Be courageous enough to accept that life is messy. Your life will not always perfectly match your ideology. Sometimes even your choices will not align with your ideology. Don’t justify and rationalize it; acknowledge it. Because it is in trying to justify that we get into that twisting dark unending tunnel of lies from which it is sometimes impossible to re-emerge whole.
Be courageous enough to say I don’t know. This might be harder to do with everyone calling you ‘Harvard’. But ignorance acknowledged is an opportunity; ignorance denied is a closed door, and it takes courage to admit to the truth of what you do not know.
Some people think that Harvard is the best school in the world. Personally, I’m not so sure. I need to know what my people at Yale think about that. But I do know that for many people all over the world, Harvard has become much more than just a school. Harvard is a metaphor for untouchable intellectual achievement.
And now that you are Harvard graduates — well, actually almost Harvard graduates. You don’t actually have your degrees; you wouldn’t get them until tomorrow and I suppose there is still time for the Harvard administration folks to change their minds about giving it to you. But assuming they don’t change their minds and you do get your degrees tomorrow, and become Harvard graduates, the world will make assumptions about you. Many of them will be to your benefit, such as the assumption of competence and intelligence. Employers will pay attention to your resume when they see Harvard on it.
But there will be other assumptions. People who don’t know anything about you except that you went to Harvard will assume that you feel superior, that you think you’re all that. They will roll their eyes when you make a normal human mistake.
You might hear at some point in your life in a tone that cannot be described as nice: ‘There goes Harvard’.
Now full disclosure. A friend once told me that the only thing he learned at Harvard was to behave like a person who went to Harvard. And I have often repeated that story quite gleefully. So you will inspire resentment and hopefully that will help you keep in mind the humanity of every one including the privileged.
But these assumptions that people will make about you are minuscule compared to the enormous privilege that comes with a Harvard degree. You now have a certain kind of access, a certain kind of power. And I know it is terribly clichéd to say that you must now use this power to change the world, but really, you must now use this power to change the world.
Change a slice of the world, no matter how small. If you feel a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo, nurture that dissatisfaction, be propelled by your dissatisfaction, act, get into the system and change the system. Challenge the still assumptions that undergird so many of America’s cultural institutions. Tell new stories, champion new storytellers because the truth is that the universal does not belong to anyone group of people. Everybody’s story is potentially universal, it just needs to be told well.
Change the media in America, make it about truth, not about entertainment, not about profit making but about truth. And while you’re doing it, be astute about when you need balance and when you don’t. Because sometimes seeking balance gets in the way of telling the truth. If you’re reporting about the sun rising in the east, you do not need to hear the other side because there’s no real other side.
A Harvard degree will give you access and opportunities, but sadly I have to inform you that it will not make you invincible. You still have that fragile human core at the center of all of us. There will be times when you are petrified of failing, when fear of failure holds you back. In those moments here is the truth that is easy to forget, you don’t actually know that you will fail.
I was lucky to be given a great gift by the universe, knowing from childhood what I loved most. I was lucky to have wonderful supportive parents who encouraged me and my parents are here today.
Writing is what I love. Had I not had the good fortune of being published, I would be somewhere right now completely unknown, possibly broke but I would be writing.
Some of you here today like me know what you love, and some of you don’t. If you don’t know, you will. If not something that you love, then something that you like or something that you don’t hate – or something. You will find it. But to find it you must try.
The wonderful Shonda Rhimes said very wisely that you have to do something until you can do something else. Try. If it doesn’t work out, try something else.
I knew from spending a year in medical school that it was not for me, actually that’s not really true. I knew even before medical school but going to medical school clarified it for me and it’s not wasted time, it’s experience and experience will serve you in ways you do not expect.
I cannot tell you how many times in the course of writing my second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which was a deeply — which was a deeply emotional book for me, I felt chocked with uncertainty. I would climb into bed and eat chocolate. But I knew that after all the chocolate eating, after all the sinking into a dark place, that I would get up and keep writing.