I’ve been looking forward to saying what I’m about to say for a very, very long time: Good afternoon, Class of 2025. It’s a pleasure to see all of you gathered here together in one place—and an honor to add my voice to the literal chorus welcoming you officially as members of Harvard and of the larger Harvard community.
I suspect you’ll actually be surprised by how often we run into each other. My friends in Massachusetts Hall: Where are you? We’ve already bumped into each other a bunch of times now. I live on the first floor; you live upstairs. But when I do meet the rest of you?
I hope you’ll all feel free to call me Larry—everybody does. You’ll also have the opportunity to meet my wife, Adele— and I hope you’ll say hello to her too. And we both look forward to getting to know you and to hear about your College experience.
I know that all of you have worked extremely hard to get here for a very long time. And, yes, things right now could be a lot better, but we must continue to acknowledge and celebrate all that’s good about being here, all that’s good about being together, all that’s good about being healthy, and, yes, even all that’s good about being alive. I would urge you to give yourself a break and really savor this moment— because I guarantee you that when you come back here to celebrate your fiftieth college reunion—fifty-four years from now—you will remember this. Trust me, you will.
Now, life used to be full of diversions, but the pandemic has forced us all to spend more time thinking about ourselves—more time thinking about how we behave, what we want, and who we are. Entering Harvard College will amplify those questions, as you’ve already heard from some of my peers and colleagues, but I thought I would share some of my own thoughts on how you might find or seek meaning and happiness in the weeks and months and years to come.
Now, there are lots and lots of books on this topic. I mean oodles of books about how to find meaning and happiness—and I think at least a billion TikToks—but the best advice that I’ve actually ever heard or read on this subject, actually comes from an ancient source—the Talmud, a sacred text in the Jewish tradition. In the volume, Ethics of Our Fathers, Ben Zoma, a scholar, asks three wonderful questions for the ages:
Who is wise?
Who is mighty?
Who is wealthy?
So, who is wise? The Talmud answers, “The person who learns from all people.” A seat away from you—a row away from you—is someone who sees things very differently than you do, someone who holds fast to beliefs that are at odds with your own. When you meet that someone—and I guarantee you will—your first impulse may be to make your point, loudly, clearly, articulately. After all, that’s what Harvard students tend to do. Try to resist that urge. Listen, as Rakesh has already told you. Ask questions. Prompt conversation rather than conflict. If you leave this place with your backs to those who do not share your views, you will have failed to take advantage of one of Harvard’s greatest strengths—the diversity and dynamism of our community. Never, ever forget: We learn from our differences. Seek out people who are different from you and learn from them.
Who is mighty? The Talmud answers, “The person who exercises self-control.” Now, vaccination does not equal invincibility. The people who you interact with daily may be returning home to family members who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated or who are at special risk of complications should they get the virus. Some of your classmates may be immunosuppressed or suffer from conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to this virus. Please be mindful of them as you navigate your new home. Being part of this community—this year in particular—means bearing special responsibility for the health and safety of others. Please, please care for one another, and please, please care for yourself.
So, who is wealthy? The Talmud’s got a great answer for this one as well. “The person who rejoices in his or her portion.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with ambition, but ambition for ambition’s sake can be corrosive. Over the next four years, I hope you will devote luxurious amounts of your time to understanding what truly satisfies you. Not your friends. Not your family. Not your community. Not others who have expectations for you. What satisfies you. To rejoice in your portion, you must first find your portion—the endeavor that swells your heart and fills you with a deep sense of satisfaction and wonder. Believe me when I tell you that devoting yourself to something that matters to you, something that’s bigger than yourself, will give your life meaning. And, if you are like generations of those who have come before you, many of you will find that special something during your time here.
This past weekend I had the privilege of giving the toast at the wedding of the daughter of one of my very closest friends from college. David and I met fifty years ago—about 150 steps from here—in a class in Emerson Hall. I served as the best man at his wedding. My wish for each and every one of you is that during the next four years you meet the classmates who you are going to be gathering with fifty years from now. These people, your lifelong friends, are seated right among you as I speak. It’s your job to go find them. Trust me—they are here.
I have a special favor to ask you before I close. We have lots and lots of people here to help you through this transition from high school to college. You each have an academic advisor; you have peer advisors; you have resident deans; you have tutors; you have proctors. This place is full of people whose job it is to help you make sure that this transition from the life you just left behind to life as a Harvard student goes smoothly. But your loved ones, your families, are actually on their own. So, the favor I have to ask of each of you is to check in with them periodically and ask them how they are doing. Help them with this transition. I guarantee you they will appreciate it.
I’m thrilled now to welcome all of you to Harvard and excited to see how each of you is going to grow in wisdom, might, and wealth as the Talmud defines them—and how you choose to seek meaning and happiness both here at Harvard and wherever life takes you. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy yourselves; I hope you will grow as individuals, as people; I hope you’ll have some fun. I’m sure you’re going to make some friends, and please, please stay healthy.
Class of 2025, good luck and godspeed.