Class of 2010, you begin your futures with quite a past.
When you appeared for freshman registration in 2006, five years to the day after 9/11, President Bush was declaring us “safer” if “not yet safe”; the Dow was climbing toward its all-time high; and the world was rumbling along, or so it seemed, toward eternal prosperity. It was a world in which growing proportions of Harvard seniors were set to join Wall Street or consulting firms, a world of relatively secure jobs and high-paying careers, a world that was your oyster.
Then came your junior year, and suddenly there was no script. The world had shifted. It was the year of Obama. Who could have anticipated that? It was the year of entropy, with catastrophic floods and fires, an imminent flu pandemic, and the biggest meltdown of world financial systems since the Great Depression. Jobs you had counted on evaporated. Opportunities vanished. Phrases like “bailout” and “too big to fail” were suddenly being applied to companies you had hoped would someday recruit you. And the University was not immune. We didn’t have to melt down the roof of Harvard Hall into bullets, as in 1775, but we did curtail plans, and you watched, unsettled, as last year’s seniors felt their way onto a shaky economic landscape.
Now the economy has steadied a bit, and the word “recovery” is in the air, even if we are not confident about its strength and pace. Yet this heavy dose of disorientation is an inescapable part of these extraordinary recent years. What have we learned that can serve us in times of calm or crisis?
Let me suggest four particular lessons of these upheavals that I hope you will carry with you.
The first is about humility. In case we didn’t know it before, we have been forcefully reminded that we cannot control, or even predict, the future or what it will require from us.
The unforeseen events of the past two years have forced us to imagine the world differently; they have demanded that we adapt and throw away the script we thought we were following. And they have reminded us once again of the value of the liberal arts, which are designed to prepare us for life without a script. Since you cannot know what you need to be ready for, we have tried to get you ready for anything.
The second lesson: Embrace risk—it is inescapable. You worry, I know, about the burden of Harvard, about “the pressure to be extraordinary” within a narrow definition of success, as one of you told me. “What will I say at my fifth reunion?” you wonder. What is “extraordinary enough”? It is, quite simply, having the courage to write your own script. You can be a risk taker. In fact, as we have learned, you will be a risk taker whatever you choose because no choice is guaranteed to be safe; no path is risk-free. So do what you love—whether it is law or drama, finance or physics, or, as one of you told me during Arts First, heading off to Los Angeles to play the Delta blues guitar. Life is long. Don’t settle for Plan B until you have tried Plan A.
The third lesson: The world really needs you. Bill Gates reminded us of this when he visited a couple of weeks ago. We must, he said, have the world’s best minds working on the world’s biggest problems. But you knew that already. You have developed an enhanced sense of both opportunity and responsibility. You are choosing careers and lives that reflect an outlook and an urgency derived in no small part from what has happened in the world since you arrived in Cambridge less than four years ago.
And the fourth lesson: Living in a world without a script demands and rewards creativity. You need to be the authors, the entrepreneurs, of your own lives. Columnist David Brooks wrote recently of a process he called “leading with two minds”—the balanced influence of people who can be, as he put it, “practitioners one month and then academic observers of themselves the next.” “The ability to create knowledge and put it to use is the adaptive characteristic of humans,” Professor Louis Menand has observed. “It is…how we change—how we keep our feet on the ground and our heads in the clouds.”
If any class knows how to do this, it is yours. It is what the world’s crises, and your liberal arts education, have trained you to do. Keep asking the big, irrelevant questions; keep thinking beyond the present. Then live what you have learned.
In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy ’48 addressed a gathering of South African students struggling to end apartheid. “Like it or not,” he told them, “we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.” This message is just as forceful and meaningful here today as it was in South Africa nearly a half-century ago, although now he would say women and men. That particular script, that time of uncertainty, had an inspiring ending; apartheid was destroyed. Now you have your own uncertainties and dangers and your own scripts to write. The world has never needed you more. And we send you into that world with full confidence in your commitment and in your ability to create scripts from the unexpected for which you are so well prepared.
Drew G. Faust is the president of Harvard University. This opinion-editorial is adapted from the Baccalaureate Address she delivered on May 25, 2010.