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How to fail and why it’s important (Deakin University occasional address)

April 24th, 2013 by marcus

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I was asked to give a commencement address at Deakin University today. For various reasons (mainly because i’ve never actually finished Uni myself) it felt like kind of a big deal to me. What follows below is my notes of more or less what i said. I kind of winged it in person…

Deputy Chancellor Meehan, Vice‐Chancellor, Professor Jane den Hollander; academic staff, distinguished guests, graduates, family and friends.

I am not sure why I was invited to be here. Let’s just say there are probably a fair few people far more famous and qualified than me who are otherwise engaged today.

I am sure that at least 80% of you don’t have any idea who I am. So a quick introduction. My name is Marcus. I’m 39 years old. I grew up in Newcastle – a place quite a lot like Geelong I reckon. I live in Melbourne. I have a beautiful wife and an adorable two and half year old son.

Over the course of the last decade I have done everything from run a few major-ish festivals, had a weekly column in a major newspaper for a bit, the ABC gave me a chance to write and present my own TV series. I even got to go to The Logies once.

A few years ago I accidentally started Renew Newcastle, a low budget cultural and creative project that borrows empty buildings and lends them to artists in my home town of Newcastle. It has become a model that has been picked up, adapted, and emulated in cities across Australia and around the world.

I feel lucky now. My life gives me the opportunity to travel. My work seems to have mostly earned the respect of colleagues and communities whose respect I personally value. I am, for the most part, a man who is I content in who I am and who enjoys what I do.

The interesting part is that I got here. I only got to anything like contentment through a process of almost continual failure.

Unlike those of you I am privileged to address today, I have never actually graduated from university. The only thing I feel qualified to talk to about today is failure.

Newcastle in the 1980s and 1990s was itself failing. Unemployment in my age group was more than 40%.

My own father’s business failed, and ultimately through no fault of their own my parents’ expectations for their own lives failed. They didn’t expect it and didnt handle it well. By the time that I was in my early 20s both my parents had killed themselves needlessly and way too young.

As you can imagine it had a profound effect on me.

At the time that I was attempting to study at university. On the upside I had a great time, it kept me distracted engaged and amused and I somehow managed to get sidetracked in every project and every initiative that wasn’t my study from the student paper and student politics to the uni bar. On the downside I was kicked out of my university degree.

I spent about three years unemployed.

It is customary for people at events like this to tell you how they never stopped pursuing their dream. How they had a vision and never let go of it. I didn’t. I actually stopped a lot. I gave up a lot. I went backwards quite a few times. And, truth be told, there never has actually been a big overarching vision. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

Yet somewhere, in the story of why I failed university there is a hint to how i ended up being good at something else. I responded to adversity not always by doing the best, or the right thing, but mostly by doing something.

In those years of unemployment my friends and I experimented in all manner of things. We took on spaces we couldn’t afford to try projects we hadn’t defined, and chase visions we hadn’t particularly thought through. I put on gigs and ultimately started festivals. We didn’t get grants — we didn’t know they existed — we mostly just got our mates and their mates to do stuff, joined it up and called it a festival.

Many of those early projects were terrible. They failed. Many of the gigs lost money. My idea for a small bar failed spectacularly. My events got shut down by over zealous authorities. I made many mistakes costly in coin and reputation.

But every time I stuffed something up I learnt something and became better at it.

Eventually, I made every mistake at everything I wanted to try my hand at and, as a result, I started to become good at it. I became uniquely and particualry good at some things because i was the only one stupid and persistent enough to keep doing them.

Understanding my own mistakes evolved into an understanding of the mistakes and the assumptions of the system i was operating in. Learning why I was failing taught me why others might be failing too. Renew Newcastle, which has now opened more than 100 creative projects in more than 50 empty buildings in that city, at its core is an exercise in removing the very same barriers that I have tripped over myself countless times. I have built on my own mistakes so that others can do what they want to try. Ironically, the main reason I started it was a failed idea for a TV show that never actually happened.

There is a Silicon Valley venture capital cliche that entrepreneurs should “Fail fast, fail cheap, and fail often.” Nothing quite so pithy was ever in my mind in Newcastle in 1995 but failing cheap and often has been one of the few constants in my life.

What are your horizons from today? Who knows? I could not have forseen where I ended up and I actually still have no idea where I’m going.

The only useful observation i can make is that it is not only possible but inevitable, that in order to do most things worth doing you will fail and flail along the way. It is ok. It is important.

The advice from me today is not so much to fail but dont be afraid to fail.

As as you do remember the golden rules of making mistakes: Own them and learn from them; Have another go; and, most importantly. NEVER REPEAT YOUR MISTAKES.

Congratulations to you all on achieving something I haven’t. I wish you well and I hope you find contentment and success.

I hope there is something useful that you can take away my words from today. If not, I’m certain I will be better at it next time.

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60 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kevin Coffey Apr 24, 2013 at 4:58 pm

    Brilliant. Fkn Brilliant !

  • 2 Pat Breen Apr 24, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    Great speech Marcus!

  • 3 Fraser Mackay Apr 24, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    Excellent… own them learn from them… great.

  • 4 Richard Strickleton Apr 24, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    Marvellous speech! I felt every sentence ring true. I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up either… and maturity is STILL too high a price to pay.

  • 5 Amy Apr 24, 2013 at 8:27 pm

    I graduated at that ceremony today! I was compelled to google you and find out more. You said 80% of the attendants today had probably never heard of you and I was one of those 80%. My 84 year old grandmother however is a big fan of 774 so she was pretty excited to hear you in person.

    And what a great speech! Our graduation ceremony was the clear winner when it came to guest speakers. Thanks for being the most entertaining part of the ceremony (except for my 15 seconds of fame of course).

    Happy to be in the 20% these days and will definitely be keeping my war to the ground for more of your work.

  • 6 David Simpson Apr 24, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    Truer words have not been spoken!

    I am going to use this in my school with students – how liberating to be told that in failure exists the learning that matters.

    kudos.

  • 7 Philip Pollard Apr 24, 2013 at 11:19 pm

    Great address Marcus-
    I could really relate to the advice – as I’m sure was the case for many.
    I often think of the bicycle analogy – if it’s not moving forward it (and its rider) fall flat on the ground. I’m always in need of the moving bicycle – and as you say – “do something” – or move forward – ‘doesn’t matter if you don’t know the exact destination, it’s about the discovery.
    I’m not surprised at all about the very warm response to your address – it’s great advice!

  • 8 John Malcolm Apr 25, 2013 at 7:43 am

    If you make different mistakes every day, no one can accuse you of bad habits.

  • 9 carolduncan Apr 25, 2013 at 8:07 am

    @ArunAbey “@RenewAustralia: Founder Marcus Westbury speaks on personal/professional failure (& how it became Renew) http://t.co/dZNgmpiti0”

  • 10 amcal Apr 25, 2013 at 8:11 am

    Great reminder RT @unsungsongs how to fail and why it’s important” – my deakin university commencement address http://t.co/SUe5p9leCr

  • 11 briscreative Apr 25, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Thank you for sharing – @unsungsongs on failure / Deakin Uni commencement address http://t.co/q0p1xMAUfo

  • 12 Tracy_EclipseMD Apr 25, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Well written! Gen Ys need 2 read RT“@unsungsongs: US, UK, EU friends: my piece on personal and professional failure http://t.co/ARiVZ71LR6”

  • 13 gusseting Apr 25, 2013 at 8:35 am

    RT @renewaustralia: Our founder Marcus Westbury speaks on personal and professional failure (and how it became Renew) http://t.co/4BrI9nCKpp

  • 14 ninacaplan Apr 25, 2013 at 8:37 am

    Nothing succeeds like failure says @unsungsongs. Lovely piece, 1 untrue bit: he’s no way stupid.Is persistent though. http://t.co/hmjJpPp8qa

  • 15 JewelNature Apr 25, 2013 at 8:45 am

    RT @briscreative: Thank you for sharing – @unsungsongs on failure / Deakin Uni commencement address http://t.co/q0p1xMAUfo

  • 16 boutique_sweets Apr 25, 2013 at 8:55 am

    Well said!! RT“@unsungsongs: …my piece on personal and professional failure http://t.co/KjuX5Q8ecj”

  • 17 Mozziebites Apr 25, 2013 at 9:08 am

    Nice work RT @elizasarlos: Embrace failure: wholly wonderful words from that serial failure @unsungsongs: http://t.co/o4UQRKBSLL

  • 18 EmCheMartin Apr 25, 2013 at 10:09 am

    A great speech by @unsungsongs that I definitely relate to! “Don’t be afraid to fail” http://t.co/eap1DqOMe8

  • 19 Tim Jones Apr 25, 2013 at 10:22 am

    Nice address Marcus.
    I laughed the other day at the Groucho-like comment, “Only an idiot learns from his own mistakes.”
    But making your own mistakes gets below the skin and that’s the point.

    Tim

  • 20 WldColonialGirl Apr 25, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Don’t be afraid to fail: Marcus Westbury on why making mistakes is important: http://t.co/EgqAIAmtf9

  • 21 _Paul_Becker_ Apr 25, 2013 at 10:34 am

    RT @snowball_alice: Marcus Westbury @unsungsongs is a hero of mine & these beautiful words of failure only make him more so: http://t.c…

  • 22 davesag Apr 25, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Nice essay by @unsungsongs on why failure is important and not to be feared. #employmentfrogger #failtowin http://t.co/X4XmXgLAjr

  • 23 katrinazaat Apr 25, 2013 at 11:41 am

    “How to Fail & Why It’s Important” by @unsungsongs. This guy created what I think is the best Arts Fest in Australia. http://t.co/uFlQRaSBBw

  • 24 _Paul_Becker_ Apr 25, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Today seems appropriate to share a post on failure (and why it’s important) http://t.co/TCC5Z5zGBk
    Marcus Westbury @unsungsongs

  • 25 siobhan_curran Apr 25, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    From a professional failure @unsungsongs http://t.co/poWNa4MvqX and 26 other failures http://t.co/RZnWPrtmKC

  • 26 HunterSDC Apr 25, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    @growthwise it seems that while we were talking about failure, @unsungsongs was too: http://t.co/iRizI5swKR thanks marcus

  • 27 PunctumInc Apr 25, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Marcus Westbury…
    http://t.co/7TazD4M4hd

  • 28 gusseting Apr 25, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    as a failure queen, this is good -> MT @unsungsongs: “how to fail and why it’s important” : http://t.co/UbId6lZVkA

  • 29 nephstar Apr 25, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: It’s both ironic and inevitable that my blog post about failure is about my most successful ever? http://t.co/kSWLUSqocT #…

  • 30 ElissaMilne Apr 25, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: It’s both ironic and inevitable that my blog post about failure is about my most successful ever? http://t.co/kSWLUSqocT #…

  • 31 MarcJamesBryant Apr 25, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: It’s both ironic and inevitable that my blog post about failure is about my most successful ever? http://t.co/kSWLUSqocT #…

  • 32 _theolivetree Apr 25, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: It’s both ironic and inevitable that my blog post about failure is about my most successful ever? http://t.co/kSWLUSqocT #…

  • 33 Glendyn Ivin Apr 25, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    No fail here. Inspiring speech Marcus.

  • 34 Ms_Kianga Apr 25, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: It’s both ironic and inevitable that my blog post about failure is about my most successful ever? http://t.co/kSWLUSqocT #…

  • 35 katiecrackernuts Apr 25, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    Bloody well said.

  • 36 AndrewBartlett Apr 25, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    Yep, a good read RT @unsungsongs It’s ironic & inevitable that my blog post about failure is my most successful ever http://t.co/DfUan4B5CL

  • 37 georgiemeyer Apr 25, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    RT @PunctumInc: Marcus Westbury…
    http://t.co/7TazD4M4hd

  • 38 PPS_Placemaking Apr 26, 2013 at 4:05 am

    “Th golden rules of making mistakes: Own & learn from them; Have another go; most importantly: NEVER REPEAT THEM.” http://t.co/40LFOVQTj4

  • 39 Nishuane Apr 26, 2013 at 5:01 am

    RT @PPS_Placemaking: “Th golden rules of making mistakes: Own & learn from them; Have another go; most importantly: NEVER REPEAT THEM.”…

  • 40 Nick Apr 26, 2013 at 7:47 am

    Hey Marcus… remember “bland media” that was such a fucking awesome mistake ;)

  • 41 marcus Apr 26, 2013 at 7:59 am

    Indeed it was. Good name though and not a bad team all things considered. Shame we never did anything!

  • 42 LandscapeObserv Apr 26, 2013 at 9:36 am

    RT @PPS_Placemaking: “Th golden rules of making mistakes: Own & learn from them; Have another go; most importantly: NEVER REPEAT THEM.”…

  • 43 Zac Apr 26, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Superb talk – inspiring and useful stuff.

    If ever there was a candidate for an honourary degree from Newcastle Uni, it’s you.

  • 44 Brigitte Apr 26, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    wow. brilliant speech!!! brought me to tears!

  • 45 sister0 Apr 26, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    “@johnbonbailey: Fine commencement speech by Marcus Westbury on failing hard and often: http://t.co/W1u8fw0Kl7” methodology

  • 46 jessica_alice_ Apr 26, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    A Deakin-friend linked me to @unsungsongs’s commencement addresss. It’s a good speech! ‘Failing cheap and often’. http://t.co/2aHsmgXiT4

  • 47 Clytie Apr 26, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    RT @sister0: “@johnbonbailey: Fine commencement speech by Marcus Westbury on failing hard and often: http://t.co/W1u8fw0Kl7” methodology

  • 48 jocelynmilici Apr 27, 2013 at 3:23 am

    RT @PPS_Placemaking: “Th golden rules of making mistakes: Own & learn from them; Have another go; most importantly: NEVER REPEAT THEM.”…

  • 49 stuartcmcgill Apr 28, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    RT @gusseting: as a failure queen, this is good -> MT @unsungsongs: “how to fail and why it’s important” : http://t.co/UbId6lZVkA

  • 50 aprilhoward8 Apr 28, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Currently Reading http://t.co/DS1897ROvj

  • [...] post I discovered on Marcus Westbury’s blog inspired me to write about my own [...]

  • 52 HughRundle Apr 28, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: “how to fail and why it’s important” – my deakin university commencement address this morning: http://t.co/gEUtRNlSKi

  • 53 mishdalton Apr 28, 2013 at 10:01 pm

    How to fail and why it’s important http://t.co/B8gZnWN7th

  • 54 OceaneToffoli Apr 28, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    RT @mishdalton: How to fail and why it’s important http://t.co/B8gZnWN7th

  • 55 flexnib Apr 29, 2013 at 7:05 am

    RT @stuartcmcgill MT @gusseting: MT @unsungsongs: “how to fail and why it’s important” : http://t.co/3d6mWUxhe9

  • [...] http://www.marcuswestbury.net/2013/04/24/how-to-fail-and-why-its-important-deakin-university-commenc… [...]

  • [...] Since i posted my life-on-the-NBN review a few days ago I’ve been a little inundated with responses. It was a bit of an afterthought post written while i was on holidays but it has easily smashed the record for the most views, incoming links, and general buzzitude of anything I’ve posted around here in quite some time. It’s even smashed my heroic efforts at failure a few weeks back. [...]

  • 58 Nico Reddaway May 26, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    Refreshing to hear from someone of Marcus’ reputation. Go Marcus!

  • 59 Over and In | Pitch Frenzy Jun 6, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    […] begin, I’d like to cite Marcus Westbury’s ‘How to Fail and Why It’s Important’, and also this very excellent piece of writing by the same author. I will also repost this link […]

  • 60 Beth Jessup Jun 16, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    Marcus, was my son’s name…..a fine name.

    I love, love the honesty of your words….much experience and FAILURE has gone into the making of them. I, too, have failed many times….a couple of times monumentally, in amongst some beautiful successes. At the moment I would say that yep, I’m definitely failing! I’m desperately trying to get a publisher for a book that’s taken seven long, arduous years to get to first draft stage (there have been two major breaks in between). This is the twentieth publisher I’ve tried over the last six years….five times it’s nearly got over the line until it’s reached the acquisition meetings when the marketing people have given it the chop. It’s with Harper Collins as I write!

    I was in Newcastle over the weekend and visited “The Emporium” didn’t know about the other 49 venues….BRILLIANT idea Marcus. I love ideas.

    Here’s to failure but please, I’m now ready for success but like you I’ve no idea where I’m going!

    kr (kind regards)
    Beth