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Baccalaureate Address

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Good afternoon to the Class of 2003. And welcome to a ceremony that you have probably been imagining ever since that auspicious day four years ago when you threw away your Princeton and Yale acceptance letters.

It’s an honor to be with you and your families today, and to renew a hallowed ritual. For more than 300 years, Harvard students have attended the Baccalaureate service, asking themselves the same questions that you must ponder today: “What will I do with the rest of my life? How will I survive without General Wong’s chicken? How will I use my education to make a difference in the world? Does this cap and gown make me look fat?”

It is difficult to know just what to say to a group of people as impressive and self-assured as the women and men of the Class of 2003. But as the Baccalaureate is renewed, tradition requires presidential admonitions, and there are important things to be said on this important occasion, like … how proud we all should be at a moment like this. How moved I am when I reflect on the commingling of past, present, and future that this service represents. But especially this annual verity – that absolutely no diplomas will be conferred unless you return your library books, pay your phone bills, and give back all those stolen dining hall dishes.

This year, I also want to reassure you, even at this late date, that your university does listen when you speak. We have heard loud and clear how you love to shop, and so I have authorized the registrar to extend shopping period for the Class of 2003 – until 10 a.m. on Commencement morning. So if there are any courses that you still feel a little iffy about, it is not too late to drop them. And your legacy is secure. We have decided to extend Harvard’s motto from “Veritas” to “Veritas per emptores semper – Truth through shopping forever,” so Harvard students can truly say, “Vini, Vidi, Visa – We came, we saw, we shopped!”

On Thursday morning, in a rite of passage whose roots reach back to medieval times, the sheriff will thump his staff, I will utter a few words, confer your degrees, and welcome you to the company of learned women and men. You, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Cotton Mather, W.E.B. Du Bois, Theodore Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein, William James, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy are all on equal terms now, entitled to the same library privileges and the Harvard Club discounts, although you – as a living person – can actually use them. And you can expect, as a source of stability in your ever-changing lives, to receive, for the next 75 years, regular mailings from the Harvard Alumni Association, each with its own return envelope enclosed.

In thinking about what I was going to talk with you about today, I considered talking about the war in Iraq, or what has been going on at Harvard for the past four years, or the revolution in the life sciences. Then I read this year’s 25th reunion class book. My brother is a member of that class. I know many members from that time from when I was a tutor in Lowell House and an Ec. 10 teaching fellow.

As I read it, I realized at one level how fortunate Harvard graduates are, and at another level how their very good fortune creates dilemmas of their own. It’s some of these dilemmas that I want to reflect on today.

You have the rest of your life ahead of you. By any standard of history or comparison to other Americans or comparison to the whole of humanity, you have it good. Economists like me are trained to think about scarcity. And there is much that will not be scarce for the vast majority of you. Most of you will not know a day of suffering for lack of food, clothing, or shelter. You may not earn all the money you would like, but you will not be the subject when scholars come here to debate poverty. Just looking at you today as you came in, it was obvious that as a group you will not suffer for a lack of friendships and human connections. And whatever distress current economic conditions may cause, you as a group will find interesting and challenging work.

What will be scarce in your lives in the future, as it often was at Harvard, is time. Time will be crunched because there is more of everything else, and no more time. There are more books than there ever were – but no more time to read them. More of the world is accessible to travel than ever before, but there is no more time for travel. New tools of communication – the cell phone and email – make it possible to be in touch with more people than ever before, but there is no more time for friendships. Indeed, in important respects time is in shorter supply now than it once was. The mirror image of the observation that today people can earn much more than they once could is that it is that much more expensive to take time away from working to do other things.

The most important choices you make will be about how you spend your time. And you will not have much spare time for deliberation.

To be sure, Harvard has taught you about time already.

You still haven’t caught up on the sleep you missed in completing your senior thesis, your heart still hasn’t quite stopped racing from the pressures you felt to meet your graduate school application deadlines or to get your job nailed down. Today, your pulse is still fluttering because you still haven’t begun packing up your room. And though your parents have been nagging you for weeks, you still haven’t yet made tomorrow’s dinner reservation in a place where your family can also find parking.

This has been your usual condition. Living in Harvard time you were usually just plain rushed. As one of you unforgettably said to me this year, there was no alternative but to sleep fast. Sometimes this filled you with exhilaration and left you feeling masterful – running on all circuits, cooking with gas. But often you had to confess that you were a tad behind in some things and officially late in others, and generally speaking: crunched, harried, and overscheduled.

Through the years, you figured out, during shopping period, to sample two, or even three courses simultaneously, by learning how to slip out of Science Center B just when the professor turned to the board. And then to slip into the Carpenter Center crowd just when that course you really wanted to take – photography – got its tour of the darkroom. And then to take your place in Sanders Theatre to hear the closing words of that first “Justice” lecture.

Over the years, you learned to manage your time in a way that made sense for you, how to prioritize some responsibilities without shirking others. In truth, there were semesters when you couldn’t possibly finish everything you had to do. So you learned how to put first things first. You figured out which reading lists you could independently shorten and which would be part of you forever.

You began to show a grace under the time pressures that made those of us who have watched you notice and admire. While carrying full academic loads, over three quarters of you have participated in athletics, and a quarter have played a varsity sport. You have led Harvard to eight Ivy League championships and only its third NCAA championship in a century. Seventy percent of you participated in various kinds of public service work. A quarter of you have been involved in political organizations and 35 percent worked on publications. A quarter of you participated in cultural organizations, and half of you participated in various forms of artistic performance and expression. This adds up to nearly 300 percent, which says something very impressive about your class’s use of its time here.

Living in this time zone, Harvard time, you stretched yourselves, tested yourselves, drove yourselves – but now here you are with much to celebrate. As you go forth from here without the structure Harvard provides, your life will in a real sense be defined by both the conscious and the unconscious choices you make about how you spend your time.

As someone chronically overscheduled, someone for whom being early is more novel than being late, someone who is still no stranger to the occasional all-nighter, and someone who believes that if you never miss a plane, you are spending too much time in airports, I’d have to confess that slow down and smell the roses has been less my style than wake up and drink the Diet Coke. Here, though, are some thoughts on the important choices you have ahead of you.

Focus on what’s most important to you. This is easy to say, but experience suggests is actually very difficult to do. Take, for example, an area that is not of transcendent importance but is easy to analyze and so is of interest to economists – the way consumers hunt bargains. Studies have shown that people will search about as hard to save 20 percent on a book as they will to save one percent on a car, even though getting a good deal on the car saves 40 times as much. Sometimes it’s important to search hard, sometimes it isn’t. Use your time where it is.

In many ways the mistakes people make as shoppers, devoting too much attention to spreading their attention around everything, is a mistake people make in their professional lives as well. There is more to accomplish than there is time to accomplish it. The most successful people are those who do not allow the urgent to crowd out the truly important. In thinking about the many questions that come across my desk, I have always found it helpful to ask, “Is this going to matter five days from now, five weeks from now, five months from now, five years from now?” Set priorities accordingly.

One of my predecessors, Derek Bok, once pointed out that he had observed that people who set a limited number of priorities for a given year accomplished more than those whose ambitions were more ranging. Not, he emphasized, because they were wrong in their ambitions, but because they were able, by focusing, to give each important issue the time it deserved.

In the same way that you do over a week on vacation or a year on the job, try to think about how you use your whole lifetime. For instance, if it is important to you – and I believe it should be – to give back to society, to serve your community, that won’t just happen automatically through the right opportunity presenting itself just when you are ready. You have to plan and prepare for the kind of contribution that you want to make.

I have been struck, both during my time in government and now at Harvard, by the number of people who have come to me in their 40s or 50s having been very successful in their private sector lives, wanting to give something back and do something for society, but who have not yet laid a foundation that enables them to do that work and to live the life they want to lead. Over the course of your life, the time choices you make will define who you are.

So far I have spoken of time as I would anything else that was scarce – calling for it be used carefully in planned and thoughtful ways. And yet it is the central irony of time that while it is scarce and needs to be conserved, sometimes the most satisfying and productive moments are completely unanticipated, unscheduled, and unintended. Archimedes discovered the hydraulic principle in the bathtub, Kekule comprehended the atomic structure of benzene while dreaming, Velcro was invented on a hike, and the list goes on.

This is even more true in the personal sphere. You probably have your own memories of the evenings with friends that happened quite spontaneously, or the conversations in your entry. And you know from your own experiences with your family, and you will probably see even more when you start families, that stolen time is often better than “quality” time. I can tell you that the least meaningful conversations I have with my children happen when daddy decides that it’s time for a talk, and the most meaningful happen at the moments I least expect them. The best photographs are not posed but candid, and the best moments are not planned, just experienced. Plan for there to be times without a plan.

You can be counted on to give due attention to how much time you spend at work, and maybe even to plan time at the gym, and perhaps to decide when and where and with whom you take vacations. These choices you’ll dispatch with grace and efficiency. They are all under conscious management. But your unconscious decisions will be just as important. Increasingly, they will affect the patterns of your life. Occasionally, then, it will be useful for you to take notice of what your default settings are and whether they admit enough of what you think is valuable. More parts of your life can be changed than you might think, and they could have the greatest impact. Periodically, ask yourself questions like these – Are you in the right job? Are the people with whom you spend the most time important to you? How do you make the most of the free time you have? Are you making the time to care for yourself?

It may seem like an eternity now, but the single observation made most frequently by Harvard’s 25th reunion classes is how fast the 25 years went.

Be sure to have a good time this week. Then use your lifetime well. Remember that you are not on Harvard’s time, or on your parents’ time or even on your employer’s time. This is YOUR time. Good luck and Godspeed to the class of 2003. We will be watching you with confidence and high expectations.