On Doing Well

When I entered Harvard as a freshman, I noticed a change in the way my relatives and old friends greeted me. No longer did they ask “How are you?” Instead, they started asking, “How’s Harvard?” Worse was the question that usually followed: “Are you doing well there?” I never seemed to have an easy answer to these questions. Hearing them throughout my college years has forced me to consider what it really means to “do well” at this school.

Being accepted to Harvard was, for me, a validation of having “done well” in high school. Finally, I thought, I had something to my name that people in the “real world” could appreciate as an example of success. As a young adult searching for a sense of security, I cherished that feeling of accomplishment and did not want to let it go. And so I came to Harvard bent on “doing well” here too. I approached this college like any obstacle I had already faced—one that might be challenging but could eventually be conquered with a good understanding of what success required, along with some hard work and determination.

But unlike in high school where GPA, SATs, and leadership titles seemed to be the name of the game, the rules for “doing well” at Harvard weren’t scripted, leaving me to wonder: Was it based on your grades, the kind of impact you had in your activities, the number of Facebook friends you had, or maybe the amount of time you could spend playing XBox while still acing Expos? Whatever the measure was, I felt humbled by the group of talented, ambitious students around me. “Doing well” had for so long been equated to “being the best.” Suddenly, I was not.

My initial response to this distress may be a familiar one to my fellow Harvard students—I decided to work harder, to sleep less, and to spend much of my Crimson Cash on coffee and Red Bull. And while I did notice some improvement here and there, I knew this approach was unsustainable. Exhausted and bleary-eyed on Friday nights as I reflected on the school week that had just ended, I felt overwhelmed and intimidated by the work that lay ahead.

Faced with the reality of my limitations, I decided I had to throw out my old definition of “doing well” and find another one. I busied myself with “soul-searching” activities that now seem silly—like enrolling in a philosophy class and taking evening runs along the Charles. And I waited, as if meaning would drop from the sky and hit me. While I did discover the beauty of the Charles at sunset and learned a lot about Descartes’ existential crises, those pursuits did not yield much insight about myself.

It has taken me some time and required many discussions with those a little bit wiser, though not necessarily older, than myself, but I have eventually come to a realization. Namely, that meaning at Harvard and in life is not something neat and packaged that can be handed to us like the ubiquitous Handbook for Students. Meaning is something we must create by having the courage to decide for ourselves what is important and worthwhile.

At Harvard, I now realize that I developed the tools for creating that meaning. In my classes I learned how to analyze, question, and understand the world around me. In my dining hall I learned how to converse civilly with my friends and grow from the rich mix of perspectives and interests they offered, from my blockmate who was the musical director of an a capella group by day and a budding social theorist by night to my section-mate who taught me about her experience being arrested in a public protest against the Patriot Act. In the support I provided to friends who were struggling with problem sets or relationships, I learned what it means to be compassionate and generous.

And with those tools, Harvard also gave me little pearls of meaning from which I could forge something unique for myself. It gave me a faculty who offered the chance to study everything from computational theory to Enlightenment literature. It surrounded me with an impossibly diverse group of classmates who enlightened me with their many talents, attitudes, and viewpoints. And in those explorations with my teachers and my peers, I discovered the first hints of what I found meaningful. I realized that my definition of “doing well” could mean induction into Phi Beta Kappa, but that it could also mean learning a cultural dance whose name I could barely pronounce for Ghungroo, the South Asian dance show, or working with Undergraduate Council members to bring a student voice to the Curricular Review, or engaging in a Moral Reasoning section discussion on the justification for a living wage. And thus while it may have at first appeared impossible to “do well” at Harvard, it seems I have actually been given many opportunities in which to do so.

As I look out these gates, I do so with a new set of lessons and answers from my quest at Harvard in mind. Though I have attended a prestigious institution, I no longer feel that “doing well” necessarily means continuing on to something that also bears an impressive label. Or that traveling the world to do something untraditional is time wasted. If Harvard has taught me anything, it is that we all must choose our own path towards meaning. Even if I falter in the pursuit of meaning, I know I will always have the tools and friendships I developed here to support me and help me regain confidence in myself. It seems appropriate to think to the example of a past student, for whom “doing well” meant taking the ultimate risk and leaving Harvard. Harvard will welcome back that student, Bill Gates, this Commencement with an honorary degree.

After graduation, I expect my greetings will shift back to their usual nature—no longer concerned with “How’s Harvard?” but instead interested in “How are you?” As a class of college graduates, my classmates and I must now answer that question for ourselves, and in doing so I believe we should all draw upon the experience we had here to craft a definition of “doing well” that truly resonates with us.

Imran M. Saleh ’07, a Crimson information technology editor, is a computer science concentrator in Kirkland House.