2012 Baccalaureate Service: “The Updraft of Inexplicable Luck”

Memorial Church, Cambridge, Mass.

As prepared for delivery

Greetings, Class of 2012. It is a privilege to be with you this afternoon, together one last time for this strange medieval rite called the Baccalaureate, where I am expected to impart a few final words of wisdom … and you are expected to make them go viral. But not before you fill in your cards in “Baccalaureate Bingo.”

From the day you arrived on campus nearly four years ago, events conspired to make you an extraordinary group.

The first time we gathered was not in the sunlight of Tercentenary Theatre, but late at night in the Science Center during the power outage of a tropical storm. You were playing poker and Bananagrams, eating emergency pizza, getting to know one another under slightly different circumstances than you had anticipated. None of us knew then just how different our circumstances would become. Within a week, the world had entered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Within months, the election of Obama had many of you pouring out into the streets of Harvard Square. The next four years saw a concatenation of calamities – tsunamis, earthquakes, oil spills, revolutions, Ponzi schemes, threatened pandemics. And the weird weather became noticeable even in New England. We partied in the mud to mark Harvard’s 375th birthday. We dug through twice-normal snowfall during the winter that was, and then we crossed the Yard in shirtsleeves during the winter that wasn’t.

You saw Harvard change, too, in a remarkable confluence of “firsts” and “lasts.” You were the first class in years to be admitted without “early action”; the first class to benefit from our current financial aid policy and the last to phase out the Core curriculum. The first to study abroad on Rockefeller international experience grants, and the last to enter on the old academic calendar – and bear the scars of post-holiday exams. The first to have University “smart cards” and the last to receive email at “fas.harvard.edu” or get student handbooks and Q guides on paper. The last to begin your college career with opening exercises instead of a formal convocation. And the first ever to lead an Ivy League basketball team to a victory in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, as well as the first in more than 50 years to take the men’s basketball team to the NCAA. All of which goes to show just what you can accomplish if you are the last class to experience a hot breakfast. That includes one Marshall and four Rhodes Scholarships, and four straight victories at the Harvard-Yale game.

Who knew that the world you enter now would be such a different place than it was four years ago? I did predict, however, that you would become very different people from the anxious freshmen playing cards that first night in the blackout. And you have.

You’ve tried new things – one of you told me that taking up rowing actually did change your life. You learned Swahili, Urdu, and Sanskrit. You explored ways to teach children in India about preventive health care. And you worked alongside Chilean students after the 2010 earthquake. You became more collaborative and entrepreneurial. You invented the “Harvard Thinks Big” talks, created public policy fact sheets around the Occupy movement, started a Web platform for community engagement. And drew Cambridge students into math and science by establishing a chapter of the Science Club for Girls.

You turned the Quincy Grille into a River House diner, founded the College’s first French theater company, performed the Ode to Joy hundreds strong in the pouring rain, and gave me an impromptu serenade right here in the aisles of Memorial Church. You went to an island in Scotland to research the origins of life. You got lost and found on a rain-forest volcano.

Extraordinary, indeed. Yet, in what sense is it true, or helpful, to think of yourselves as extraordinary as you pass into your future lives at Commencement on Thursday? The former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Jeremy Knowles, told an entering class a few years ahead of yours that the main, if not the only, purpose of education is to know when people are talking “rot.” It is still the best summation I know for the skepticism, the critical eye a liberal arts education is supposed to impart. What is “veritas” but developing acutely sensitive antennae for falsehoods and fallacies?

Believing we are extraordinary is partly rot — hard to detect, because it is partly true. You are remarkable. As I assured you nearly four years ago: None of you was an admissions mistake, and you have proved it by the hard work that has brought you here today. So on one level you have absolutely earned your seat here this afternoon and we will be celebrating your accomplishments with enthusiasm and fanfare these next few days. But before the wild Commencement rumpus begins, I want to pause for just a moment to talk about another dimension of this extraordinariness – another and parallel truth: which is that you – and I – are also supremely lucky.

There are roughly 120 million 21-year-olds in the world. There are some 1,551 of you who will get degrees today. There is one of me who arrived here against similar odds. That is how we know the deck was stacked. No matter how hard we have worked or how many obstacles we have overcome, we are all here in some measure through no cause of our own. It started for most of us by being born into what one scientist calls the “legacy world,” the small fraction of the Earth’s population that receives the benefits of fossil fuels. After we passed through that lucky portal there were others. Our parents, our schools, our friends, our health, financial aid, a Maurice Sendak book. Predecessors who fought for access to education. Someone who plucked us up out of nowhere and guided us, or a random event that turned our heads, or moved our hearts. Now here we are, filling this church, inhabiting the ancient vestments of higher learning and all they represent, partly by pure chance, by the imperceptible updraft of inexplicable luck.

The truth is, we are not hardwired to recognize this. We tend to assign a meaning, a logic, even to things that are random or fortuitous. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics by explaining this phenomenon – why sometimes it is very hard to tell when we are making up a story. We tend to believe these stories. To some degree, the very admirable idea of a meritocracy is such a story: the belief that those at elite institutions and at the top of a free society are there simply because of their own intelligence, work and ambition. Harvard did much to enshrine this ideal in American higher education in the 1930s with its introduction of a test-based scholarship program and broadened recruitment of talented students. It transformed the University; it has transformed the lives of thousands of students whose abilities opened Harvard’s gates of opportunity. It made this glorious class possible.

But the problem is that over time, opportunity can come to seem like an entitlement, ours because we deserve it. We cease to recognize the role of serendipity, and we risk forgetting the sense of obligation that derives from understanding that things might have been otherwise. If, as every Harvard undergraduate knows, love is about never having to say you’re sorry, then luck is about never taking anything for granted.

Four years and a different world ago, when such a large proportion of graduating seniors was headed to Wall Street, there appeared to be little need for luck. A Harvard graduate, it seemed, was entitled to his or her place in the financial firmament. But financial crisis changed that. As one member of the class of 2009 remarked, the change was actually “liberating, and lucky,” because he was able to abandon what he thought he ought to do for what he really wanted to do. It was, as another said, “a good excuse to do what I’m really passionate about.” It was permission for many to re-imagine their lives – in public service, in the arts, in research, in taking a risk with a Big Idea.

For years I have been telling students: Do what you love; do what matters to you. It might be finance, but maybe it’s something else. Don’t settle for Plan B, the safe plan, until you have tried Plan A, even if it may require a miracle. I call it the Parking Space Theory of Life. Don’t park 10 blocks away from your destination because you think you won’t find a closer space. Go to where you want to be. You can always circle back to where you have to be.

Perhaps because I am standing here in an imitation of a Puritan minister’s robe, I find myself thinking of what Harvard’s founders would have called “God’s free grace.” Good fortune is not something we have a right to, but something given to us that we have no claim on. We do not earn grace by being better than others, or even by being good. It is bestowed, on any one of us at any moment. As one leading Massachusetts Puritan, John Cotton, put it, we are “be-sprinkl[ed] with the blessings of grace.” In 1636, my presence at this podium may not have counted as one of those sprinklings of grace, and I am grateful for the meritocracy. We need both.

Accepting luck can be liberating. Paradoxically, the less we acknowledge luck, the more we feel the terror of pressure to do something big, to be extraordinary in what one student recently called the “coliseum of achievement.” Walter Kirn, in his book Lost in the Meritocracy, calls it “fleeing upward,” in a society where, as he puts it, “percentile is destiny,” where belief in our own excellence shuts us down and shuts us off. According to recent evidence, however, believing in luck makes you luckier. Apparently it cultivates the qualities that entrepreneurs and CEOs attach to luck – qualities that I would in fact regard as foundations for a meaningful life – “humility, intellectual curiosity, optimism, vulnerability, authenticity, generosity, and openness.”

So as you enter the company of educated men and women, and take your Harvard degree into the world, recognize your own good fortune. It is a relief. Once you do, being extraordinary is no longer the point. The point is to be a worthy person in the world. And when you acknowledge luck, you recognize your connection to those who did not have the same opportunities. One of you told me that you want to touch people, as you put it, “just like me but who didn’t have the same chances.” Merit is hierarchical. The spark of learning, the thing that catches us on fire, is more like a gift, more like luck, more like grace.

You already know this, because there is luck in learning. Think of serendipity in science. One of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century happened by accident – when two Bell Lab astronomers tried to get rid of the constant static in their space-mapping antenna. It turned out to be cosmic background radiation, a landmark piece of evidence that a Princeton physicist had just predicted would support the Big Bang theory of the universe. Alexander Fleming, the biologist who discovered penicillin by accident, called this “sometimes find[ing] what you are not looking for.”

Luck is not earned, and yet we can also seem to earn it by being ready for it. The liberal arts teach us to change and adapt, to be open to happenstance – they guide us to recognize and seize chance events. It is hard to say where luck begins and preparation ends.

If any class knows how to find the right mix of luck and talent and preparation, it is yours. It will not be easy. Talent itself is a gift. But you have all the makings. Sandy Koufax, the great Dodgers pitcher, was once asked what it took to pitch four no-hitters. “You’ve got to be lucky,” he said, “but … it’s easier to be lucky … if you have good stuff.”

So go, extraordinary and lucky Class of 2012. This is your time. Be mindful of your good fortune. Embrace the responsibilities that come with it. Find something you are not looking for. Use your good stuff and come back to tell us about it. Write. Email. And don’t forget to call me, maybe.