Matt Savage grad speech: ‘Failure is not permanent’

Matthew Savage, BSBA ’19, was the student speaker at the undergraduate programs graduation recognition ceremony on May 17, 2019, selected by his peers. Here is what he had to say to his fellow graduates.

Students, faculty, friends, and family, it is an honor to stand here before you as the class speaker for the Olin Class of 2019. Little do you know that you’ve select a commencement speaker who not only failed an intro class, but was rejected from countless student groups, and even considered transferring at one point. Quite the turnaround, if I do say so myself!

Maybe you were unaware of that when you selected me, but thank you for not letting these define who I am. I’m excited to share my story with you today. Two hundred thousand dollars in an off-shore bank account and some Photoshopped track photos later, I was finally admitted into my dream school. Oh, wait sorry, this is WashU, not USC. Let’s try that again!

Upon our honest admission to WashU, we had something in store for each of our different but intertwined identities. Matt the student hoped he would find academic success here. Matt the young professional would learn what that even means. And Matt the friend would find a close-knit community of people to share the impending four years with.

Quickly, however, each of these identities would disintegrate. It began with Matt the business professional who, after rushing a business fraternity, was cut before the final round. Ouch! Come spring, Matt the “social and fun-loving guy” was put to the test in fraternity rush. Evidently, I was not that social or fun-loving since I didn’t receive a bid from any fraternities. Ouch! Fear not, however, Matt the student still stood strong. So, as I had done before, I ignored these rejections and pivoted towards the last identity of mine that had some residual value.

Matt the student, meet the QBA 120 final. When I received my exam I completely blanked, and I mean blanked. My brain was emptier than my Calc II lectures. The final dropped my grade to a D-plus—meaning I had failed the course. Ouch!

Left without any identities to pivot towards, I was defeated. My mind was whirring and extrapolating these failures to the nth degree. If I couldn’t get into a business fraternity, would I ever get a job? If I didn’t get into a social fraternity, would I ever make friends? Would I be haunted by my failure in QBA?

The answer was no, no and definitely no. Surely, failure is hard. Failure doesn’t feel good. But, failure is not permanent. How many of you actively think about the colleges that you got rejected from? Probably not many of you because, hot take, it doesn’t matter.

That being said, it’s important to have safe spaces to fail. The first time you shaved, you probably didn’t have a big interview in the morning. So, who cares if you cut yourself a little? Olin similarly provided a safe place to fail on a bigger stage. If you failed a test or slept through your Thursday morning class after a night at T’s, chances are that your life was pretty undisturbed.

However, Olin can only prepare us for so much. As we move into this next stage of our lives, we will most certainly continue to fail and fail often. Maybe you’ll get rejected from graduate school. Maybe you won’t get that promotion. Maybe you won’t have the weekly Facetimes with friends that you’ve been promising. But that doesn’t mean you’re a failure as a student, an employee, or a friend.

We will never be defined by our GPA, job titles, singular events and momentary failures. The most important thing is to not run away from these failures or turn a blind eye to our identities that are under duress.

I certainly fell into that trap, and it wasn’t until all of my identities came crashing down at once that I faced the failure head on. I retook QBA and passed. And re-rushed the business and social fraternities again and got in. And, the people I met there are now some of my closest friends. It was only after I faced my failures that I realized that you don’t actually learn anything from failing, but rather from picking yourself up and putting yourself back out there.

The moral of this story is simply that if you can muster up the courage to try again, then “it works out.” Steve Jobs was once fired by Apple. I’d say that worked out. Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba, was once denied employment at a KFC. I’d say that worked out. And J.K Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before someone would take a chance on Harry Potter. I’d say that worked out.

Most importantly, when we think of these people, we never think of them as failures. And that’s because they never saw themselves as such. Only you can define your identity.

So, as Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Thank you, Olin Class of 2019, and may success, not failure, follow you wherever you go!

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