DJ Patil's Crowdsourced Commencement Address On Utter Failure

Instead of crowing about career triumphs and students' bright futures, Greylock Partners data scientist DJ Patil addressed a more pressing topic at a recent commencement address: his biggest failures, and why new graduates should embrace similar humiliation.

Editor's note: This article is adapted from author DJ Patil's commencement address at the University of Maryland, May 2012. 

I am truly honored to be here today, back at what I consider my home, this great university. As a Silicon Valley tech guy, I decided to use technology to help me prepare for this commencement address. So, I asked people on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Quora what wise words you should be imparted with. You know what most people remember from their graduation speakers? Nothing! Zilch! Nada!

I realized, I can say anything I want! But seriously, as I got feedback from around the world, one theme began to emerge.

On your day of such great accomplishment, I’d like to talk about something we rarely celebrate: failure. And why we are counting on you to fail. Now bear with me, and you’ll see where I’m going.

We’re all products of failure. You don’t remember it, but your parents definitely do. From the first time you rolled over, to your first steps. These successes were a culmination of failures.

You can read the bio on my LinkedIn profile, and you’ll see that I received my PhD in Applied Math from here 11 years ago. I’ve worked for the Department of Defense and been to Kazakhstan. But you won’t see all the failures that made up the journey. You can’t see that what’s behind the most important moments of success is all the failures.

While growing up in California, to say I was bad at math would have been an understatement. My freshman year of high school, I was kicked out of my algebra class and had to spend the summer retaking it. This (unfortunately) would become my regular paradigm.

I didn’t get into any of the colleges I liked, so I opted to go to the local junior college, because my girlfriend was going there. And I had a winning strategy in choosing my courses: I enrolled in all the same classes she was taking. One problem, the first class was Calculus. Wow, did I get my ass kicked that first day.

But then, as I looked around at everyone else nodding along with the instructor, it dawned on me: I hadn’t failed because of the teachers or the material. I failed because I didn’t try.

I was fundamentally afraid of being uncomfortable and having to address the failure that comes with it. To me it was like when you get to the top of the high dive, walk out the edge, looking down that the clear blue water, everyone telling you to jump, and then running back down the steps.

So what did I do about my Calculus class? I went to the library and checked out a bunch of math books and spent the next week going through them. And it was awesome. Suddenly I was failing at a problem, figuring out what I did wrong, and then course correcting. This feeling of being able to iterate was very new to me.

Much to my great surprise, I ended up becoming a math major. When I got here to the University of Maryland for my graduate work, I got my ass kicked again. I failed my first graduate class and got the second-lowest score on my first PhD qualifying exam. (The lowest score was by a guy who didn’t even show up.) But I stayed in the game, failing, getting back up, continuing to push forward. The next time the qualifiers came around, I had the highest scores.

The takeaway from this is that tenacity and failure go hand in hand. But what’s most important is how you fail. The best method is to fail fast.

At LinkedIn, we didn’t know exactly where we were going. What allowed us to succeed was a mantra of failing fast. We would build products quickly, test them out, then learn about went wrong, and then try again. In fact, if you looked at all the projects, code, design, and people’s time that was invested, you’d be shocked by how much didn’t work.

Don’t fail slow. Failing slow is painful for you and painful for your loved ones. It’s like watching your best friend being in a relationship that is clearly doomed, but they just won’t listen.

And how, practically, do you achieve success through failure? It starts with passion--finding work that you love. Once you do, you’ll never take no for an answer, or have patience for those who stand in your way. Second, surround yourself with people you value. Just like your body responds poorly to junk food, your mind and energy levels also respond to the company you keep. Third, strive to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. The world is changing as we speak. Right now there are two people in a garage with a dog (don’t ask me why there is a dog, but there always seems to be one) creating the next iPhone, Facebook, Google. Those of you that are graduating today, you are the first to go through your entire social years (puberty onwards) with Facebook. During your entire educational experience you’ve had access to Google, mobile phones, and the Internet. And yet during your time in college you have seen the introduction of the tablet. The notion of using a desktop or a laptop is outdated. Given this rapid pace of change, the only advice that I can give you is to keep learning--putting yourself in uncomfortable situations where you fail and acquire new skills as a result.

You are about to embark on your next great journey. And we are all counting on you to fail fast. While our society is moving forward faster than ever, we are also facing a world with massive challenges.

The solutions won’t come from debates, they will come through trying, failing quickly, and then trying again with increased resolve.

We love to say things like “Failure is not an option.” But believe me, failure is our only option. May you go forth and fail so that we can all succeed!

Read more: Generation Flux: DJ Patil

[Images: Everett Collection and Hannamariah via Shutterstock]

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4 Comments

  • Nick Ludwig

    I love the message you've delivered to these graduates, DJ. I agree that the only way to grow and learn is to fail. To take another step further, it's important to recognize these failures and take them seriously in order to avoid the rationalization of our shortcomings. Taking accountability for your failures is the true path to success. I've recently put down my thoughts about failure which you can see here: http://nick-ludwig.com/2012/06.... Recognizing failure is the first step towards realizing your potential!

  • Andrea T. Goeglein Ph.D.

    In 2005, while attending my huband's 45th anniversary from Stanford MBA, the spouse of another graduate asked:  Aren't you afraid to be starting another business now.  He proudly answered, "Afraid of what?"  Our hotel business did fail thanks to 2008 -- and I still believe our going into that business was the right decision.  What the heck else was he/we suppose to do?  Wait 20 more years to die with money in the bank?  I am 21 years younger, an expert in achieving life success, and with all my heart I know every failure has taught me/us more than all the success we have ever achieved.  I appreciate DJ's motto:  Fail Fast...and add that to a line I heard in the movie Exotic Marigold Hotel, "It will all work out in the end.  If it has not worked out, it is not the end, so all is good." 

  • Bob Jacobson

    A passionate preview for people on their way up.  University of Maryland is good but not Stanford, so a welcome encouragement.  However, unless I'm wrong, DJ is in his 30s or barely 40s.  That's not a life yet, that's a half-life.  Becoming a VC and/or advisor to VCs makes up for a lot of missed connections in one's life.  However, now he may become complacent.  VC culture may be heroic among bankers, but it's still bankers.  Failure is not really an option, except within statistical guidelines (e.g., seven companies out of ten will fail or become zombies).  I would prefer to hear from someone in his 50s, 60s, or 70s who's remained true to an adventurous spirit.  I'm now 63 and founding my third startup, in Sweden.  Of two in the USA, one was premature and failed absolutely, the other was almost right but faced internal political problems in its parent/investor company.  This time, I think we have it right 100%:  but wait, what's that about the European economy?  Not again!  My parachute is ready and packed.  "Utter" failure?  I seldom think about it.  Utter is when you're in the ground.

  • Andrea T. Goeglein Ph.D.

    Bob, read my comment.  I believe we think the same.  Good luck, stay flexible, and try always.