Harvard President: Wake up and pursue what you think is most meaningful

"Principal Foster, what is the meaning of life? Why did we study hard at Harvard for four years? President Foster, you must have learned a lot since you graduated from college forty years ago?" (Forty years. I can acknowledge this time out loud, because every detail of my life-including, of course, the year I received my Burmauer degree-seems to be publicly available now. But please note that I was relatively young in my class at that time.)
In your waking hours, pursue what you think makes sense
-Speech by Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust to 2008 Undergraduate Graduates
Remember the high hopes we have for you, even if you think they are impossible to achieve, remember that they are vital, the North Star of your life, and will guide you to a meaningful other side for yourself and the world. The meaning of your life is to be created by yourself.
This esteemed school has always been studious and eager to learn, so you expect my speech to impart eternal wisdom. I stood in this pulpit, dressed like a Puritan minister-a dress that might have frightened many of my predecessors, and might have reengaged some of them in the cause of eliminating witches, and had Incles and Coyne and his son (1) appear at what is now a "bubble party" (2). But now, I am on the stage, you are below, this is a moment of truth (3), the pursuit of truth.
You have been studying for four years, and I have been the principal for less than a year; you know three principals, and I only know one class of seniors. So, where does wisdom begin? Perhaps you are the ones who should impart wisdom. Maybe we can switch roles and use the random roll call of Harvard Law professors to ask questions, and let me answer your questions in the next hour (4).
Let's think of this graduation as a question-and-answer session, where you are the questioners. "Principal Foster, what is the meaning of life? Why did we study hard at Harvard for four years? President Foster, you must have learned a lot since you graduated from college forty years ago?" (Forty years. I can acknowledge this time out loud, because every detail of my life-including, of course, the year I received my Burmauer degree-seems to be publicly available now. But please note that I was relatively young in my class at that time.)
It can be said that in the past year, you have been asking me questions for me to answer, but you have limited the scope of your questions to a relatively small range. I have also been thinking about how to answer, and the motivation of your questions, which is more interesting to me.
In fact, I have been asked these questions since I met with the school committee. It was the winter of 2007, and my appointment was only announced soon. Since then, I have lunch in Kirkland House, I have dinner in Leverett House, I am asked these questions when I meet students at work, and even when I meet graduates abroad. The first thing you ask me is not to ask about the course, not the teacher's guidance, not the teacher's contact information, nor the space for students to learn and live. In fact, not even an alcohol restriction policy. What you repeatedly ask me is, "Why do so many of us go to Wall Street? Why do so many of us Harvard graduates go into finance, consulting and investment banking?"
There are many ways to think and answer this question. Like the Willie-Sutton type. When he was asked why he robbed the bank, he replied: "Because there's money there." Many of you have met professors Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz in economics classes, and based on their research on student career choices since the 1970 s, they came to similar conclusions. Remarkably, they found that despite the financial industry's high financial returns, many students chose other jobs.
Indeed, 37 of you have signed up to Teach for America (5); one will go tango and study dance therapy in Argentina; another will devote himself to agricultural development in Kenya; one with an honors degree in mathematics will study poetry; another will train as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force; and another will fight breast cancer. Many of you will go to law, medicine, or other graduate school. However, the vast majority chose finance and consulting, which coincides with the findings of Goldin and Katz. A survey of last year's graduating class by the Crimson newspaper (6) showed that 58 per cent of boys and 43 per cent of girls in the workforce made the above choice. Despite the economic downturn this year, the figure is still 39%.
Big paychecks, almost hard-to-refuse recruiters, the ability to work and enjoy life in New York with friends, and interesting jobs-there are many reasons to explain these choices. Some of you would have decided to live this way, at least for a year or two. Others believe that self-interest is the first step in order to benefit others. However, you still ask me why I want to go this way.
In a way, I feel like I'm more concerned with why you're asking the questions than with giving the answers. If Professor Goldin and Katz's conclusion is correct; if the financial industry is indeed a "rational choice", then why do you keep asking me this question? Why does this seemingly rational choice find many of you incomprehensible, unreasonable, even in a sense forced or necessary, rather than voluntary? Why does this question bother so many of you?
I think what you ask me is actually the meaning of life, but the questions you ask are disguised-the angle of asking questions is an observable and measurable phenomenon in advanced career choices, rather than an abstract, incomprehensible, and embarrassing metaphysical category. "The meaning of life"-a big question-and a cliche-is easy to answer as the satirical title of a Montipson (7) movie or the theme of an episode of The Simpsons (8), but it complicates the problem as a topic of serious significance.
But put aside for a moment the slick, calm and impeccable self-righteousness of our Harvard people and try to find the answer to your question.
I think you worry because you don't want your life to be just successful in the traditional sense, but also meaningful. But you don't know how to reconcile these two goals. You don't know if a job with a good starting salary and a foreseeable future of wealth in a company with a gold-lettered sign can satisfy your heart.
Why are you worried? It's more or less our school's fault. As soon as we enter the school, we will tell you that you will become leaders responsible for the future. You are excellent and smart, and you will change the whole world. We have high hopes for you and have become a burden to you. In fact, you have achieved extraordinary results: you have participated in various extracurricular activities and demonstrated a spirit of service; you have strongly advocated sustainable development, revealing your concern for the future of this planet; you have actively participated in this year's presidential campaign, which has injected new vitality into American politics.
Now, many of you don't know how to combine these achievements with career choices. Do you have to choose between profitable work and meaningful work? If you had to choose, which would you choose? Is it possible to have both?
What you ask me and yourself are fundamental questions: about values, about trying to reconcile potentially conflicting things, about the realization that you can't have both fish and bear's paws. You are in a moment of transition and need to make a choice. Choosing only one option-work, career, graduate school-means giving up the others. Every decision means gains and losses-one door opens and another closes. That's pretty much what you're asking me-about the life path of abandonment.
Finance, Wall Street and "hiring" have become the hallmarks of this dilemma, representing a range of issues that are far broader and deeper than choosing a career path. In a sense, these are the questions all of you will encounter sooner or later-when you graduate from medical school and choose a major-whether to choose a general family doctor or a dermatologist; when you get your law degree, to choose whether to work for a company or as a public defender; when you have studied "for America" for two years, to decide whether to continue your education. You worry because you want to live both meaningfully and successfully, and you know that your education will enable you to create value not only for yourself, for your own comfort and satisfaction, but also for the world around you. Now, you have to figure out a way to do that.
I think there is another reason why you are worried-related to the first reason, but not exactly the same. That is, you want to be happy. You're flocking to "positive psychology" -- psychological 1504 -- and "the science of happiness" to find the secret. But how can we find happiness? I can give an inspiring answer: grow up. Surveys show that older people-people my age, for example-are happier than younger people. However, you may not want to wait.
I 've heard you talk about the choices you face, so I know you're troubled by the relationship between success and happiness-or, more accurately, how to define success so that it produces and encompasses real happiness, not just money and fame. You worry that choices with more financial returns may not be meaningful or satisfying. But do you want to know exactly how you are supposed to survive, whether as artists, actors, civil servants or Senior high school teachers? How do you find a path to journalism? How many years later, after completing your graduate studies and thesis, will you find a job as an English professor?
The answer is: only try to know. But whether it's painting, biology or finance, if you don't try to do what you love; if you don't pursue what you think is meaningful, you will regret it. The road in life is long, and there is always time to implement alternatives, but don't settle for second best in the first place.
I call it the Career Parking Theory, and I 've been sharing it with my classmates for decades. Don't park your car 20 blocks away from your destination just because you think there is definitely no parking space. Go directly to the place you want to go, and if the parking space is full, circle back.
You may like investment banking, finance or consulting, and it may be a good choice for you. Maybe you're the same as the senior I met at lunch in the Kirkland building, who had just returned from an interview with a well-known consulting firm on the West Coast. She asked, "Why am I doing this? I hate flying, I don't like staying in hotels, I'm not going to like this job." Then find a job you like. It's hard to be happy if you spend more than half your waking hours doing things you don't like.
However, the important thing is that when you ask questions, you are not only asking me, but also asking yourself. You are choosing your path and at the same time questioning your choices. You know what kind of life you want, but you just don't know if you are choosing the right path. This is good news. It is also, I hope, to some extent, our fault. Focus on your life, reflect on it, think about how to live well, think about how to be useful to society: these may be the precious things that humanistic education teaches you.
Humanistic education requires you to live consciously, giving you the ability to find and define the inner meaning of what you do. It enables you to analyze and judge yourself, and allows you to take control of your life and its development path. It is in this sense that the "human" is the real liberare-freedom (9). They give you the ability to act, find meaning in things and make choices. The only way to a meaningful and happy life is to make yourself work hard for it. Don't stop. Be ready to change direction. Remember the high hopes we have for you, even if you think they are impossible to achieve, but also remember that they are very important, the North Star of your life, will guide you to the other side of meaning for yourself and the world. The meaning of your life is to be created by yourself.
I can't wait to see what you'll be like. Be sure to come back often and tell us how we're doing.


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