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So What If You Fail?


Thu May 25 2023

So What If You Fail?

Leslie Odom Jr. closes out ATD2023 with a keynote on embracing risk, mentorship, and change.

There’s plenty of power in saying no. Leslie Odom Jr. was a struggling actor before his breakout role as Aaron Burr in Hamilton; but, before he was offered the role in the popular play, a TV show he’d auditioned for asked him to fly across the country to begin filming. He had to decide between Hamilton, which, at the time, was far from a guarantee, and the TV show that was offering him work and a paycheck.


You probably know what he decided. Odom told the audience at his ATD23 keynote why he chose Hamilton—the Tony- and Grammy-award winner said he knew the play would be great from day one, but his decision was borne out of a contract he has with himself to take risks. If he fails, so what? Just trying a risky thing, such as turning down a television series, is a success in and of itself. He had fallen into a pattern of trying to please people instead of just going for it, and Odom determined to change.

He ended up appearing in 500 Hamilton performances over a year and a half, which Odom says is the longest amount of time he’s ever had a job.

His keynote takes its name from his 2018 book, Failing Up: How to Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning. Odom told attendees he hopes the speech and the book will inspire others to take big risks and pursue their dreams.

In his keynote, Odom credited the inspirational figures that have helped him attain the success that he has, including his parents. The two most important things a mentor can give you, Odom says, are their time and their honesty.

“Time and honesty have made all the difference in my life from my mentors,” he states.


In addition to discussing his own book, he examined The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, a 1992 self-help book by Julia Cameron, which challenges readers to start their mornings by writing three pages—"The Morning Pages”—of their thoughts. Further, the book encourages readers to take themselves on a weekly “artist date.”

Despite trying and failing to get through the book a few times and having to be convinced by a friend to give it another shot, Odom says it was powerful to complete The Morning Pages and artist dates, allowing him to explore his creativity. In essence, fulfilling the tasks was something of a risk for him.

Odom closed out his keynote (and the entire ATD23 conference) by performing a handful of songs, including a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (he played Cooke in the 2020 film, One Night in Miami…) and “Wait for It” from Hamilton.

Before beginning his musical performance, Odom’s biggest takeaway for attendees was to let go of fear and go for it. “If you feel the need to grow and try \[something\] in a new way, you’ve got to give yourself permission,” he concluded.

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