It is always moving to see dignity combined with vulnerability, and Guinier is a powerful orator—tall, imposing yet warm, deftly establishing great intimacy with her Bard audience. The usually restive graduating seniors and their families were absolutely silent while she spoke. "Many of us are afraid of failure, and, in fact, some of you may never have experienced failure, and it may seem odd to be talking about failure on a day in which we are here to commend you for your success," she told the class of 2003. "What I'd like to talk to you about today is not to be afraid of those failures, because in many ways success and failure are interrelated: Success is failure turned inside out. And I say this because I used to be very afraid of failure."

She quoted Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer who teaches at Bard and was in the audience that day: "'The poet who is not in trouble with the king is in trouble with her work.'" She looked up at the graduating seniors and repeated the line: "'The poet who is not in trouble with the king is in trouble with her work.' She is not doing her job. I took that as a lesson. I know what it's like to be in trouble with the king. But I hope ultimately that history will not judge me to be in trouble with my work."

She continued, "I want to talk to you about what it means when people don't like your ideas, when you are disappointed because people don't like your ideas. When, in order to succeed, you have to have the nerve of failure, the willingness to do things you believe in even though that may mean some people don't like you; the courage to speak truth to power, to get in trouble with the king every once in a while. The nerve of failure is actually what David Riesman, the late Harvard sociologist, described as the courage to face the possibility of defeat and even aloneness without being morally destroyed."

She repeated the last phrase, and it rang with gravity in the hushed tent: "...the courage to face the possibility of defeat and even aloneness without being morally destroyed."

Watching her and imagining her dire situation in 1993, it was impossible not to feel a little shiver of...what was it? Horror, sympathy, awe. A feeling of both identification and fear.

Her words and her appearance and her manner were so memorable that day that I kept replaying these moments in the months that followed, with the sense that an important lesson was embedded in Lani Guinier's crucible, as well as real consolation—or inspiration, depending on how one views such universal but mysterious personal trials. And also with a sense of wonder at her survival and transformation.

When we spoke by phone shortly afterward, I quickly realized that Lani Guinier's views on failure were the result of a lifelong process of analysis. "My experience in 1993 crystallized what I had already been thinking," she says. "My mother pushed me to think this way all my life." Guinier recalls, in first or second grade, some older kids from across the street making fun of her. "We would play school, and they would always be the teacher and I'd be the student, and they would tease me if I misspelled a word. When I talked to my mother about it, she said there were many ways to interpret their behavior. One was that they were white and they were being racist; another was that they were jealous because I did very well in school and they didn't; and a third was that kids are just mean." She laughs. "What my mother did for me was to introduce me to all three possible explanations—which were important because they said that it wasn't my problem."

From this perspective, failure is an opportunity. "It gives you the chance to see yourself reflected in the mirror of the world, not dwell on your internal faults or your internal deficits. When you feel sorry for yourself and misunderstood, you usually have a very internal conversation. It becomes so crushing. The failure theory of success encourages you to have a conversation that involves yourself and the ways you've contributed to the problem, but then allows you to move in many different directions. And you can follow these vectors in ways that are liberating, not just oppressive."

Next: How Guinier's father responded to his own experiences with racism


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