The Failures Behind Success

Otis School of Art and DesignAs promised in my previous post, here is the text of the commencement address I delivered to the 2007 graduating class at my alma mater, Otis School of Art and Design.

It is, as I explained, intended to be an inspirational address rather than the sort of tactical overview I’ve been giving at my presentations thus far in my career. So at times it can be a tad maudlin, but at the very least it’s an honest communication of one of the more valuable lessons I’ve learned in my career: don’t be afraid of failure, because every success is just the result of a series of failures. You might want to have a box of tissues at the ready.

Otis School of Art and Design
2007 Commencement Address
Sat 12 May

Thank you for inviting me to give today’s commencement address, it’s really such an honor. Frankly, it’s kind of astonishing to me that I’m here at all, too.

When I look back at my career at Otis, I think I was a good student, but I probably wasn’t a spectacular student. I never would have dreamed that I would have been invited here to speak to you today, especially when I remember all the extremely talented people with whom I graduated at the time. (So that’s a little bit of encouragement for those of you out there who are as unspectacular as I was — there’s hope!)

When I think about what got me here though, I can say with some certainty that I know at least PART of the answer. That is: I know that I wouldn’t be here today, standing in front of you, if I’d JUST DONE EVERYTHING RIGHT since I graduated from Otis.

Which is to say that I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I graduated in 1993, so in a sense, you can think of this moment as the culmination of FOURTEEN YEARS of failure.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

In my senior year at Otis, it suddenly dawned upon me that there was a lot of planning to be done, that suddenly, life was going to get very serious, and the only person who was going to be responsible for turning everything I’d learned here at school — and everything that I’d paid for — into a real career was ME. No one else, just me.

This really came into focus in class one day, when one of my really wonderful teachers devoted a session to actually teaching us a little bit of basic personal finance. On a chalkboard, he listed all of the things that we’d each have to pay for as working professionals…

  • From photography fees for our portfolios…
  • To renting studio space…
  • To three square meals a day…
  • To health insurance…
  • And even to budgeting for two nights a month out for dinner and a movie.

He did all of the math there in front of us, adding everything up right on the chalk board, and we watched as he arrived at the astonishing total of… $30,000 a year. I was shocked. I thought to myself, “I’d have to earn at least $30,000 a year? By myself? Do artists make that much?”

It was frightening to realize that I was on my own there, that I’d have to get out in the world and start bringing in this seemingly astronomical amount of money.

Moreover, if I really wanted to be a SUCCESS, if I wanted to achieve respect and notoriety among my peers, and if I wanted to do the work that made me happy and that I felt that no one else but me could do, then I’d have to be ready to steer a STEADY and DELIBERATE course for the rest of my life.

No longer could I remain a dilettante, a dabbler in ideas and entertainments. I needed to make a COMMITMENT to getting things done the RIGHT WAY and FOR ME.

I reacted by assuming a posture of INTENSE MINDFULNESS, being very careful to always make the right decisions, to ruminate over those decisions at length, to strategize my way through my post-college life very carefully. I tried very, very hard to always make the RIGHT DECISIONS, and to always avoid the WRONG DECISIONS.

But I’m human, after all, and I couldn’t help myself. I naturally kept on making mistakes. I thought it would be interesting today for me toshare some of them with you…

More or less right out of school, I got a good job doing design work at an advertising agency. Actually, it wasn’t a GOOD job, it was an OKAY job. The agency focused on marketing, ads and brochures for commercial real estate. Now, some people get very worked up about commercial real estate and I think that’s wonderful. I’m just not one of those people. I worked hard to make the best of that job. But it was really the wrong job for me. And it was a mistake for me to take it.

Around that time I established a decent life for myself in WASHINGTON, DC. I had a nice apartment and I had a lot of friends living nearby and I was having a good time. But I stayed there too long — four years — far too long to live in a city that didn’t offer what I really wanted: close proximity to the MOST EXCITING WORK in my field. I knew in my heart that I wasn’t meant to be there, and yet I stayed much longer than I should have. That was a mistake, too.

Where I really wanted to live was New York City. So at the end of those four years, I managed to move to New York, and I got a BETTER job doing work that made me happier — designing for the World Wide Web. But I think I wasted a lot of time there too, working long, hard hours, nights and weekends for OTHER PEOPLE while the Internet boom made people around me rich. And here, let me offer a little bit of practical advice: if EVERYONE AROUND YOU is getting rich and YOU’RE NOT, that is a mistake. For sure.

I tried to remedy that situation by starting a company of my own. A little design studio on 27th Street in Manhattan. I worked very hard at that studio and I managed to turn the company into something of a success. But after several years, I realized that some of my business partners — well we didn’t have the same vision for where the company should go at all. A part of me knew this almost from the first day we opened for business, but I suppressed it, set it aside because I wanted to create that company so badly. ANOTHER MISTAKE. After about four years of working like mad to build a company with my bare hands, to build a brand that I really felt passionately about, I realized that I would have to leave that company if I was ever going to be REALLY HAPPY.

These are just some of the failures of judgment that I’ve made over the years. When I look back at them, I’m kind of astounded by my naiveté, or my bullheadedness, or my cowardice, or my general inability to see the forest for the trees.

But I also realize that it was the MISTAKES that got me where I am today, just as much as it was that effort at making good, sound decisions. Mistakes teach you LESSONS that you might not have learned otherwise. Mistakes lead to OPPORTUNITIES that you might not have ever encountered, and they give a shape to your life that is RICHER and MORE SATISFYING than any premeditated plan could determine.

It was my willingness to go out on a limb, to do things that I wasn’t sure about, to follow my instincts or to make rash decisions, right or wrong — and to have those decisions FAIL that allowed me to get to a point where, now, I feel as if finally, I’m doing the work that I was really meant to do.

I have what I consider to be one of the BEST DESIGN JOBS anywhere — I lead the online design team for the NEW YORK TIMES, and I work with some of the sharpest minds out there. I create design solutions for the best journalism in the world, solutions that deliver truly meaningful content to millions of people GLOBALLY and INSTANTLY. It’s deeply satisfying work.

I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity to result from my years of mistakes. But here’s the thing: it’s an opportunity that never would have come about if I’d only ever just made the RIGHT decisions in my past…

  • If I hadn’t started my company and established a NAME and REPUTATION for myself…
  • Or if I’d gotten RICH during the first Internet boom and went into an EARLY RETIREMENT… (Yeah, thank goodness that didn’t happen!)
  • Or if I’d come to New York much earlier, before I was REALLY mentally and emotionally prepared to deal with the most unfriendly city in North America…

…If those things had happened, I might never have gotten the opportunity to do the job that, for this moment in my life anyway, I know that I was BORN to do.

So what can you take away from this?

Every success is the culmination of a series of FAILURES. You cannot have success WITHOUT FAILING.

And if you want my advice, I say FAIL early and often. Don’t waste any time — get out there TODAY and start failing. I might even advise you, half-jokingly, to START BECOMING the failures that I know you can be right away.

Start doing WHAT YOU WANT TO DO now, and be willing to lose at it as much as you want it to succeed. Let your dreams get BEATEN and KICKED AROUND a little, let them leave the cozy confines of your imaginations and live in the REAL WORLD, so that they can realize their full potential.

Be willing to have your dreams tested SOONER rather than later by the forces of nature, by the brutal fist of the market, by the snarky shortsightedness of critics, by the jealous discouragement of your friends and enemies…

And test YOUR OWN METTLE too. As soon as you possibly can, test the persistence and the endurance of your passion. Understand your relationship to your own work, see how TIME and FAMILIARITY changes that relationship, see how willing you are to hold onto those dreams through early failures as well as early successes.

Don’t waste your time trying to succeed at dreams you don’t believe in; fail sooner with those FALSE DREAMS so that you can discover IF THEY ARE IN FACT false dreams — and so that you can start pursuing the REAL DREAMS that will satisfy you. Those are the dreams that you will truly do well at, that will present to you the best opportunities to make your lasting mark on the world. And, not coincidentally, those are the dreams that reward you MOST HANDSOMELY for the failures that led to your success.

I CONGRATULATE you all today, and I wish you all good luck. And when I say that, I mean that I hope that you all let yourselves experience the tough, unnerving, scary, wonderful, and very, very valuable failures that will bring you the most success you can possibly imagine for yourselves. Thank you.

  1. fantastic words. thankyou.

    … I am a British industrial designer, working in Taiwan for the last three years. Following my dreams, and now with an eye on moving to Beijing.

    It’s tough. But reading that post fills me with hope and ideas again.


  2. That was a most excellent read, and I am sure an outstanding speech to listen to. The advice is solid, and easy to take to heart for those of us who have recently graduated. Thank you for sharing it.

    Is there a video by chance floating about?

  3. Thank you Mr. Vinh. I am a student on the brink of graduating. It was very interesting to get an insight into what life can be like after graduation. I have just made a decision to stay in Ireland for a good job with an exciting start up, whereas I wanted to head to the US, and broaden my horizons.

    I think your piece has clarified that I will make mistakes but some good things can come from every path you take.

  4. Great advice! I really enjoyed it. It is always reassuring to know that the very talented go through doubt, struggle and failure to reach success.

    As far as graduation speeches go, it may well be the most useful and sincere I’ve heard/read.

  5. I’m on a similar track. After five years designing cars for Honda (what some people would consider a dream job), I quit in an attempt to turn my photography hobby into a career. I’m much happier now in my passionate struggle than I was in my stable cubicle.

  6. Once again, you inspire me. You’ve managed to elucidate thoughts that have been swimming in my head… on my failures and potential successes, my fears versus my dreams. Thank you!

  7. nice speech, khoi – it must feel absolutely amazing to be at your alma mater and to reflect back on what you call “mistakes” and “failures”. (i simply see them as stepping stones, inasmuch as what you *don’t* do defines you as much as what *you do*. you left one very critical piece of your story out (and i’ve mentioned this to you in the past). YOU TOOK YOUR BOSS OUT TO LUNCH ONE DAY. it wasn’t to kiss ass. it wasn’t to brown nose. as i recall we had a very intelligent discussion about the issues at our workplace, which only communicated to me that you cared and that you could add a lot of value. I didn’t know you very well, and i had just assumed that scary job, but i can say with certainty that it made all the difference in the way that i viewed you. for any of your readers, they should take this away about your character, which ultimately factors into your thesis about taking risks and being able to change things when you know it’s “not working”. you must be fearless, and that is what makes successful people successful. the other thing that your readers should know is that you read a lot. there is nothing better than raw design talent that is circumspect and informed about the world. that is something that all designers should aspire to be. no dummies at the new york times – that’s for sure. and lastly, your readers should know that you like pho tai noodles. it’s actually all the pho tai that you’ve eaten in your life as a struggling designer that has made you what you are today. pho tai is the preferred food for fearless, brainy and circumspect design studs. congrats on closing that parsons loop.

    ps – early retirement would not have worked very well for you. you get bored too easily.

  8. Khoi,

    I loved your speech and the way that it harmonizes with something that makes the Silicon Valley area unique: The more you FAIL the more RESPECT you tend to get.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, SUCCESS means legendary status, but it’s WELL-RECOGNIZED that you will fail, start a new company, fail, almost get there with another, fail, and then get wealthy. The criss-cross of people from previous failures ( but who were kick-ass people! ) eventually gets the formula right and AMAZING THINGS ( tm ) happen.

    Caterina Fake summed this up once as “fuck up fast”. So, I say, be open to error, learn, and keep moving.

  9. Kudos on an excellent speech. One thing, though: “the most unfriendly city in North America?” Ouch, that hurts.

  10. Hello Khoi: on behalf of all of us at Otis College of Art and Design, I want to thank you for the thoughtful and enormously useful remarks you offered our newest graduates at Commencement on May 12. We are so proud to count you among our distinguished alumni.

  11. Hi Khoi,

    I know this is kinda late but your speech really hits upon what many of us graduate students who try to figure out what to do with their lives.

    It reminds me a lot like my mom’s lecture and her ideas in things. Her favorite quote that she aways say “It doesn’t hurt to ask (about anything, from cheaper price or other favors).” Even someone from UCLA say that your speech is so much helpful than any guest speaker that comes to their graduation.

    I’m also leaning towards more web based design as well even though I’m from the “other” department Digital Media. As for me, I’m kinda stuck in a limbo. I can’t figure if I should go full technical or full creative. It is hard to be in the middle. As a curious note, as a lead designer, is it a plus to know programming language while understanding design or keeping to one discipline is better?

    I thank you for such an inspiring speech and I’ll start failing as much as possible!~ ^_^

  12. Excellent speech. I failed to see anything listed about me in it though, especially in the senior year at Otis part. I am pretty sure I played a pretty big part. Hmph.

    It was a speech I would have liked to hear at my graduation. Very inspiring and very honest, exactly what I knew it would be.

    It also made me realize that I have known you for a very long time and that I am getting old.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.