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Reflections After 50 Years at Harvard

By Alan M. Dershowitz

This is my 50th Commencement and my last as an active professor, since I’m becoming emeritus at the end of this academic year. I’ve taught nearly 10,000 students and learned much from them. This is a very different and much better place than it was 50 years ago. The diversity of the student body—virtually everybody was a white male back in 1964—has added much to my education. I learn more from my students than I did back in the day.

People often long for the good old days, but for the most part, the present is better than the past and the future will be better than the present. That is largely your responsibility as graduates, and from what I know of you, I expect much.

Now the inevitable few words of advice from an old fogey: My first suggestion is somewhat counterintuitive. Don’t necessarily do what you are best at. Some of the least happy people I know are those who figure out what they are best at and then tailor the job to their particular expertise. The problem is that what you’re best at is not necessarily what gives you the most gratification or what is most important. Our educational system steers students toward courses and areas in which they excel. Grades are, after all, quite important to getting into college and law school.

It’s alright to take courses in which you will excel. But courses only last only a few months. Life is forever. So pick a career, or an area within your career, that balances excellence and gratification. It should challenge you every day and have you waking up eager to confront the day’s challenges. Obviously, you don’t want to pick something you’re not ever good at, no matter how much you might enjoy it. If I had decided on a career I enjoyed but was not very good at, I would be playing point guard for the Boston Celtics. Instead, I picked a career I love and one that I’m pretty good at.

Second, don’t live for the weekends. You never want to be in a career where you’re always saying, “Thank God it’s Friday.” You want a career where you can’t wait until Monday.

We’ve all heard the cliché, “Nobody on their death bed ever regretted not having spent more time at the office.” Sure! If you achieved a high degree of professional and financial success during your lifetime. But the reality is that there are many people who should regret not having spent more time at work. These are the people who failed to achieve their potential because of laziness or misplaced priorities. We rarely hear their deathbed regrets: “Damn, I should have spent more time working and less time with my ungrateful kids and the wife who left me for a more successful guy.”

So strike a proper balance among work, play, and family. Better yet, try to integrate the various aspects of your life so that there is no sharp separation.

Most important, live the passion of your times. Passion should not be reserved for the bedroom. It must extend to your life’s work. You will spend far more time and energy working than making love—or playing sports or eating or listening to the opera. Yet the common advice for Harvard graduates is to be dispassionate, removed, objective, detached—in a word, professional. There is no inconsistency between passion and professionalism, so long as each is employed appropriately.

Passion is the motivator. Professionalism is the means by which the task is carried out. Even if the means requires objectivity and detachment, passion can stimulate the best use of these tools.

Don’t let the passion of your times pass you by. I have a psychological malady called FOMS—fear of missing something! It’s contagious. Catch it. Don’t regret missing things. I certainly haven’t.

Most important, enjoy life. It goes by so quickly. Make the most of it. Do great things and do them greatly, unapologetically, with passion, enjoyment and a love of life.

Let me end with a thank you—a thank you to 50 years of students who have taught me that education doesn’t end with graduation, and that it continues throughout one’s lifetime. I have learned so much from my students and for that I will be forever grateful.

Alan M. Dershowitz is the Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

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