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Mind Your Change

Dear member of the Class of 2013,

Congratulations! You now know what it feels like to stand at the end of an era. For four years, you’ve lived, studied, partied, dined, toiled, laughed, argued, rehearsed, trained—and lots more I won’t venture to list—with hundreds of smart, dynamic peers, in a setting dedicated to helping you thrive. Remember that incessant question of freshman week, “Where are you from?” Now all anybody wants to know is “What are your plans for next year?” Everything is going to change.

It’s a cliché that the only thing constant in life is change. That’s what makes it a compelling election slogan: You can’t beat change when you’ve automatically joined it, just by being alive. But “change” is not a value any more than breathing is a value. Change is a force, and it’s going to push you, inspire you, frustrate you, and strengthen you for the rest of your life. So how will you deal with it?

As a historian, I think a lot about change. I think about how different your experience at Harvard has been from mine. My generation, Generation X, pored over the hardcover Facebook in our dorm rooms. We made plans by calling up our friends on phones plugged into the wall. There were no iPhones, iPads, iPods; no Google, no YouTube, no Wikipedia, no Skype, no Twitter, no blogs. No Annenberg, no Gen Ed, no Wintersession, no Housing Day; and what you call “gems,” we called “guts.” That was Harvard in the last millennium.

You’re part of Generation I. You’re wired—that is, wireless—you post, text, IM, you have the world at your touchscreen, you experience it in gigabytes and nanoseconds. You share more, more often, with more people, than any generation before. The world’s gone digital, and Harvard has primed you to lead it: to innovate, create, develop, and do it fast, lest somebody in China get there first.

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It’s tempting to see change as innovation versus tradition, evolution versus extinction, progress versus stagnation, or future versus past. But as a historian I also think a lot about continuity. The fact is, we’ve been here before. Every generation sees itself at the vanguard, ready to innovate and reshape the world. Yesterday’s future is tomorrow’s past. When the only thing constant is change, it’s everything else—innovation, evolution, progress—that becomes relative.

Throughout history, people have tried to change the world without knowing what will come next. When American patriots fired shots at the British redcoats on Lexington Green on April 19, 1775, they started the American Revolution. They didn’t know that the Thirteen Colonies would declare independence in 1776; still less that they would achieve it. On April 19, 1861, a Massachusetts man became the first fatality of the Civil War, in what some dubbed “the Lexington of 1861.” On April 19, 1995, anti-government militia sympathizer Timothy McVeigh blew up the U.S. Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Every year, Massachusetts marks the closest Monday to April 19 as Patriots’ Day, the date of the Boston Marathon. You, above all, will not easily forget what happened on April 15 and 19, 2013.

Some of these are coincidences, some of them deliberate consequences. The point is that none of them was on the minds of the minutemen of 1775: Their cause had a wide range of effects. What goes for history also goes for you. When you leave Harvard you’ll have to find new friends, jobs, places to live and eat and exercise and get your hair cut—and you have no idea who those people will be, where you’ll end up, whether you’ll succeed, whether you’ll be happy, or whether what you want today is what you’ll want tomorrow.

Fortunately, history gives us some tools to work with change. First, it breaks down change into manageable chunks: the units of cause and effect. When it comes to your own life, this means you can make short-term decisions in pursuit of long-term goals. You can build on what you’ve achieved, acquire skills, learn lessons from your mistakes. You can endure pain for gain. Remember that every moment is full of potential, even if you don’t yet know for what.

Second, history opens our eyes to the unexpected and the unintended. Things will happen that you cannot even conceive of—wonderful things and terrible things, scary, ambiguous, disappointing, rewarding things. Let contingency be your friend. Accepting this will free you from feeling frustrated when change doesn’t deliver a predictable outcome, when the steps you take forward somehow end up setting you back. It can help you accept things that happen for seemingly no cause—loss, sickness, death—and focus instead on processing the effects, to seek the good in the achingly bad.

This week you mark the end of an era—for you. College is probably the last time in your life that your experience will be so clearly bookended, from the outset, with established beginnings and ends. From now on, you get to define your own epochs. That’s why graduation is called Commencement, because this ending is also a beginning. So by all means, go out there and make change. Even better, remember that change is what you make of it.

Maya R. Jasanoff ’96 is Professor of History at Harvard.

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