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The Graduation Speech No One Heard

By Kimberly Mitchell | Friday, July 17, 2015

Alyssa Williams, project manager for the IHI Leadership Alliance, recently graduated from Suffolk University in Boston with a master’s degree in public administration. In the following blog post, Ms. Williams shares how a speech she wrote for her commencement ceremony resonated with her IHI colleagues because it encouraged her fellow graduates to embrace the ethos of continuous improvement.


I could say it was fatigue. I could blame it on a little post-meeting euphoria on the heels of a successful IHI event in April. Maybe I’d finally lost my mind after three years of graduate school while working full-time at IHI. Whatever the reason, in the midst of writing my final capstone paper, I did what felt impossible at the time: I wrote a speech and submitted it in the hopes I would fulfill a dream by speaking at my commencement ceremony in May.

The speech wasn’t accepted. I was angry with myself. I couldn’t afford to waste time with all the work that I was juggling. What had I been thinking?

In years past, I would have kept this to myself or downplayed its significance, too embarrassed to admit how hard I had tried and how much I had really wanted this opportunity. Instead, I sheepishly told two of my wonderfully supportive IHI colleagues about the speech. They urged me to read it to them.

To my surprise, they loved it. They excitedly encouraged me to share it with others at IHI. A main theme of the speech is the importance of embracing failure, and I realized I needed to embrace my own. We fail a lot when we dedicate ourselves to improvement. As we say at IHI, “Every defect is a treasure.” Reflecting on the process, I came to learn and deeply feel this journey was not about my speech getting accepted, but rather about taking time out of my already overbooked life to pursue a dream and take a risk… and I’m glad I did. I may not have had the chance to deliver this speech to my fellow graduates, but I hope these words resonate with you.
For many people in Boston, this Sunday is like any other Sunday. But for those of us in this pavilion, this ceremony marks the end of what we’ve done each Sunday in recent memory: prepare for our classes for the week ahead and dream of this day.
If you are like me, a huge space now fills the place this work once occupied…a space given to reflection – and more than a little anxiety – about what graduating means. I find myself pondering what I will do next. What will I accomplish? What kinds of leaders will we all be?

John W. Gardner, a renowned scholar whose work I studied in my leadership class at Suffolk University, wrote about the founding of the United States and the emergence of a generation of unrivaled leaders. According to Gardner, these leaders knew they were shaping history. He wrote, “Leaders of the day were afflicted with no trace of fatalism. They believed that the locus of responsibility was in them and saw themselves as shapers of the future.”

While many of us may think that those extraordinary times called for extraordinary leaders, and that our present times are unexceptional and our connections to these leaders of the past are tenuous at best, we would be wrong.

We are living in an extraordinary time. The founding fathers lived at the dawn of the industrial age. We, too, live at the dawn of a new age of information and communication, where all human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. And the questions we face as a society—questions of justice, equity, privacy—and the issues that we must confront are no less compelling and no less revolutionary.

We are the extraordinary people living in these extraordinary times. We are the shapers of the future. Let us build upon the momentum we started here at Suffolk and remember this charge when things get tough…because they will. We’ll likely fail more times than we can count. But it’s in our failures that we may learn our greatest lessons and achieve our greatest successes.

There are many tales – some true and others legend – of Abraham Lincoln’s personal and professional hardships in the nearly 50 years before he became one of our nation’s greatest presidents. He lost numerous political races. He had a nervous breakdown. He failed at his business, leaving him in years of debt. Whether fact or fiction, Lincoln’s stories of success after repeated failure have always resonated with the American people. Yet too often, I believe that in our day-to-day lives we forget its significance. More often than we should, we take the path of least resistance, and in our thousands of emails, texts, and Tweets we lose the creative spirit that urges us to try things differently, no matter how likely we are to fail, no matter how small those first improvements may be.

Lincoln’s legacy embodies a persistence and resilience that we celebrate here today. During my three years as a part-time student with a full-time job, I kept these words from Teddy Roosevelt nearby whenever the days were long and hard:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…”

So, to answer my question: What do I do next? What should we do next? Let’s challenge ourselves today. Let us be bold and courageous. Let us fail and fail big on our path to success. Let us embrace our errors and love ourselves for making them. Let us continue to learn and improve, for while we have earned a degree today, we are never done learning.

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