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Op Eds

Find Your Grounding and Fail Upwards

By Courtesy of Burhan Azeem
By Burhan Azeem, Contributing Opinion Writer
Burhan Azeem is a member of the Cambridge City Council.

Congratulations, Class of 2022! You’ve survived, endured, and thrived through some of the most difficult years in recent memory. As you emerge from these tough times and start a new chapter in your lives, it’s important to sit at this moment and celebrate everything you have overcome and achieved to get here. This is your moment to cherish.

It also serves as a moment of reflection. The next phase of your life will likely be very different from what’s come before. I offer you three stories and lessons from my own life that will hopefully serve you wherever your path might lead.

1. Ground yourself in gratitude and service.

Born deep in Pakistani mango country, I was destined for a very different life until my mom won the lottery. The visa lottery, that is — a wild chance that landed my family and me in the United States. Growing up here was hard. We struggled with housing insecurity and survived only thanks to food stamps. Through that time, I became deeply committed to ensuring that my family escaped poverty and that others did not have to endure the same experience we did.

This self-imposed pressure was a heavy weight to carry, but by grounding myself, I found resilience through the tough times. I was, and still am, so thankful just to be here. I know I have pure luck to thank for the opportunities I have today and I am grateful for being welcomed with open arms into the Cambridge community.

As graduates of a prestigious university, you have so many opportunities, and thus so many difficult decisions to make. How do you balance career growth, financial success, and meaningful work? How do you live up to the prestige and measure your life’s success?

The anxiety of these decisions can be paralyzing. Don’t paralyze yourself. Ground yourself in gratitude and service.

2. You will fail often. Fail upwards.

I lost every single election I was ever in — from middle school student body representative to my first City Council race. I always tried my hardest, pushed the boundaries, and ultimately ended up as a strong second place. That is until I won my first election. Now, all everyone remembers is “Youngest Cambridge City Councilor Ever Elected.”

We only see the highlight reels of those we admire, but behind every successful individual is a string of failures, from bad auditions and rejected papers to bankrupt startups and lost elections. The mistake is thinking that failure is the end of the road or the wrong direction. Hardship is part of the journey. You will fail before you succeed. Embrace it. Learn from it. Use it as a stepping stone.

3. Happiness is not a checklist.

A good friend of mine recently took her own life. She was so young and had achieved every metric of success: she had professional accolades, financial stability, supportive parents, and a loving partner. She was the last person I was worried about. But sadly, happiness cannot be passively collected; it must be actively grown.

As smart, ambitious graduates with big dreams, you’ve put a lot of time and effort into honing your craft and creating the conditions for success in your career. Have you set yourself up for fulfillment and inner peace in the same way?

You have finished your time at Harvard, and for many of you, this will be your last time in a structured academic setting. Friends won’t come by automatically and there will always be important work that needs to get done. Don’t get lost in reaching your own internal goals.

The destination is important; find a way to also enjoy your journey.

The guardrails are off and life is now a marathon. These are the three lessons I leave you with: find your grounding, fail upwards, and enjoy the journey.

Burhan Azeem is a member of the Cambridge City Council.

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