Skip to main content

Fear, Failure, and Faith


by Joseph Grenny, author and entrepreneur

I remember approaching graduation from the Kennedy Center with a feeling of abject terror. I’m sure part of it was unpaid parking tickets or library fees that I’d have to cover before I got my diploma. The real unease came because I had a sense that I was now making decisions for real.

The reality of sitting where you are was, to me, like the one time I went skydiving. Calling it “skydiving” makes it sound like an amusement park ride, and that is what I thought when my roommate suggested the idea. David yelled from the kitchen, “Hey—what do you say we go skydiving this Saturday?” “I’m in,” I yelled from the bathroom, without truly considering what I would be doing. It was conceptual and distant on Tuesday. It became staggeringly real the instant our jump master pushed open the flimsy metal door of our single engine plane and screamed over the engine noise for me to “step out onto that small metal plate down there, grab ahold of the strut of the plane, then drop your legs out the door. The wind will catch your legs,” he explained, in a perverted attempt at clarity, “and will lift you like a flag.” The Tuesday commitment and the Saturday reality were worlds apart.

In the Tuesday of my college career, graduation sounded like an exhilarating breaking of the tape at the finish line. As the reality approached, I felt panic at what lay after the tape. For years I could dabble in this or try that. Now I was deciding on a career, choosing where to live, starting a family—so much was happening that was real.

When I sat in your chairs my biggest fear was not plummeting to my death, it was abject failure. At first I continued the cruise-control version of life I had driven from potty training through high school. My mother always wanted me to be a physician. I rather liked the idea, too. On the way to medical school, I encountered people who changed my view of my options and profoundly affected my life. I am who I am today, in part, because of these people. I’d like to share what I learned from three of them in hopes it might reduce your terror and increase your confidence as you face Monday morning.

The first was Norman Van Duker. He was a redheaded, freckle-faced, returned LDS missionary who moved in with my family when I was thirteen.

I was a skinny, uninteresting kid. For some strange reason Norm took a liking to me, which I found enormously flattering and which in turn made me interested in Norm. What Norm blessed me with was questions. Norm was insatiably hungry for knowledge. He loved to ask questions. He was especially interested in questions about people. He loved to ask questions about scriptures. He brought home fascinating readings from his college English classes and invited me into his musings about what authors meant, and what the implications were for life’s great questions. In a desperate attempt to maintain Norm’s respect for me, I thought endlessly about every question he raised and shared my reflections with him in subsequent conversations. I couldn’t believe my good fortune that someone was taking me seriously. Norm didn’t just want an audience, he wanted a partner. He was interested in my opinions. That is how I fell in love with questions.


I began to realize there was great pleasure not just in finding answers, but in the pursuit of answers—in the questions. Norm had no time for philosophical fiddlesticks. He wanted to explore the raw beating heart of life and discuss things that made a difference in the world. As a result of my encounters with Norm, I began to see my life options as much less about a job, a paycheck, or prestige and much more about solving important problems. My mind gravitated more to problems my soul seemed designed to worry about than to a logical path to security.

The second influence was my father. It’s strange how little we know our parents until we leave them. I remember when I first truly met my father. I was sitting in the sweltering heat under the tin roof of our shack on a small lump of coral and dirt called Apataki. The island was four hundred yards at its widest and sat plunk in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. My missionary companion and I were engaged in our morning study as my white shirt moistened and began to stick to my back. I was reading the Old Testament book of Daniel and admiring his incredible faith and absolute integrity, when it hit me like a revelation that I had been raised by the same kind of man.

I remember sitting next to this man—my father—in our chapel, when I was eleven and the bishop had just made a plea for donations to the building fund. Our ward was hoping to build a real chapel soon to escape the squalid rental building we had used for years. A lot more money was needed. Our bishop pled for help. My father was eking out a sustainable living for our family of eight as a modestly paid counselor for the county mental health office. After the bishop finished challenging our ward to do what they could, my father and mother followed him to his office. They came out a while later and escorted us to our aging station wagon for the long ride home. A few minutes into the ride, my father made a small announcement. It was brief, but, had I been more attentive, it would have told me volumes about him. “We promised the bishop our family would contribute $1,000 to the building fund. I will be taking a teaching position at the community college, which will mean I will be away from home two nights a week.” That was it.

As I sat in my steamy shack, I recalled a dozen situations where my father had been like Daniel. When he felt he knew the right thing to do, he just did it. He didn’t deliberate. He didn’t equivocate. He didn’t compromise. He simply did the right thing and gave no thought to consequence.

Now, before I introduce the third person who changed the course of my life, let me connect the first two dots. I can promise you a fulfilling life if you’ll listen to Norman and my dad. My friends, the measure of your future is your appetite for questions, not the number of answers you know. What important questions do you have right now? What seems urgent for you to figure out? What spiritual DNA becomes excited in you when you study or experience certain things? Your life and your Maker have suited you perfectly to ask and pursue certain questions. Most of us are on cruise control and fail to stop and notice what they are. I admire Jordan Jones, a neighbor who left recently for a mission in Ghana. He lost his father a few years ago to a heart attack. Jordan is attacking back. In the past couple of years, he has volunteered at Utah Valley Hospital in the cardiac unit. He has missed more than one Xbox party, because he has a hunger to fight a disease that threw the first punch.

Your questions may not come as a result of intimate family experiences, but they will come if you let them, if you learn to follow your curiosity, and if you learn to work for answers.

If you do this, I can promise you a meaningful life, but only if, in addition to following your curiosity, you take occasional leaps of faith. Twenty years ago, I had a job that paid more than I ever thought I would make. It was fun, fulfilling, and rewarding. I couldn’t have asked for more, but I had some big questions. I wanted to learn how to change the world. I had a hunger to learn what it takes to influence change across cities, nations, and the planet. One day in May 1989, I felt an irrepressible spiritual prompting to quit my secure job and create a new one that would allow me to dedicate myself to this question. It was fiscal insanity. It was my opportunity to follow in the footsteps of my father. It was my $1,000 pledge to the bishop out of thin air. Dad had no plan, when he made the promise. The promise came first; the plan came second.


I announced my resignation a week later and have never looked back. I did not know what future my action would bring, but I knew it was the future my Heavenly Father wanted me to embrace. Since I knew He’d be waiting there for me, I walked forward.

The last person who changed everything for me was a man from Bangladesh named Muhammad Yunus. I first learned about him while attending the Kennedy Center. One of my professors gave me extra credit for subscribing to the Christian Science Monitor. In 1984, there was a brief story about a man who was making small loans to poor women in Bangladesh. In 1972, his country was in the grip of famine. He was an unknown economics professor at Chittagong University with a safe salary. Here he was teaching elegant economic theories literally a stones’ throw away from where a ruined economy was leaving people dead in the streets every day. He needed to know why. So he followed his question and walked out of his classroom into the adjacent village. He began interviewing the impoverished residents in a sincere effort to find ways to help. He found a starving woman who was busy at work and began talking to her about the economics of her life. She was making a beautifully crafted bamboo stool. He asked her about prices, costs, competition, distribution, capital needs—everything a good economics professor would do. He discovered that for this woman her biggest problem was capital. At the end of each day, she used every penny she had left to buy food for her family and began the next day with no money with which to buy new supplies to make stools. She went to the local moneylender—basically, a loan shark—who loaned her money at 1,500 percent interest. The interest was set so high she was kept in an endless cycle of borrowing from him. Finally, Muhammad asked her, “How much money would it take to buy your supplies?” She answered with the same discouraged sigh you and I would give if we lacked the capital to build a mall, “Six cents.” Muhammad was stunned.


This woman was locked in a cycle of poverty for lack of six cents worth of capital. At the end of Yunus’ day, he had spoken with forty-two people in the village and found all of them had the same problem.

All of them remained in poverty, in part, because they were forced to borrow at outrageous rates. As he tallied up their capital requirements, he realized every one of their micro-businesses could be financed for less than the $27 in his pocket.

When I spent time with him fifteen years later, he was no longer an economics professor. Instead, he had become a banker. In fact, he’s now called “Banker to the Poor.” He has helped over 100 million people get out of poverty by making them small business loans of $50–100. Can you believe it? This humble little economics professor has literally changed the world. So should you.

Don’t let your timidity limit what God can do with you. Find your soul’s questions. Ask them. Demand the world surrender answers to you. Take the leap of faith when you need to do so. Don’t look for safety and security in a bank account or a fancy title. The failure I feared was not the failure that should have terrified me. The only real failure in life is a failure to do what you were sent here to do. If you have great faith, God can do great things with you. God wants to change the world. If He is to succeed, it will be through timid, ordinary, but willing, people like you, me, Norman Van Duker, Guy Grenny, and Muhammad Yunus.

In the end, you’ll be surprised how much better things turn out in every respect. I had to smile a couple of years ago as I stood to give a lecture on my life’s work to the physician leaders at Yale Medical School. I thought about my mother’s wish for me to be a doctor. I thought about how the questions God sent me here to answer had steered me to another path. I was grateful for the example of others that helped me have the courage and faith to follow those questions. As I prepared to walk to the lectern, I sent my mother a text saying, “Admitted to med school today. Send money.”

This alumni address was given at the Kennedy Center Convocation on 22 April 2011.

Joseph Grenny co-founded Vitalsmarts, LLC in 1990 and served as its president until November 2006. Grenny designed and implemented major corporate change initiatives for the past twenty years and consulted with thousands of leaders around the world—from boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. He served as president of California Computer Corporation and as an executive for the Covey Leadership Center. Grenny co-founded Unitus and serves as chairman. He is co-author of the New York Times bestsellers Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High and Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior. His latest book is Change Anything. Grenny received a BA in international relations from Brigham Young University.