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Undergraduate English Oration: "Living the Life You Love"

7.1.04

By Kate Rakoczy

 

Around five o’clock one morning last winter, I found myself driving through a blinding snowstorm on a yet-unplowed Massachusetts Turnpike. I was about a month into my term as an editor at The Harvard Crimson, and one of the machines that we use to print the paper had broken beyond repair. Another editor and I were thus driving to a print shop about an hour away to try to get the paper out—in near-blizzard conditions. As crazy as this experience was, I learned three very important lessons that morning. First, there is no experience in life that two liters of diet coke can’t get you through.

Second, Volkswagon Beatles do not have particularly good traction in the snow. And third, I realized while driving through that blinding snowstorm that I was willing to do just about anything for The Crimson. Like many of you, I had discovered my passion in college.

This is, to me, the true essence of a Harvard education: finding among the vast array of opportunities your own calling and devoting all of your time and your energy to pursuing it. Of course, one must maintain a balance. At Harvard, you have to pass most of your classes. And in life, you will have to pay most of your bills. But what we learn at Harvard is the reward of making sacrifices for those activities and interests that set afire our hearts and our minds. It is when we take these risks that we build our character, for sacrifice means deciding what is truly important to us. Excellence in the classroom or excellence beyond the classroom? A job that pays or a job you love? Preserving a friendship or standing up for what you believe in? These choices differ in their complexity and seriousness, and not all are mutually exclusive, but each time we place our passions above public opinion we take one step closer towards becoming more complete and more dynamic individuals.

As we leave this place today to start the rest of our lives, are we prepared to maintain the commitment we made in college to follow our hearts without compromise? Our generation has been accused of lacking character. Journalist David Brooks once dubbed ours the generation of “The Organization Kid,” a group of driven overachievers who valued accomplishment above all else. At times, we all have fallen prey to the temptation to prioritize achievement over ideals. How many of us have missed a rally for a cause we strongly support in order to finish a paper? How many have abandoned a heated but crucial discussion to avoid going beyond the bounds of civility? How many have forfeited an opportunity to do something we love because we feared we would not succeed?

We must not, however, let such behavior become our norm. While a Harvard full of “organization kids” would certainly have been boring, a society full of “organization adults” could be disastrous. We are already living in a country where money is too often the measure of success; where barely half of the voting-age population takes the time to cast their ballots; and where the people and the press regularly fail to question the actions of their government. The world needs us to live our lives with the same passionate idealism we devoted to our college years.

In a 1910 address at the Sorbonne, Theodore Roosevelt cautioned that when the people are the source of the power, the quality of the individual determines the quality of the society. All citizens, particularly those who have been blessed with the opportunity for higher education, have an obligation to be true to their ideals. As Roosevelt instructed his audience, “Most of you have had a chance for the enjoyment of life far greater than comes to the majority of your fellows. To you and your kind much has been given, and from you much should be expected.”

Like that audience at the Sorbonne, we have all been granted an incredible opportunity over the last four years, an opportunity to discover and to pursue what we love. And like that audience at the Sorbonne, we have a duty to be true to these passions as we enter the outside world. The life lived according to one’s own dreams is far nobler than the life lived according to another’s, for ultimately your character—and not your credentials—will be the measure of your success.

Congratulations, Class of 2004, and thank you.