A woman in a bright orange shirt smiling at a podium
Professor Shayla Lawson delivers the 2021 DeMott Lecture to new students.

Failure is not the opposite of success.

That was the message from author and professor Shayla Lawson, who delivered the annual DeMott Lecture to new students on Saturday, Aug. 28.

“What you don’t succeed in accomplishing in your lifetime is not a failure,” Lawson said, speaking on the quad. “It is you doing your part to pave the way. You are not gifted a perfect Earth. There is absolutely no reason for us to expect you to be perfect in it. But you are perfect for it.”

Failure, she said, is best understood as a synonym for compassion.

Lawson is an assistant professor of English at Amherst and the author, most recently, of the memoir This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope, a 2020 National Book Critics Circle Finalist. That book was the assigned summer reading for Amherst’s 542 new students. The DeMott Lecture, established in 2005 by Alan P. Levenstein ’56, honors Benjamin DeMott, a much-loved member of the Amherst English faculty from 1951 until his retirement in 1990. Along with Opening Convocation, it is a signature event of New Student Orientation. 

“We’ve all heard phrases that champion success at all costs,” Lawson said on the quad that afternoon. “By any means necessary. Rise and grind. Beauty hurts. Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

But we’ve also heard another phrase: Winning isn’t everything. “Why do we say that?” she asked. The audience quickly understood that the question was not rhetorical.

Professor Shayla Lawson on a screen speaking on the Amherst College quad
Students listen to professor Shayla Lawson as she delivers the 2021 DeMott Lecture on a stage on the main Academic Quad.

Hands shot up into the air. One student shouted: If you give up everything for the sake of winning in one area, you’re not taking care of all the other things that are important. Another volunteered: Failure provides opportunities to grow.

Lawson agreed—and offered encouragement and advice. “You are here because what you contribute to the greater fabric that is Amherst College—and bigger than that, the world—is both singular and necessary,” she said. “Be kind to one another. Be respectful, be outspoken, be brand new. Be full of yourself by being your complete, uninhibited self. Don’t let self-doubt or self-aggrandizement rule you. Be brave. Be bigger than what you imagine by being less, sometimes, than what you aspire to.”

And most important, she said, tell yourself: “I failed at feeling like I wasn’t enough. I failed at failure.

Two photos of students wearing masks listing to a lecture and speaking into a microphone
Students listening and asking questions at the 2021 DeMott Lecture.

With that, more hands shot up into the air.

“What is the thing that you cherish most in life?” one student asked.

“My time,” the author replied.

“What does winning look like to you?” another wondered.

“Winning, for me,” Lawson said, “looks like happiness.”

The 2021 DeMott Lecture by Shayla Lawson

August 28, 2021

Shayla Lawson, author of This is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope, a 2020 National Book Critics Circle Finalist, delivered the 2021 DeMott Lecture.