The Most Important Lesson I Learned at the Honors College

Hi there! My name is Seun Adebiyi, and I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006 with a B.Phil from the Honors College as well as a B.A. from the College of Arts and Sciences. I’d like to share with you the most valuable lesson that I learned during my tenure at Pitt.

As background, in the decade and a half since graduating from the Honors College, I’ve:

  • Survived two cancers
  • Started a stem cell donor registry in Nigeria
  • Started an Olympic sports federation
  • Given a TED talk
  • Carried the Olympic torch at the 2018 Winter Games in Seoul
  • Graduated from Yale law school
  • Worked for top ranked corporate firms
  • Started a virtual law firm, and
  • Moved to Hawaii (yay!)

In that same time, I’ve also:

  • Been unable to find a job or pay my bills after the 2008 market crash
  • Been fired from my dream job
  • Missed the Olympics not once, not twice, but three times (!)
  • Been called an idiot by a Yale constitutional law professor for challenging a core tenet of his philosophy
  • Lost control of the Olympic federation I created to ruthless politicians, and
  • Made countless other errors, bloopers, and gaffes

Looking back on the past fourteen years with 20/20 hindsight, it’s clear that my triumphs almost always sprang from preceding failures. Without enduring the latter, I wouldn’t have achieved the former. This begs one question:

How do you keep going when everything looks hopeless?

The answer to this question was the single most important thing I learned at the Honors College. I owe the Breckenridge Fellowship and my late advisor, Dr. Thomas Metzger, a huge debt of gratitude. Dr. Metzger was my math professor. One day during office hours, he scribbled a simple equation on a napkin and asked me to solve it. It looked easy, but I couldn’t figure it out. So I applied for a Breckenridge Fellowship, which gave me the opportunity to spend a whole summer trying to crack this stubborn nut. At the end of the summer, I had to give a presentation on what I had achieved. It was mortifying to stand up in front of my peers and admit that I’d failed.

To my surprise, the Honors College offered me another Breckenridge Fellowship the following summer. It was a chance at redemption. And – surprise, surprise – I failed again. But that was the point. I only realized, many years later, that Dr. Metzger and the Honors College had set me on a quest, but not to untangle an abstract math problem. That was a decoy. The real lesson they  wanted me to was how to cope with failure.

Honors College students are – for the most part –  bright, hard-working and used to being the best at what they do. (I say “for the most part” because, after all, they also let me in). But that very drive for excellence can also become a great weakness. If we never learn how to fail, then we are likely to be totally unprepared to handle failure when it happens. Alternatively, if we choose to avoid things out of fear of failure,  we will miss countless opportunities to explore our full potential.

The deeper purpose of the Breckenridge Fellowship was to teach me how to fail, over and over again, until I no longer feared failure. It was a twin lesson in boldness and persistence that has shaped my life in unimaginable ways ever since.

So, here’s a bit of advice for making the most of your time at the Honors College: Bite off more than you can chew. Make rash decisions. Set unreachable goals. Face plant as often as possible. Be a rebel. Break the rules. Fail, fail, and fail some more, until you learn to welcome failure as  the harbinger of success.

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Olympic Torch Relay – Seoul, 2018

The Honors College is a Petri dish. You are the experiment. Don’t waste that opportunity!

Hail to Pitt!

 

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