I found that life is worthwhile if you take risks. Nothing. Nelson Mandela said there is no passion for being found in playing small and settling for a life that’s less than the one you’re capable of living. Now I’m sure in your experiences in school, applying to college, picking your major, and deciding what you want to do with life, I’m sure people have told you to make sure you have something to fall back on. Make sure you got something to fall back on, honey. But I always needed to understand the concept of having something to fall back on.
If I’m going to fall, I don’t want to fall back on anything. I want to lose forward. At least this way, I’ll see what I will hit. With consistency, you’ll finish.
So do what you feel passionate about, passionate about. Take chances. Don’t be afraid to fail. There’s an old IQ test with nine dots; you had to draw five lines with a pencil within these nine dots without lifting the pencil. The only way to do it was to go outside the box. Be bold and think outside the box. Don’t be afraid to fail big, to dream big. But remember, dreams without goals are just dreams.
Reggie Jackson struck out 2,600 times in his career, the most in the history of baseball. But you don’t hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward. Thomas Edison conducted 1,000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn’t know that. Because the 1,001st was the light bulb, it fell forward. 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 to you about why that’s so important. You will fail at some point in your life. Accept it.
You will lose.
You will embarrass yourself. You will suck at something. There’s no doubt about it. And I know that’s probably not a traditional message for a graduation ceremony, but embrace it because it’s inevitable. In the acting business, you fail all the time. Early on in my career, I auditioned for a part in a Broadway musical. Perfect role for me, I thought, except for the fact that I can’t sing. 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. I prayed, and I prayed. But I continued to fail and fail and fail. But it didn’t matter because you know what? There’s an old saying; if you hang around the barbershop long enough, sooner or later, you’re going to get a haircut. So you will catch a break.
And I did catch a break.
Last year, I did a play called Fences on Broadway. But here’s the kicker.
It was at the Court Theatre. It was at the same theatre that I failed that first audition 30 years prior. The point is every graduate here today has the training and the talent to succeed. But do you have the guts to fail? If you don’t fall, you’re not even trying. I’ll repeat: if you remember, you’re not even trying. It would be best to do something you never did to get something you never had. Imagine you’re on your deathbed, and standing around your deathbed are the ghosts representing your unfulfilled potential.
The ghost of the ideas you never acted on—the spirit 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. And now we have to go to the grave together. So I ask you today, how many ghosts will be around your bed when your time comes?
I just got back from South Africa, it’s a beautiful country, but places with terrible poverty need help. And Africa is just the tip of the iceberg. The Middle East needs your help; Japan needs your help; Alabama needs your help; Tennessee needs your help. Louisiana needs your service, and Philadelphia needs your help. The world needs a lot, and we need it from you. We do. We need it from your young people. I’m not speaking for the rest of us here, but I know I’m getting a little grayer. We need it from you, the young people.
Because remember this: you got to get out there; you got to give it everything you got, whether it’s your time, talent, prayers, or treasures. What are you going to do with what you have?
I’m not talking about how much you have.
Some of you are business majors; some of you are theologians, nurses, and sociologists; some of you have money; some of you have patience; some of you have kindness; some of you have love; some of you have the gift of long-suffering, whatever it is, whatever your donation is. What are you going to do with what you have? Alright, now, here’s my last point about failure. Sometimes it’s the best way to figure out where you’re going. Your life will always be a challenging path.
I began at Fordham University as a premed student. I took a course called Cardiac Morphogenesis. I couldn’t read it; I couldn’t say it; I sure couldn’t pass it. So then I decided to go into pre-law, then journalism, and with no academic focus, my grades took off in their direction.
I was a 1.8 GPA, and the university politely suggested that taking some time off might be better. I was 20 years old; I was at my lowest point. And then one day, I remember the exact day, March 27th, 1975, I was helping my mother in her beauty shop.
My mother owned a beauty shop up in Mount Vernon.
And there was this older woman who was considered one of the elders in the town. I didn’t know her personally, but I was looking in the mirror, and every time I looked in the mirror, I could see her behind me, and she was staring at me. She kept looking at me; she gave me these strange looks every time I looked at her.
So, she finally took the dryer off her head and said something I’ll never forget.
She said, Young boy, I have a spiritual prophecy. She said you will travel the world and speak to millions of people.
And in the years that followed, just as that woman prophesied, I have traveled the world and spoken to millions through my movies. Millions who up till this day couldn’t see me, 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. They couldn’t see the real me. But I see you today, and I’m encouraged by what I see. And I’m strengthened by what I see. Because taking risks 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.
The chances you take, the people you meet, the people you love, and the faith you have that’s what will define you. Never be discouraged, hold back, and give everything you’ve got. And when you fall throughout life, remember this, fail forward.