'Make Failure Your Fuel.' Read Soccer Star Abby Wambach's Barnard Commencement Address
Originally published in Time
By KATIE REILLY
Retired soccer star Abby Wambach delivered the commencement address to the Barnard College class of 2018 on Wednesday, speaking about the challenges in her career and her fight against the gender pay gap.
“Like all little girls, I was taught to be grateful. I was taught to keep my head down, stay on the path, and get my job done. I was freaking Little Red Riding Hood,” Wambach said, referencing the lessons of the fairy tale. “The message is clear: Don’t be curious, don’t make trouble, don’t say too much, or bad things will happen. I stayed on the path out of fear—not of being eaten by a wolf—but of being cut, being benched, losing my paycheck. If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing, it would be this: ‘Abby, you were never Little Red Riding Hood, you were always the wolf.'”
“Barnard women, class of 2018, we are the wolves,” she said.
Wambach — the world’s all-time leading scorer in soccer — helped lead the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team to victory in the 2015 World Cup, before announcing her retirement from the sport.
“Doesn’t it feel like the second you figure anything out in life, it ends and you’re forced to start all over again?” Wambach said Wednesday. “Experts call these times of life, ‘transitions.’ I call them terrifying.”
Read Wambach’s complete remarks at Radio City Music Hall in New York City:
Greetings to President Beilock, Provost, Dean, Barnard faculty, trustees, and honorees Katherine Johnson, Anna Quindlen, and Rhea Suh. And to each of the 619 badass women of the Barnard graduating class of 2018: Congratulations, you guys, congratulations!
Doesn’t it feel like the second you figure anything out in life, it ends and you’re forced to start all over again? Experts call these times of life, “transitions.” I call them terrifying. I went through a terrifying transition recently when I retired from soccer.
The world tries to distract us from our fear during these transitions by creating fancy ceremonies for us. This is your fancy ceremony. Mine was the ESPYs, a nationally televised sports award show. I had to get dressed up for that, just like you got dressed up for this. But they sent me a really expensive fancy stylist. It doesn’t look like you guys got one. Sorry about that.
So it went like this: ESPN called and told me they were going to honor me with their inaugural icon award. I was humbled, of course, to be regarded as an icon. Did I mention that I’m an icon?
I received my award along with two other incredible athletes: basketball’s Kobe Bryant and football’s Peyton Manning. We all stood on stage together and watched the highlights of our careers with the cameras rolling and the fans cheering, and I looked around and had a moment of awe. I felt so grateful to be there, included in the company of Kobe and Peyton. I had a momentary feeling of having arrived — like we women had finally made it.
Then the applause ended and it was time for the three of us to exit stage left. And as I watched those men walk off the stage, it dawned on me that the three of us were stepping into very different futures.
Each of us, Kobe, Peyton and I — we made the same sacrifices, we shed the same amount of blood sweat and tears, we’d left it all on the field for decades with the same ferocity, talent and commitment. But our retirements wouldn’t be the same at all. Because Kobe and Peyton walked away from their careers with something I didn’t have: enormous bank accounts. Because of that, they had something else I didn’t have: freedom. Their hustling days were over, and mine were just beginning.
Later that night, back in my hotel room, I laid in bed and thought: this isn’t just about me, and this isn’t just about soccer. We talk a lot about the pay gap. We talk about how, overall, U.S. women earn 80 cents for every dollar paid to men. Black women in America earn 63 cents, while Latinas earn 54 cents, for every dollar paid to white men. What we need to talk about more is the aggregate and compounding effects of the pay gap on women’s lives. Over time, the pay gap means women are able to invest less and save less, so they have to work longer. When we talk about what the pay gap costs us, lets be clear: it costs us our very lives.
And it hit me that I’d spent most of my time during my career the same way I’d spent my time on that ESPYs stage. Just feeling grateful. Grateful to be one of the only women to have a seat at the table. I was so grateful to receive any respect at all for myself that I often missed opportunities to demand equality for all of us. But as you know, women of Barnard, change is here. Women are learning that we can be grateful for what we have and also demand what we deserve.
Like all little girls, I was taught to be grateful. I was taught to keep my head down, stay on the path, and get my job done. I was freaking Little Red Riding Hood. You know the fairy tale. It’s just one iteration of the warning stories girls are told the world over. Little Red Riding Hood heads off through the woods and is given strict instructions: Stay on the path. Don’t talk to anybody. Keep your head down hidden underneath your Handmaid’s Tale cape.
And she does…at first. But then she dares to get a little curious and she ventures off the path. That’s, of course, when she encounters the big bad wolf and all hell breaks loose. The message is clear: Don’t be curious, don’t make trouble, don’t say too much or bad things will happen. I stayed on the path out of fear—not of being eaten by a wolf—but of being cut, being benched, losing my paycheck. If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing it would be this: “Abby, You were never Little Red Riding Hood, you were always the wolf.”
So when I was entrusted with the honor of speaking here today, I decided that the most important thing for me to say to you, is this: Barnard women, class of 2018, we are the wolves.
In 1995, around the year of your birth, wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park after being absent for 70 years. In those years, the number of deer had skyrocketed because they were unchallenged, alone at the top of the food chain. They grazed away and reduced the vegetation, so much that the riverbanks were eroding.
Once the wolves arrived, they thinned out the deer through hunting. But more significantly, their presence changed the behavior of the deer. Wisely, the deer started avoiding the valleys and the vegetation in those places regenerated. Trees quintupled in just six years. Birds and beavers started moving in. The river dams the beavers built provided habitats for otters and ducks and fish. The animal ecosystem regenerated. But that wasn’t all. The rivers actually changed as well. The plant regeneration stabilized the riverbanks so they stopped collapsing. The rivers steadied — all because of the wolves’ presence.
See what happened here? The wolves — who were feared as a threat to the system — turned out to be its salvation. Barnard Women, are y’all picking up what I’m laying down here? Women are feared as a threat to our system — and we will also be our salvation.
Our landscape is overrun with archaic ways of thinking about women, about people of color, about the “other,” about the rich and the poor, about the powerful and the powerless. And these ways of thinking are destroying us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We will not Little Red Riding hood our way through life. We will unite our pack, storm the valley together and change the whole bloody system.
Throughout my life, my pack has been my team. Teams need a unifying structure, and the best way to create one collective heartbeat is to establish rules for your team to live by. It doesn’t matter what specific page you’re all on, just as long as you’re all on the same one.
Here are four rules I’ve used to unite my pack and lead them to gold:
Rule No. 1: Make failure your fuel.
Here’s something the best athletes understand, but seems like a harder concept for non-athletes to grasp. Non-athletes don’t know what to do with the gift of failure. So they hide it, pretend it never happened, reject it outright, and they end up wasting it.
Listen: Failure is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be powered by. Failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on. You gotta learn to make failure your fuel.
When I was on the youth national team, only dreaming of playing alongside Mia Hamm – Y’all know her? Good. I had the opportunity to visit the national team’s locker room. The thing that struck me most wasn’t my heroes’ grass stained cleats, or their names and numbers hanging above their lockers. It was a picture. It was a picture that someone had taped next to the door, so that it would be the last thing every player saw before she headed out to the training pitch. You might guess it was a picture of their last big win, or of them standing on a podium accepting gold medals. But it wasn’t. It was a picture of their long time rival, the Norwegian national team celebrating after having just beaten the USA in the 1995 World Cup.
In that locker room I learned that in order to become my very best — on the pitch and off — I’d need to spend my life letting the feelings and lessons of failure transform into my power. Failure is fuel. Fuel is power.
Women: listen to me. We must embrace failure as our fuel instead of accepting it as our destruction. As Michelle Obama recently said, “I wish that girls could fail as well as men do and be OK. Because let me tell you watching men fail up, its frustrating. It’s frustrating to see men blow it and win. And we hold ourselves to these crazy, crazy standards.”
Wolf Pack: Fail up, blow it and win.
Rule No. 2: Lead from the bench.
Imagine this: You’ve scored more goals than any human being on the planet — female or male. You’ve co-captained and led Team USA in almost every category for the past decade. And you and your coach sit down and decide together that you won’t be a starter in your last World Cup for Team USA. So, that sucked.
You’ll feel benched sometimes, too. You’ll be passed over for the promotion, taken off the project. You might even find yourself holding a baby instead of briefcase, watching your colleagues “get ahead.” Here’s what’s important. You’re allowed to be disappointed when it feels like life’s benched you. What you aren’t allowed to do is miss your opportunity to lead from the bench. During that last World Cup, my teammates told me that my presence, my support, my vocal and relentless belief in them from the bench, is what gave them the confidence they needed to win us that championship.
If you’re not a leader on the bench, then don’t call yourself a leader on the field. You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere. And by the way, the fiercest leading I’ve ever seen has been done between mother and child. Parenting is no bench. It just might be the big game.
Wolf Pack: Wherever you’re put, lead from there.
Rule No. 3: Champion each other.
During every 90-minute soccer match there are a few magical moments when the ball actually hits the back of the net and a goal is scored. When this happens, it means that everything has come together perfectly — the perfect pass, the perfectly timed run, every player in the right place at exactly the right time — all of this culminating in a moment in which one player scores that goal.
What happens next on the field is what transforms a bunch of individual women into a team. Teammates from all over the field rush toward the goal scorer. It appears that we’re celebrating her, but what we’re really celebrating is every player, every coach, every practice, every sprint, every doubt and even every failure that this one single goal represents. You will not always be the goal scorer. And when you are not, you better be rushing toward her.
Women must champion each other. This can be difficult for us. Women have been pitted against each other since the beginning of time, for that one seat at the table. Scarcity has been planted inside of us and among us. This scarcity is not our fault, but it is our problem. And it is within our power to create abundance for women where scarcity used to live.
As you go out into the world, amplify each other’s voices. Demand seats for women, people of color and all marginalized people at every table where decisions are made. Call out each other’s wins and, just like we do on the field, claim the success of one woman as a collective success for all women.
Joy. Success. Power. These are not pies where a bigger slice for her means a smaller slice for you. These are infinite. In any revolution, the way to make something true starts with believing it is. Let’s claim infinite joy, success, and power — together.
Wolf Pack: Her victory is your victory. Celebrate it.
Fourth rule: Demand the ball.
When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to play with one of my heroes, Michelle Akers. She needed a place to train since there was not yet a women’s professional league. Michelle was tall like I am, built like I’d be built and the most courageous soccer player I’d ever seen play. She personified every one of my dreams.
We were playing a small-sided scrimmage — five against five. We were 18 years old and she was Michelle Akers, a chiseled, 30-year-old powerhouse. For the first three quarters of the game, she was taking it easy on us, coaching us, teaching us about spacing, timing and the tactics of the game.
But by the fourth quarter, she realized that because of all of this coaching, her team was losing by three goals. In that moment, a light switched on inside of her. She ran back to the goalkeeper, stood one yard away from her and screamed: Give. Me. The. Effing. Ball.
And the goalkeeper gave her the effing ball. And she took that ball and she dribbled through our entire effing team, and she scored. Now this game was winners keepers, so if you scored you got the ball back.
So, as soon as Michelle scored, she ran back to her goalie, stood a yard away from her and screamed: Give. Me. The. Ball.
The keeper did. And again she dribbled though us and scored. And then she did it again. She took her team to victory. Michelle Akers knew what her team needed from her at every moment of the game. Don’t forget, until the fourth quarter, leadership had required Michelle to help, support and teach, but eventually leadership called her to demand the ball.
Wolf Pack: At this moment in history, leadership is calling us to say:
Give me the effing ball.
Give me the effing job.
Give me the same pay the guy next to me gets.
Give me the promotion.
Give me the microphone.
Give me the Oval Office.
Give me the respect I’ve earned, and give it to my wolf pack too.
In closing, I want to leave you with the most important thing I have learned since leaving soccer. When I retired, my sponsor, Gatorade, surprised me at a meeting with the plan for my send off commercial. The message was this: Forget Me. They nailed it. They knew I wanted my legacy to be ensuring the future success of the sport I’d dedicated my life to. If my name were forgotten, that would mean that the women who came behind me were breaking records, winning championships and pushing the game to new heights. When I shot that commercial, I cried.
A year later, I found myself coaching my 10-year-old daughter’s soccer team. I’d coached them all the way to the championship. (#humblebrag) One day I was warming up the team, doing a little shooting drill. I was telling them a story about when I retired. And one of those little girls looked up to me and said, “So what did you retire from?” And I looked down at her and said, “Soccer.” And she said, “Oh. Who did you play for?” And I said: “The United States of America.” And she said: “Oh. Does that mean that you know Alex Morgan?” Be careful what you wish for, Barnard. They forgot me.
But that’s OK. Being forgotten in my retirement didn’t scare me. What scared me was losing the identity the game gave me. I defined myself as Abby Wambach, soccer player — the one who showed up and gave 100 percent to my team and fought alongside my wolf pack to make a better future for the next generation. Without soccer, who would I be? A few months after retirement, I began creating my new life. I met Glennon and our three children, and I became a wife, a mother, a business owner and an activist. And you know who I am now? I’m still the same Abby. I still show up and give 100 percent — now to my new pack, and I still fight every day to make a better future for the next generation.
You see, soccer didn’t make me who I was. I brought who I was to soccer. And I get to bring who I am wherever I go. And guess what? So do you. As you leave here today and every day going forward, don’t just ask yourself, what do I want to do? Ask yourself, who do I want to be? Because the most important thing I’ve learned is that what you do will never define you. Who you are always will. And who you are, Barnard women, are the wolves.
Surrounding you today is your wolf pack. Look around. Go ahead, you can do it. Don’t lose each other. Leave these sacred grounds united, storm the valleys together, and be our salvation.