“Embrace Failure”: Commencement Speaker Scott Wood Urges Graduates to Look Beyond Immediate Success

Saturday, December 11 2010

MOSCOW, Idaho – While many commencement speeches urge graduates to seek success and look for beauty, Scott Wood today encouraged newly minted University of Idaho graduates to “embrace failure.”

Wood, distinguished scientist and dean of the university’s College of Science, was careful to note that there is “no virtue whatsoever in failure that comes about as a result of sloth or apathy or stupidity or lack of preparation or despair.”

“The kind of failure that has value is the kind that arises when one sets one’s aspirations high, but in spite of one’s best efforts, the goal, at least temporarily, is not attained,” he said.

“We cannot move forward if we don’t take calculated risks,” said Wood. “We can neither win nor lose in life if we don’t push ourselves beyond our comfort zone.”

Wood compared failure to that of scientific disciplines. “Every successful scientist is particularly well acquainted with failure. Experiments rarely work as planned the first time. Experiments typically have to be done over and over again; if experiments consistently work the first time, chances are no great breakthrough will come from them,” he noted.

He gave examples of discovery that came through “failure.” Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin after he noted that accidental contamination of a Petri dish with mold resulted in the death of the staphylococcus culture that the dish contained. Scotchgard, a 3M product used to protect fabric, furniture, and carpets from stains, was discovered accidentally in 1953 by Patsy Sherman. She was investigating the compound in the hopes of using it as a rubber material that wouldn't deteriorate when in contact with aircraft fuel. When she spilled this compound onto a tennis shoe she could not wash it out. This led to the development of the compound as a protectant against spills. And in astronomy, William Herschel was looking for comets when he discovered the plant Uranus.

He encouraged graduates to think more deeply about how they define failure.

“If the definition of failure is simply not having reached one’s original goal, then many of science’s biggest discoveries would be classified as abject failures,” said Wood. “The history of science abounds with examples in which the original experiment did not work as planned, but in fact an even greater discovery ultimately resulted because the scientists involved were observant and curious about the cause of their ‘failure.’”

His bidding to graduates: set goals high, carefully prepare yourself and work hard to achieve those goals.

“Don’t expect failure, but if it comes, be observant, learn from it, persevere and keep moving ahead,” he said. “Be ready to recognize value in results that are different from what you expected. For this is what successful people do. This is what leaders do.”

The graduates were eligible for a total of 772 degrees, with 513 undergraduate, 198 master’s, seven specialist, 18 law and 36 doctoral degrees given out during this commencement.
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s land-grant institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year. The University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation classification for high research activity. The student population of 12,302 includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars, who select from more than 130 degree options in the colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences; Art and Architecture; Business and Economics; Education; Engineering; Law; Letters, Arts and Social Sciences; Natural Resources; and Science. The university also is charged with the statewide mission for medical education through the WWAMI program. The university combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities and focuses on helping students to succeed and become leaders. It is home to the Vandals, the 2009 Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl champions. For more information, visit www.uidaho.edu.

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu.