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Harvard College Fund President’s Associates Dinner

Cambridge, Mass.

As prepared for delivery

It’s wonderful to be here with so many alumni, parents, friends—just one night separating us from the 129th playing of The Game. When Harvard Stadium was being built, a dozen men were assigned to test the stands as they were being constructed. And what they did was move from concrete slab to concrete slab, jumping up and down in order to simulate, and I quote the stadium designers, “the boisterousness of…excited crowds.” We loyal Crimson are quite a force to be reckoned with. Though, happily, the stadium is still intact, boisterousness notwithstanding.

When we last met in Cambridge, which was the night before The Game in 2010, I spoke about why we love sports, about the human dramas that are enacted on the diamond or the court or the field or off the blocks, in the pool, around the track. And I found myself returning to that theme this summer as I watched the Olympics. Harvard alumni brought home four medals from London: two gold, one silver, and one bronze. And nine Harvard athletes—one current student and eight alumni—were among the thousands of women and men who competed in the Games of the XXX Olympiad, continuing a University legacy that stretches back to the first modern Games. I want to share three of our Olympians’ stories with you tonight, stories that you may not have encountered.

Six years ago, Temi Fagbenle, now a sophomore in the College, took up basketball after years of playing competitive tennis. Under the net instead of at it, she realized that her balance was poor and her shooting needed work, and she devoted herself to improving, a choice that meant leaving her parents and siblings in Great Britain to attend high school in the United States. Four months ago, she became the second woman in the Ivy League and the first from Harvard to compete in Olympic women’s basketball. The youngest player on Great Britain’s team, she went from the bench to the starting lineup in the weeks leading up to the competition. And, tonight, she and her Harvard teammates are opening their season against Brigham Young.

In 2006, while Temi was making a life-changing transition between sports, Samyr Laine, a record-breaking triple jumper, was graduating from the College. As an undergraduate, he had collected and watched recordings of the world’s best competitors in his event, taking, in the words of one of his coaches, “a kind of scholarly approach to the sport.” In spite of being sidelined by an injury his senior year, Samyr returned to the track during graduate and law school with ambitions of becoming an Olympian. And he was one of just five athletes who represented Haiti, his parents’ home country, in the Games. Samyr wanted, as he described it, “to maximize the good [he could] do as an athlete,” inspiring the people of Haiti and keeping the country and its struggles “in the spotlight.”

As Samyr was competing for his country, Alex Meyer, a member of the Class of 2010, competed for his friend, mentor, and teammate Fran Crippen. A member of the international open water swimming team, Fran succumbed to heat exhaustion and drowned during a World Cup race in 2010. Making the Olympic squad had been a goal that the two men had shared, and, in Alex’s words, “I just felt like the best way I could honor him was by achieving [that] goal.” Alex was the only athlete who represented the United States in the grueling 10K open water men’s swimming event, but he did not swim alone. He said after qualifying, “Fran is going with me, and we’re going to represent our country, our schools, our family, and our friends. And we are going to give it our best.”

These three athletes focused. They persevered. They inspired. And they—like the majority of Harvard Olympians—did not bring home a single medal.

In a world that so often glorifies winning, these Olympians’ stories reveal what a Crimson writer recently called “the value in looking past the numbers” to consider not only the result of hard work, but also the work itself. In their efforts, we recognize journeys as important as destinations, the sustained investment of effort over weeks, months, and years. Athletes must devote themselves—mind, body, and spirit—to their work. They cannot take shortcuts if they want to succeed. In his aptly titled book about baseball, Men at Work, George Will referred to this “connection between character and achievement” as “one of the fundamental fascinations of sport.”

The relationship between effort and outcome has been very much on my mind lately. At this year’s Convocation, I shared with the freshmen a memory from the opening exercises for my college class at Bryn Mawr a thousand years ago. In her remarks to us, President Katharine McBride kept referring to what she called “your work.” Until that moment—and maybe this is true for some of you—I had thought of school in terms of courses and papers and exams, but her invocation of my work made me pause. Your work. Work—a combination of effort and outcome. Your—defining of you, encompassing your creativity and your creation. Your work. Those two words together an expression of humility in the face of the unfamiliar and the unknown, an expression encompassing character and achievement. Owning one’s work meant learning in the process and from the process, and it meant acting with integrity, without which there can be, to quote Dean Jay Harris, “no genuine achievement.”

We have an obligation to instill in our students an understanding of the significance of their work, of how both their commitment to it and the values they bring to it and take from it will constitute the people they become. Harvard students, as football coach Tim Murphy recently put it, “aren’t good kids. They’re great kids.” They arrive on our campus eager to contribute to the University community and to communities around the world. Accolades amassed over the course of their high school careers propel them forward. But, at the same time, the world exerts extraordinary pressures on them. When I meet with students, they often ask me to reflect on the course of my career, on the choices that I made that got me here today. And that question, for me, hints at a vision of life that is, perhaps, too ladder-like, at a heightened awareness of what moving from one rung to the next requires.

They ask, improbably, “Did you decide that you wanted to be president of Harvard when you were in grade school, high school, or after you got to college?” “I never could have imagined such an aspiration,” I reply. And, actually, in those days I wouldn’t even have been allowed in Harvard’s undergraduate library.

There is a curious way, I’ve come to realize, that these circumstances made me free—in a manner that today’s students—both men and women—are not, free from a tyranny of expectations. President McBride instilled in me a deep understanding of the importance of owning my work, but it was in some ways a lack of awareness that helped me to succeed. I had a very imperfect sense of what winning or losing meant, little idea of which prizes needed to be won, which fellowships and internships and scholarships were most prestigious.

Instead, I could pursue the questions that mattered most to me and followed my interests, not up a defined and well-worn ladder, but down a path with tours and detours I could never have predicted, and with doors that opened that I never could have anticipated. I would, of course, never want us to return to a time when women were excluded from the library or the locker room or the boardroom or from dreams that can fuel aspirations. But there is also something we have lost in the way we have increasingly focused students on achievements and outcomes.

Students yearn for a kind of freedom they often feel is denied them, the freedom to take chances on ideas, to risk failing, to direct their work in a manner that gives them a sense of purpose in the world. We endeavor to support them by developing programs and creating spaces on campus where they can pursue the work that inspires them. A summer fellowship program for aspiring public servants provides on-the-ground experience. Talented artists and musicians hone their crafts and their efforts alongside professionals as development fellows. And inventors and innovators gather at the i-lab in Allston, collaborating on projects with one another and teaming up for the President’s Challenge, a University-wide competition focused on developing approaches and solutions for the common good. These and other opportunities are part of a framework in which students are permitted—and even encouraged—to make a mistake, learn something, try something, and grow through it. But we must continue to ask ourselves what it means to deeply engage with one’s work for its own sake, not as part of building a resume or seeking a prize.

This isn’t a novel question. At the turn of the 20th century, President Eliot proposed ways of instilling in students an appreciation for what he called “consecutive thinking,” a skill he considered one of the hallmarks of a useful and a satisfying life. He believed an essential motivation must be, and I quote him, “the enjoyment or satisfaction which good thinking yields to the thinker, thinking for thinking’s sake.” A mind fulfilled by its work is a mind open to unexpected possibilities. How often have great strides in understanding been made by individuals who simply followed their curiosity? And where would we be if they had not? Tunnel vision would have prevented the discovery of X-rays, the development of transistors, the determination that the pancreas provides insulin. A myopic Alexander Fleming would have tossed his contaminated petri dish in the trash, and, with it, the life-saving promise of penicillin. Focused on the process rather than the outcome, we are free to learn things, to pursue knowledge, to develop deeper and richer understandings of our world and of ourselves.

Education is as much about the process as it is about the results, as much about the work as it is about the win. The same is true of athletics. The members of the team we will watch tomorrow have committed many hundreds of hours to Harvard football leading up to the game. Whether a regular starter or not, each player must, in Tim Murphy’s words, “take pride in his role for the team to be successful.” Each minute on the field tomorrow, each well-executed tackle, each successful play is the culmination of hours of training and practice. We cheer. We sing. We boisterously shake the stands as much for the unseen effort as for the on-field outcome, for student athletes who have devoted themselves to their work out of love for the sport, for their teammates, and for Harvard.

But, of course, those aren’t our only motivations. Having focused on work for the last few minutes, I am reminded of a story about my daughter, College Class of 2004, that I shared with many of you a couple of years ago. At her Quaker high school in Philadelphia, Jessica was a catcher and the captain of the softball team during her senior year. This team was coached by a peaceful fellow whose mantra was “It’s all about the journey; it’s not about the destination.” In the season championship game with the score tied, Jessica, who was usually quite a peaceful character herself, called her teammates together in a huddle before their last at-bat, looked them in the eyes, and dispensed evergreen wisdom. “Screw the journey,” she said. “Let’s go out and win this thing.” They did, and so will we. Go Harvard!