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Recognizing failure as essential to success

  • Published at 12:01 am March 11th, 2019
Graduation
To new possibilities BIGSTOCK

It is the youth who will carry this nation forward

On March 6, I attended the 22nd Convocation of North South University, the first private university in Bangladesh and one that has achieved a superb record of development.

NSU followed an education system based on the American approach to university education: Required courses, assessment through grade point ratios, requirement of general education courses, and support of activities organized by students within the university.

NSU was also the first of the private universities to have its own campus.

This well-designed campus easily accommodated the large graduating class and their parents and friends. In the difficult world in which we all live, attending the graduation of your children or, in my case, the children of two of my close associates, is a wonderful feeling of achievement and promise.

The conflicts and agonies of getting through this demanding education are behind. My heart was full of admiration and awe to see these flouring young men and women.  

The university led by its board of trustees has made remarkable progress in building up the university and, on that day, there were almost 3,500 people graduating. I do not know the ratio of men and women in this graduating class, but of the 11 gold medals, eight were awarded to women and three to men. 

The ceremony comprised the usual speeches of congratulations to students and parents; expressions of pride in the accomplishments of the university, good wishes for the future, news about all of the challenges before the graduates. The honorable minister of education gave an excellent speech of progress in the Bangladesh education system.

Students are delighted to get all of this over with; they feel a little sadness about beginning to separate from friends, but look forward in many cases to savouring a growing sense of freedom.

Parents are sad as now the graduates are going their own way. Sometimes leaving the nest, but always opening up their lives to a greater freedom, no longer extensions of parents but free and independent women and men. Parents feel relief that the financial burden is at last declining.

It is no small thing putting a child through NSU.

I wanted to report on the speech given by the convocation speaker Professor Richard Roberts, Nobel Prize winner and one of the great molecular biologists of the 20th century. His talk to the graduates was profound and, perhaps, surprising to many in the audience. 

It had the right attributes of a convocation speech -- it was short, it was memorable, and it was profound. Professor Roberts made three points:

First, he noted the importance of luck. Much of what happens to us is simply luck and does not have a lot to do with what we do. He noted that, in research, getting great results comes from working on a problem that has an important answer but what comes out is largely a matter of luck. 

I think he hoped the students would think about their luck in being able to attend and graduate from NSU. Only a handful of young people in Bangladesh have such an opportunity. Being aware of luck is a greatly humbling thought to balance our egos.

Second, is the importance of being willing to change what you set out to do. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind about your career in the search for finding the right landing place. 

Failure is an essential part of getting anything done. You start down a path and you find that it does not work. You need to adjust and change not just keep pushing the same approach. Take a tough problem and try to solve it. You fail. Try again a different way. Fail again. 

Look for a different approach. A-ha! You find a way. This is the way learning, research, and knowledge take place. This is an essential part of a market economy. One builds on failure.  

Professor Roberts confronted the graduates with one of the most serious problems in Bangladesh, the inability to accept failure and move on. Society is full of activities where the sponsor, government department, or business firm, refuses to recognize that things are not working correctly and continues to push forward with no chance of things really improving (but at least one does not have to admit failure). 

Issuance of drivers’ licenses and insolvent banks are examples. In governance and the management of the economy, the problem of failure is one of the most profound facing society. Unfortunately, it receives little attention.

The third point dealt with the obligation one has to participate in your society to improve the way things are. He suggested that one must do more than seek a good job to support your family. The essence of a successful society is the participation of citizens in its affairs to reach agreement by compromise. 

One point seemed to me to be quite fundamental: To recognize what science can do to improve a society, if only we allow that to happen. An example that Professor Roberts gave was the introduction of genetically modified crops.

So much of the world irrationally rejects the use of these improved seeds that reduce the use of insecticides, improving the environment and reducing the risks to farmers. Bangladesh is one of the few countries with confident leadership prepared to allow such seeds.

But the main point Professor Roberts stressed is that Bangladesh is under risk of catastrophic changes forced by global warming. We are all too aware of the risks arising from the rising sea levels as well as changes in river flows, loss of infrastructure, rising threats of international conflict, and political disturbances from displacement, hunger, asset loss, and despair. 

Faced with this, Professor Roberts argued that Bangladeshis should aggressively push the rest of the world to act. Not just to seek resources to deal with the consequences of global warming, but to be a trumpet demanding the world take heed and act. 

This is an action that one takes every time you communicate with a foreign friend -- let them know tackling global warming is a matter of life and death for 160 million people.

These three points are important, not just for the new graduates but for all of us to keep in mind: Be humble and recognize how important luck is in your successes and take solace in your failures.

Do not be afraid to change what you are doing or to make a new start. Recognize failure as a vital part of progress and good governance. Face failure and overcome it.

Take responsibility for the welfare of your nation and fight for it. 

Forrest Cookson is an American economist.