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Convocation Address to the Class of 2016

Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Mass.

Welcome, Class of 2016. Here we are at last. And you look so calm and composed.

I imagine there has also been a moment in the past few hectic days, maybe while you were introducing yourself to your entryway or gazing up at those enormous arching trusses in Annenberg, when you felt a few seconds of vertigo, or the updraft of inexplicable luck. A moment when you realized that your arrival here is no longer about where you have been, or even about where you are now, but about where you are going – that “what next?” feeling in a new territory of uncertainty and even doubt.

So I want to tell you, first off, that you can stop worrying. We already know that when it comes to succeeding, you are experts. But your four years here are going to give you a whole new sense of what success means, and that is what I want to talk to you about for the next few minutes.

At the opening convocation for my college class at Bryn Mawr a thousand years ago, our president, Katharine McBride, told us that the path to learning is humility. I still remember it, which is saying something. It sounds a little joyless, now, slightly chastening, but what she meant was that our prowess at this or that, our ability to do what was expected of us was not the point. Learning was about becoming a different, more vulnerable self — a self open to the vast universe of the untried and the unknown — and it would free us.

And in these past few days, I have also been thinking about something else she said. In her remarks to us, she kept referring to what she called “your work.” Now before arriving at Bryn Mawr I had thought of school in terms of courses and papers and exams. But her reverential invocation of my “work” made me pause and consider the intellectual challenges before me in a new way. “Your work” – those two words together – work – meaning both the effort you put in and the outcome – the journey and the destination equally important. And your – defining of you – encompassing your creativity and your creation – the core of the adventure of the mind on which you are embarking, an adventure that will shape the rest of your life.

So last week I thought again of President McBride as I considered my opportunity to speak to you as you begin your work here at Harvard. I thought of how both the commitment to that work and the values you bring to it and take from it will constitute the people you will be when you leave here in 2016. The message that Dean Jay Harris sent to each of you and to every undergraduate contained a line that captures the foundation of what “your work” must mean, here and always. It has a line that I especially want to underscore, “Without integrity, there can be no genuine achievement.” That is what each of us owes to Harvard, but, far more importantly, it is what each of us owes to ourselves.

So what is this place where you have landed? The college you are entering is at the center of a large research university — larger than Yale, Princeton, and Amherst combined — dedicated to the pure pursuit of knowledge and, at the same time, devoted to the betterment of humanity. Its goal is to press against the outer boundaries of what anyone thought was possible — and to let you in on that challenge, by taking a chance on an idea or an ideal; by surprising yourselves, and each other; by discovering that a key part of any success is the part of you that is willing to fail.

This is one of the most important messages I can convey to you as you begin your time here. For it bears not just on how you will define success during the next four years, but on what it means to be a successful human being. Harvard probably felt like a very safe choice when you were deciding where to spend your undergraduate years, a kind of “personal success insurance policy,” as one student put it. But I want you to know that Harvard is safe for a very different reason. It is safe because for the next four years we are here to help you become comfortable with being uncomfortable. One of the reasons why you are here is because we recognized your capacity for leaving your comfort zones.

Combine things. Experiment. Whether you find yourself writing for the Crimson or filming a documentary in South Korea or developing methods to purify the world’s water as Peggy Mativo described. In short, be willing to experience the thrill of being out of your element. If you have never lived near a river, try rowing on the Charles. If you have never spent a day among trees, try hiking in Harvard Forest.

And whenever you feel self-conscious and uneasy, remember, initial ignorance can be your greatest asset.

It won’t always be easy. As one recent graduate put it, “I had to forget what I thought I knew and negotiate between following my intuition and seeking help [when] needed.” Humility, in other words, exploration without ego, is the ticket to discovering.

You may have sensed that some of us are expecting you to save the world, preferably by the time you graduate. Just remember this piece of sage advice: Sometimes the way you’ll find your way is by not taking others’ sage advice. If Einstein’s father had had his druthers, Albert would have become an engineer. Instead, he devoted himself to, in his words, “thinking for its own sake.”

I look forward to watching you as you set forth on this new adventure. I will see you on the playing field and in the concert hall. I will mark and marvel at your achievements. And in May of 2016, two days before your graduation, we will gather once again for the Baccalaureate Service. Clad in your academic robes, you will crowd Memorial Church, filling every pew, sitting even in the aisle. Once again, just us. And once again I will speak to you – reflecting on what those four years will have meant to you.

We will experience a lot together between now and then. And you will be different people – changed by what you have learned and what you have done. I can’t wait to watch those changes unfold, and make sure that we help you make the most of Harvard’s opportunities.

So, until you and I gather once again, go well, Harvard Class of 2016.