or experienced compares to the sadness and anguish of a major plane crash. In my role as Chairman, I would travel to the scene of accident sites where hours before dozens or hundreds of people had lost their lives in an instant. During my tenure there, I made part of our mission providing support to the families of loved ones who had perished, a task that it is impossible to prepare for completely.

I don’t wish to dwell on tragedy on such a happy day, but I want to give you a sense of the deep appreciation these experiences gave me for the profound impact failure can make. Due to our investigations – and to the hard work of the families who became advocates after losing loved ones – out of epic failures came new laws and new practices that have saved countless lives. Let me mention just one you may be familiar with – the NTSB initiative to have kids ride in the back seats of automobiles has saved thousands of young lives.

My time with the NTSB changed my view of failure. I had experienced failures periodically throughout my life – just as I am sure you have – but I had viewed it always as a necessary evil. An inherent part of life – character building, perhaps, but not more than that. My experiences at the NTSB changed this. Our investigations gave me a first-hand appreciation for the fact that failure and success are inherently related. The idea is as old as aviation itself. In 1908, the Wright brothers’ flying machine crashed, killing Orville’s passenger. The Wright brothers reacted to the tragedy by taking their flying machine apart to find the cause of the fatal failure.

This desire to improve and learn from their failure started a culture in the aviation industry that lives on today with the National Transportation Safety Board, where each and every aviation failure is independently investigated. As a result, aviation is the safest form of transportation in the world.

The NTSB has many tools to investigate aviation accidents – a congressional mandate, which gives the small agency the authority to require the aircraft and engine manufacturers and pilots unions to cooperate with investigations; audio experts, who can detect stress levels in the voices on cockpit recorders; computer experts, who can interpret the complex variables on the flight recorder. The Board utilizes these and other tools to determine the cause of a given accident, and make recommendations to diminish the possibility of similar accidents in the future.

You, too, have tools available to help you avoid the occurrence or reoccurrence of failure. Your tools are the members of your family; your faith; your spiritual leaders or counselors; the great books; your community of friends and coworkers; and yes, even the Internet. And, as with the experts at the NTSB, your greatest tool is your own mind.

You may think that this whole discussion could’ve been summed up with a line or two about the importance of picking yourself up when you fall, of trying again if at first you don’t succeed. In fact, Winston Churchill supposedly gave the shortest commencement speech in history when he simply said three words to a graduating class, “Never give up.” I guess it is hard for a Southerner to be that concise when he’s got a story to tell. But more than that, while Churchill’s words ring true, I want to go one step further to say this: don’t just overcome your failures – embrace them and everything they have to teach. This requires more than perseverance – it requires reflection, something I know your professors have equipped you for.

So when you fall, don’t just pick yourself up – pick yourself up and then ask why. If you do so, your failures cease to be obstacles and instead become allies that will help lift you to each day.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know or may have already experienced, but Rudyard Kipling said it best, “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”

You are responsible for your take offs, your landings, and the success of your flight. Safe travels and God speed!

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