Senior Oration Finalist – Celia Quillian (’14)

The Daily Deac is showcasing one more Senior Oration finalist this week, and we’ll cover the balance next week.  The three winning orations are online on the Wake Forest News website.

Today we invite you to enjoy “Failing Up” by Celia Quillian (’14)


I have a confession. I have suffered from Atychiphobia since childhood. You see, at the age of five, I desperately wanted to fly. I don’t mean metaphorically, and I don’t mean on an airplane. Much like Michael Jordan in the classic 90s film, “Space Jam,” I believed I could fly, and of my own volition. I spent months preparing for my first flight, leaping off the couch, measuring my distance, and combating gravity with handfuls of plastic grocery bags suspended above my head. After I had reached the height of my training, I marched triumphantly outside to the swing set, pumped my legs until I reached the greatest altitude, and launched myself into the air. I soared for approximately two-point-three seconds before the laws of the gravity took hold, and I crash-landed onto a pinecone. As I ran inside, crying for my mother, Atychiphobia first entered my life.

Yes, Atychiphobia, the fear from which I am sure we overachieving, all-star Wake Forest students have all suffered—the fear of failure.  Flash forward to my freshman year at Wake Forest.  While hanging out with some new friends in Babcock lounge, at some point I decided I would impress them with my vast knowledge, and I quoted a wise man who once said, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Unfortunately, I attributed this quotation to none other than Albus Dumbledore. Nope, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I know that now. Thank you, liberal arts.

Pretty soon thereafter, in my Evolutionary and Ecological Biology class, I had my first ever college exam, and I was feeling pretty confident. Like most of you, I was the definition of “star student” in high school. Furthermore, I had received a score of 5 on the AP Bio exam, and the night before this exam, I studied for hours, making over 200 flashcards. I had this thing in the bag. Unfortunately, I later found out that bag had a gaping hole in the bottom when I received a 59 out of 100 with a curve.

Zoom ahead to November, when the time came for auditions for the University Theatre’s third Main Stage show of the year. I had already been doing pretty well for myself theatre-wise. After performing in thirteen consecutive shows in high school, I came to Wake Forest with a Presidential Scholarship for theatre. In my first week at Wake, I was cast in both a student production and the first Main Stage production of the year. Now, I wasn’t expecting to get another big role in this show, but because of the large cast size of “The Grapes of Wrath,” I must admit I expected to be in the show, especially after I had been called back for the biggest female role in the show. Suffice it to say, when the cast list came out, my name was nowhere to be found.

Now, those were just a select few of my biggest “failures” from my first year at Wake Forest. Oddly enough, they all led to some of the greatest successes of that year. Had I been cast in that play, I would not have auditioned for the Anthony Aston Players production, “Independence,” which is to this day my proudest accomplishment on stage. Had I not failed that biology test, I would not have gotten into the very necessary habit of going to my professors for extra help and advice; I would have not become a better student; and I would not have left the course with a B+ that semester. Furthermore, I  might have ended up majoring in biology and becoming the future physician of one of you out there—so, uh, you’re welcome! That mis-quote at the beginning of the year, in addition to some playful teasing, spurred a delightful conversation about Harry Potter and also contributed to some of the best friendships I have made at Wake Forest. Had I not tried and failed at flying at the age of five,  I might not be in college.  Yes, the story was a major part of my college admissions essay. It seems, instead of falling down with these failures, I somehow fell up. I “failed  up.”

When looking back at some of the greatest success stories, however, I should not be surprised by these results. Often, the foundation of the greatest ideas and success stories is failure. In one of his first jobs as a newspaper editor, Walt Disney was fired because he, quote-on-quote, “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Disney then went on to have a number of small businesses that ended in bankruptcy. Lucille Ball was widely thought to be a failed actress and advised by her instructors to choose another profession. Later, she went on to win an Emmy award four times for “I Love Lucy.” Thomas Edison could not have created the light bulb had he not first made thousands of failed prototypes. Finally, J.K. Rowling, who was recently divorced and living off welfare while writing her  twelve-times-denied manuscript for “The Philosopher’s Stone,” once said, “Failure meant a stripping away of the essential…Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea.”

All of their failures catalyzed stunning success. They “failed up.”

And they “failed up” because they allowed themselves the privilege of self-reflection. They allowed their failures to be defined as lessons and opportunities. I have come to realize over my past four years at Wake Forest, that there really are no “failures” and no “mistakes”, but there are only refining moments. Through my failings, I have learned that caring is good but stressing is bad. I learned that trying is sometimes better than succeeding and that I would have rather tried and failed than not tried at all. I now know that I have support in the midst of failure from friends, family, and faculty who will be there for me to console, mentor, and encourage me. I have  learned a lot about myself, and through my failures I have discovered my strengths and passions. I now realize that the failures that affect me most are those which drive me the hardest to continue.  I am currently in the process of “failing up” to my best potential.   As Maya Angelou once said, “It may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Most of us were probably top of our class in high school, and coming to Wake Forest, filled with equally bright and talented students, was probably our first big ego blow. Four years later, we are on the cusp of entering  an even more challenging world, without meal plans, dorm rooms, or holiday breaks. As I prepare to step away from Wake Forest’s comforting bubble as an alumna and to enter the “real world,” there is no doubt in my mind that I will face failure. I hope to be some combination of a writer, film director, entrepreneur, and actor, so I have kindly asked all of my failures to take a number and form an organized line.

Thanks to my time at Wake Forest, I feel prepared to face this sneering and jeering line of failures. Thanks to Wake Forest, I have learned that failure is part of life, and honestly, it is a pretty positive necessity for growth. In terms of my Atychiphobia, it turns out I really did only need to fear the “fear itself.” Because thefear  of failure can be crippling, butf ailure is not an end. Rather, it is a beginning. Thanks to our failures, big or small, at Wake Forest we are all equipped with the resilience, intellect, strategy, striving, passion, and supportive community that we have developed here at Mother, So Dear.

I end this speech with a promise, and one that I hope you will join me in making. That promise is: if at first we don’t succeed, that we will fail, and fail again. We will “fail up,” and up, until we have reached the greatest altitude.  Then, free from the heavy burden of regret and what-ifs and oh-nos, we  will fly. And when we do fly, lofted by the energized wisdom from failures corralled in our  collective consciousness, we will soar right back to the Upper Quad, and roll it like it has never been rolled before.

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