The Commencement Address That Harvard Will Never Let Me Give

 

Dear Super High-Achieving College Grad and parents now deep in educational debt, except for those who are rich enough to cough up the whole $200 grand no problem —

You may want to adjust your seat right now, because I’m about to be a major pain in the ass. Today, I’ve got some good news for you and some bad news.

Actually, I’m just kidding. It’s all pretty much bad news. And here’s the summary: You kids just spent what could have been the best 4 years of your life stressing out way too much, way too often over shit that simply did not matter, and acquiring knowledge that you’ve already forgotten or will never use again*.

After you leave Tercentenary Theatre today, everything that you did in college – every deadline you met, every bullshit paper you wrote, every exam you crammed for, every all-nighter you pulled, every comp you passed or flunked, and every extracurricular you ran – all of that gets summarized into two measly lines on your résumé. And nobody will ever care about any of that shit again.

What’s even worse is that these 4 years have laid down a pattern for the rest of your life, which you will now spend the next 20 years of your life trying to unravel. But only if you catch on to how bad it is now, instead of living in a fog for the next fourscore.

Right now, you’re like a greyhound – a sleek, fast, racing machine bred to chase around a track a mangy little fake rabbit that it will never catch. Except that you don’t know that a) you will never catch it and b) if you do catch it, boy are you going to be one disappointed dawg, dawg. Heck, you can’t even eat the damn thing.

For the past four years – and the four years prior, and the next fourteen years, if you have decided to go to some flavor of graduate school – you have been trained to do well on exams, as some kind of measure of your worth as a human being.

Except that there is no situation outside of school in real life where you are required to spew out gigantic chunks of information on demand, under time pressure, without access to corroborating references, on some esoteric topic that you will promptly forget about before never using it again. Especially when you already have an item of clothing that already does all of that faster and more accurately – namely, your damn iPhone. It’s almost like they’ve trained you to drive a horse carriage this whole time. And, oh, by the way – cars!

In the real world, you will never be asked to solve several difficult science problems in under 90 minutes without collaborators or full access to computing devices. It makes me tremendously sad to think that some of you could have become great scientists, but were discouraged because of some evaluative process that could never measure what you’re truly capable of doing. Hell, Einstein, Bohr, Schrodinger and Feynman wouldn’t have even gotten into Harvard today, let alone be let to major in physics.

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I happen to know a particular bright-eyed young thing who wanted to be a theoretical physicist when he got to Harvard. He wasn’t a certified math genius like some of his classmates, but he did come with perfect scores on his standardized tests, a raft of aced APs, and a bunch of college math classes under his belt. He had some chops, and quite possibly an imagination. Unfortunately, his first physics course was taught by Howard Georgi, current master of Leverett House, and it was and still is to this day the worst-taught course he has ever had in his life. What he didn’t know was that Georgi’s avowed goal was to weed out anyone who wasn’t good enough for physics by his criteria.

Well, that kid was me, and 20 years later, I’m still pissed at you, Georgi, you rat bastard. Your job is to nurture talent, not to discourage it. You’re a nice guy and all and a great House master, but I have no doubt that your intellectual haughtiness, short-sightedness, and utter incompetence as a teacher has cost the world of science dearly.

But – back to the topic at hand. You will never be asked to generate a bullshit paper about some aspect of 20th century Japanese political life which you are not only supremely unqualified to comment upon but also really don’t give a flying fuck about.

And you will never be asked to finish two of these papers and take three final exams all in the same week while you pull four all-nighters (unless you decide to go to medical school, in which case that’s a light week, for which I have a whole different rant).

There’s this thing they talk about in decision science called “normalization of deviance.” And I just want you to understand how far gone you have become if you are now slightly chuckling about all the stuff that I mentioned, thinking, “Yup, did that. It’s kinda normal.”

No, it’s not, you knucklehead. You are being stressed out at levels that are inappropriate even for a fighter pilot in an Iraqi dogfight, or a gazelle being chased down by a lion on the Serengeti. Because nothing that you did in college actually mattered. And certainly didn’t deserve life-or-death level stress responses.

All those classes, papers and exams were just a simulation – a game. That’s great, except that your professors and administrators didn’t tell you it was a game and constantly remind you of that. Hell, they aided and abetted and perpetuated the illusion of seriousness all along! And so you took it way too seriously, ‘cause I mean, shit, these grownups must know what’s up! So the game stopped being fun. And the stakes became artificially way the fuck too high. So you took it even more seriously.

As a result, some of you started to mope. Others got depressed, which made you lose sleep and eat poorly. Which made you lose energy and focus. Which made you do poorly in class. Which made you even more depressed. Which made you take a leave of absence.

Some of you bounced back, finished college and did just fine. But some of you did not. Every year, dozens of you either got totally derailed and dropped out. Or you just went off and killed yourself.

Those of you who are sitting here now listening to this speech probably know someone for whom this speech is coming too late. A moment of silence for them.

Is there anything more tragic than so much potential, so much caring, so much talent, so much potential for joy and contribution to the world snuffed out too young? All over what is essentially a very expensive, 4-year board game?

I mean, how weird would it be if you based your self-worth on your performance on a game of Monopoly or Pictionary? Ah, crap. You do that, huh? You just have to win at everything otherwise MY LIFE IS RUINED, ya big freak.

It’s okay. Takes one to know one. But let me tell you something: I am thrilled that you are here now to listen to this. You made it! You didn’t jump off any tower, splat yourself on a train, or OD on Pepto-Bismol, which I’ve heard is a pretty gruesome way to go. Because even though I said there was only bad news in this speech – well, I lied. There is some good news.

The good news is that even though you spent the last four years like an obedient, unhappy automaton that’s been programmed to think you’re happy when you’re in fact miserable, you don’t need to be like this for the rest of your life.

There’s gonna be some unlearnin’ to do, and it’s going to be hard. But it will be worth it.

So instead of harping today on all the things you should have done in college and making you feel like the failure that you already think you are, I’m just going to refer to them indirectly. Y’know, as if these are the future behaviors you’re going to engage in, instead of the shit you should have been doing all along and fuuuuck it’s too late now.

It’s okay; nobody told me either. But I’m telling you now, you clueless 22-year old fucks who think you know everything, so listen up.

First of all, pay attention to your relationships. I guarantee you this: when you’re a doddering 80yr old telling stories to your grandkids, not one of them will begin, “Let me tell you about this deadline I made.” Or, “Let me tell you about this exam I aced.” Or, “Let me tell you about how I crafted my successful grad school application.” Or any number of other bullshit accolades you bought into.

Your stories will be about what you did with your friends. They will be about the experiences; emotions; love gained, lost, and regained and shit how did I fuck that up again; sports you played together; trips you took together; Yale game misadventures; times when you were low (like, literally on the floor); and times when you were seriously, exceptionally high.

They will be about connection. And if a scientist has to tell you, here it is: connection is the single most important determinant of your long-term health and happiness in life. Nothing comes close. Don’t take it from me; take it from another Harvard grad, Dr George Vaillant, Director of the Harvard Grant Study, which has tracked men in JFK’s college cohort for over 75 years. Happiness is the amount of love you have in your life.

You’ve been trained for four years to chase down accolades, prestige, achievement, successsss. And I’m here to tell ya that prestige ain’t gonna feed your soul – or your body, for that matter. Accolades have no shoulder for you to cry on when the shit hits the fan. Achievements will not pick you up from the airport or cook you a meal when you’re down. The only real success is robust, loving relationships.

So you should prioritize your time and effort to spend it on your primary love relationship, friends and family. Not on “winning”, whatever the fuck that means, unless your highest aspiration is to be like Charlie Sheen. If you have shitty relationships that don’t last, can’t make new friends, get too drunk too often with people you don’t know too well, keep sleeping with toxic people, have no one in town whose fridge you can raid with impunity, have zero real confidants, and just aren’t adding that much to the lives of those around you, you’re a loser in spite of the BMW, CEO and ASS that you may have garnered.

Robust, loving, nurturing relationships is winning. Everything else is subordinate to that, even if you’ve got a bajillion shekels to your name.

Second, lemme ask you this. How many of you grew up thinking, “When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut? Scientist? Writer of the Great American Novel? A doctor? An explorer?”

That’s fucking great. Love that idealism. Now how many of you said, “When I grow up, I’m going to sue people?” Or, “I’m going to create weird, completely arcane financial instruments to bilk the public out of their money and put it in my pocket instead?” How many of you said, “I’m going to be a hired drone who jockeys spreadsheets so XYZ Amalgamated Conglomerated Inc can make another billion bucks?” What, nobody’s actually admitting to be a born sociopath?

SO WHY ARE HALF OF YOU BASTARDS GOING INTO LAW SCHOOL, INVESTMENT BANKING AND CONSULTING? HAVE YOU NO DECENCY?

Jesus F. Christ, man. I mean, all of the problems of this world come from taking the smartest, most talented people with the potential to solve the world’s problems and instead putting them in the employ of the problem creators.

So let me make it really clear: jobs like law, investment banking and even consulting are extractive professions. You’re not actually creating anything new or useful for the world. This is an insult to the talent that Nature bestowed upon you, not to mention a disservice to your parents, especially if they’re Asian and still want you to be a doctor and shit.

So if you’re getting a job with Goldman Sachs, or Exxon, or McKinsey, or Dewey Cheatham and Howe, you’re not necessarily an evil person — yet. But you are suffering from a poverty of imagination if you couldn’t come up with anything more useful you could do for the world. And you are stepping right into the machinery that creates Darth Vader — Evil Academy, Inc.

Please do not forget that it was only 2008 when a bunch of giant, federally-subsidized casinos wrecked the world economy with their capricious greed, and then had the US taxpayers foot the bill for their abject failure. Contrary to popular belief, things like collateralized debt obligations, securitized mortgages, high-frequency trading and insanely complex financial instruments are not created by the Tooth Fairy. They are created by fucking brilliant Harvard students like you who forget their ideals and values when entities like Goldman Sachs, Blackstone and DE Shaw and their free-booze-and-jumbo-shrimp recruiting events at the Charles Hotel.

Man, that was some huge shrimp.

I mean, whatever happened to changing the world for the better, man? Curing Alzheimer’s and AIDS? Don’t you remember how Anakin became Darth Vader? Like the world needs more Darth Vaders? Are you fucking kidding me? The dark side doesn’t need any more recruits; ISIS is already on the case, yo! Get with the good guys, for fuck’s sake. They need all the help they can get, ‘cause it takes a hundred good guys to fix the damage of one wrecking ball.

For the sake of Miley, don’t be the fucking wrecking ball. Build useful shit instead, and be of use to people.

Just because you got put on this conformist conveyor belt, it doesn’t mean you have to be another automaton. Invent something. Build a useful app. Write a blog post, a book, a poem that gives someone hope. Go into the healing professions – not just medicine, but therapy, complementary medicine, music therapy. Help the disenfranchised, not those who already have too much. Write that Great American Novel, like Chad Harbach did (Class of 1997).

Let me put it this way: when you were a kid, you wanted to be a hero, not a villain. That’s what astronauts, scientists, writers, architects, doctors and explorers are. So now that you’re the director, why the fuck are you casting yourself as the villain in your own movie? Makes no fucking sense.

Harvard let you in because you were a locomotive. At what point did you turn into a pathetic little cog?

There’s another reason you should side with the good guys: because in the long run, the good guys always win. Always always always. You’re gonna be dead a lot longer than you’re alive, so what’s your legacy going to be? Well, if people don’t remember you, it’s exactly zero. And I’ve gotta tell ya, you can’t name that many lawyers and I-bankers from the past 3000 years. But you do know Homer, Rumi, Kallikrates, Pasteur, Jonas Salk, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Neil Armstrong, John Steinbeck, Emile Zola, Omar Khayyam, Copernicus, Galileo, and hundreds of other names that will live on in glory for the duration of the human race.

How about this one: in the years 1989-1992, Harvard had two tremendous math prodigies amongst its undergrads who won – WON the Putnam Prize more than once. One of them was a dude named Eric. After graduation, he got a job with some quant i-banking firm, and proceeded to make bajillions. Chances are you will never hear about him again after this speech.

The other was Jordan Ellenberg. He’s a math prof over at Wisconsin now, and he also writes novels, articles and popular science books like How Not to Be Wrong, which is a great fucking book. And he’s only getting started.

Eric gets the bucks, and has already gone poof. Jordan gets the love of generations of students and the gift of leaving useful things for mankind so he’s never forgotten. Which do you pick? Choose wisely, now, Frodo.

And you know what else? The good guys who make useful things and are of use to people are the most financially affluent organisms in the history of the world. Think Google, Apple, Tesla. And read Give and Take, in which Adam Grant, Class of 2003, scientifically demonstrates that the real good guys finish first.

You can perhaps make millions by continuing to be a rules-bound, risk-averse drone. But to make legendary bucks, you must create legendarily useful things. Use that imagination of yours and build ‘em. If not you, then who?

But I haven’t even given you the main reason why Harvard would never invite me to give this commencement speech. It’s because I’m about to tell you a secret that no one has ever told you before.

And it is this: There are two kinds of work in the world. In one kind, you’re paid to make other people’s dreams come true. This is called a job, or salaried employment, or, more accurately, indentured servitude. Sometimes the compensation is high enough such that you forget, but that just makes you a high-class prostitute. Still a ho, though.

In another, you get paid to make your dreams come true. That’s called a calling, or making your vacation your vocation, as a wise yoga teacher once said.

The problem with the first kind of work is this: There is only one job in the world. And that is to blow the very, very rich. The 0.01%.

Since Harvard runs on the largesse of the 0.01%, many of whose scions are in attendance today – probably not admitted strictly on their academic promise – it would be unwise of Harvard to kill their golden goose by letting me speak here.

But now you know. And I mean, hey, it’s not all bad to be the fluffer for rich fucks while you’re building your own nest egg so then you can, y’know, follow your real passion on nights and weekends for the rest of your life. Lord knows we’ve all done it. I just don’t think it’s all that great as a lifelong position.

And you’ll be nursing a hell of a crick in the neck.

The alternative is to do meaningful work. And what gives work (and by extension, life) meaning is one really simple (but not necessarily easy) word: service.

All the science backs this, too. Unless you’re an out-and-out sociopath, the most rewarding thing that you can do with your time is to engage in acts of service. Fuck, I don’t even care if you do it selfishly just for the high – just do it! Better than working for Halliburton, for fuck’s sake.

Third thing that you’re going to do right from now on: sleep. If you’re bragging about how little you sleep and how many all-nighters you’ve pulled – hey, congrats on cheating the Grim Reaper, but I’ve gotta tell ya, he’s right behind you.

Nothing ruins your life worse than poor sleep: hormones get out of whack, learning and memory get trashed, cognitive function goes down the tubes, and you’re about as lucid as being drunk. So monitor that shit with some activity-monitoring gizmo and make sure you’re getting 7.5-8 hrs a night. Get a sleep study to see if you’ve got sleep apnea, especially if your girlfriend says you snore like an overfed bear. Bragging about your sleep deprivation should be made as shameful as bragging about how you drink to puke every night. So dumb.

Fourth, learn how to meditate and start doing it for the rest of your life, like, immediately. You Harvard kids have been given these outsize cerebrums with crazy processing power, but no owner’s manual. This is like giving a 14yr old a brand-new, 963-horsepower Ferrari LaFerrari without any driver’s ed. This cannot end well.

Once you’ve been trained to drive that LaFerrari, however, it’s the thrill ride of your life. Think of meditation as the super-advanced driver’s training for your magnificent mind, the most complex machine in the universe. Without the training, you will crash into walls. With it, there’s no limit to where you can go. Meditate already.

And finally, exercise. A lot. Mens sana in corpore sano, as some wise person said before the age of Google Translate. Exercise is the only thing scientifically proven to make you smarter. No kidding. Also lifts your mood, makes you healthier, and improves stamina in the stacks and in the sack. It’s almost a crime that places like Harvard don’t make it mandatory for their students to join a sports team.

Well, y’know, they kinda could. But another thing dirty little secret Harvard didn’t tell you about is that it hired professional athletes to take up all the spots in the cool sports you could have been learning, playing, and making lifelong friends in, going on road trips with, getting oodles of cool equipment with, all the while getting smarter, too. But it’s got some antiquated nonsense admissions criteria dating back to the early 20th century, enshrined in perpetuity by the gleefully racist bastard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell — who somehow still has a fucking House named after him — designed to keep WASPs in and smart Catholics, Jews and blacks out through the whole “well-rounded student” bullshit criterion, which gives not just preferential treatment to athletes but grants them a whole separate admissions process. For a full history of the sordid admissions policies that continue to this day (quotas, anyone?), I recommend the revelatory and sobering book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Inclusion at Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

Anyway, the recruited athletes are not hard to spot – they’re usually the ones who are taller, beefier, better-looking, and a little slower than the rest of the class. And I’m not talking about the 40-yard dash here.

Don’t believe me? For a fun little game, look at the graduation program you were given today. In it, there’s a list of all of the graduating students in order of their degree honors. $100 bet says not one of the summa cum laude graduates is a recruited athlete. The entire Biomass Brigade usually graduates without honors.

And remind me why the fuck we still have a football team? I thought Harvard students were supposed to use their heads to become scholars who contribute to the body of human knowledge and well-being, not to bash them into each other till they get hospitalized with concussions (see “The Game”, 2011 edition). It’s a university where people come to learn, not a gym where people play with balls. Though I do sincerely hope you got some of that in.

Oh, and to add to the burn: while you were sweating your admission letter on April 1st, the recruited athletes had already received their “likely letter” (which basically guarantees the athlete’s admission except for a hail of frogs, act of murder or other Biblical event) in the fall of their senior year. Like it’s not enough that they’re prettier than you, they got to sit pretty, too.

But I digress: exercise. You can screw everything else up, but if you exercise regularly, at least you get your mind and body to keep working right. It’s nothing short of miraculous. Running for 30min a day gave me my sanity back.

So, to all the degree candidates today: congrats on graduating. Sorry to let you know that many if not all of you seemed to have flunked life along the way. That’s because you replaced your lofty principles and dreams with a mangy grey rabbit called success, which you let someone else define for you as attaining money, status and power.

Fortunately, you do have the next 80 years to rectify that error. You can start by meditating, prioritizing friends and family over work, and having more fun. Make useful things and be useful to people. And get down with a life of service – perpetual, humble, grateful service.

Y’all better get crackin’, because there will be a final paper. It’s called your eulogy, and you can start writing it exactly the way you want it to be read starting today. Until then, I hope this speech will remain a pain in your ass. Thank you and I wish you authentic success.

*Exceptions: language, computer science, basic science, that happiness class, and that insanely awesome science of cooking class

9 thoughts on “The Commencement Address That Harvard Will Never Let Me Give

  1. Matthew Hutchinson

    The question is…now what? Where do you go and what do you do when you realize this?

    Even after this realization, ambitious kids with intellectual horsepower still want careers that are meaningful, intellectually stimulating, prestigious, etc. Previous to this realization that may have been the only goal. Or at leas the priority towering over everything else. But this realization doesn’t exchange one priority for another, it just adds another one on top of the other. Now, having a “great” career isn’t enough. They still want to become a doctor or tech entrepreneur but now in addition to that they want to have balance, a social life, a good marriage, etc.

    And unfortunately what I’m finding (maybe…hopefully…I’m wrong) is that nothing great and competitive and prestigious can be done on a 9 to 5 schedule. If you want to be a doctor, entrepreneur, investment banker, etc. prepare for 80 hour work weeks. Period. Prepare for sacrifices.

    So what do you do? Is there a way to have both? To find balance? Or do you have to accept that being ambitious in your career choice inherently means that you will sacrifice your family and social life?

  2. NY Motivator

    This is a powerful reality check that many people need to hear – the myth of college. I will be making this part of our HS English curriculum!! Thanks for sharing this, Ali!!

    • Thanks for the kind words, NY Motivator!

  3. kfreed

    Lovely and accurate.

  4. Top 25 Uni Student

    This is a wake-up call and reality check for myself and probably millions of students.

    I got chills reading this. I wasted so many precious years of my limited life in uni. Thinking of all the bullshit assignments I had to do. All the never-ending deadlines. The countless all-nighters. All the petty, possibly sociopathic profs. I know 1 smart fellow uni student who hung himself. I knew a brilliant high school acquaintance who news reports claimed “fell off from a balcony on campus”. The pressure is intense. It’s serious enough that many universities are big on promoting their Counseling Services. Us students who were worried about their outcome in life felt like we’re in a fucking war zone.

    Thanks for writing this.

    Please write more.

  5. revmatthews

    Ahem. I’m stealing this for my next Commencement Sermon.

    Wait…is it stealing when you notify the victim…er…um…the recipient of negative attention before the, uh…Act of Unregulated Commerce? And, is it stealing when you edit out all the F-bombs and make it palatable for Old Mother Magrew to swallow without pickling her sensibilities?

    Ah, what the heck. It’s easier to mumble your name a few times and avoid the litigation, kinda like a Preemptive Tort Strike.

  6. Bee

    Good! Because I have no designs on graduating from Harvard, and have been prioritizing meditation, people, fun, and service to others for most of my 20s. I’m now 29, in a BA completion program at a holistic college, and sometimes wonder if I walked the right path.

  7. Suzanne

    Oh, so excellent. However, all of this sound advice is equally useful to all young adults, regardless of whether they got a GED, high school diploma, went to a community college, state college, or any college that is not Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the other top-dollar Ivy’s.

    • You are correct, Suzanne! And that’s exactly who I wrote it for — all young adults.

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