My Harvard Law classmate quietly raised his hand. In a discussion about how our personal histories affect our political perspectives, he asked our professor, a renowned civil rights lawyer, which moment was her proudest. The professor smiled and said, "the birth of my son."
The class quickly moved on to more important matters, like her prodigious professional accomplishments. Guided by a meta-narrative that brought us to and got us through Harvard Law School, the class's radar barely registered her incongruous comment about giving birth.
This points to a serious irony. Here at this great temple of legal learning, where the answer to every question is "it depends" and where out of respect for our own diversity we resist tempting meta-narratives, we have bought into a powerful, pervasive, organizing mythology.
We feed it to one another in our daily conversations, when we speak with trembling respect for famous professors, or imagine that certain rather obviously fungible law firms belong in opaque Am-Law designated hierarchies. This myth fed the arms race of 1L finals studying. During Fall finals our 1L year, a close friend of mine told me that one of our section-mates actually reproached him for eating lunch without his books.
We, some of the world's most celebrated critical thinkers, tell each other tales that teach us to view ourselves in a medieval ontological hierarchy, with a sort of saintly exception for people pursuing public interest (but of course, we know who is working at the DOJ). In any case, despite our diversity and our intellectual vitality, our own herd mentality suggests we aren't that different than our mammalian cousin the sheep.
But we can resist this myth of the so-called meritocracy. Hard work can be satisfying, and success feels good. But I urge you to pursue a harder goal than the many mountains you will certainly summit. Seek a full, whole life, the life filled with what Aristotle called "eudemonia," or flourishing. Even the rich, powerful, beautiful and brilliant will testify as my professor did that their most transcendent moments are often in a birthing suite, or nestled up against a loved one. Accomplishments matter, but are nothing without love, morality, family, belonging and intimacy. While striving can crowd these out, no matter how frenetically you pace your life, the question of meaning will eventually matter to you, and it will matter more deeply than anything else.
So don't buy into a story that implicitly teaches you that you aren't enough. That puts you on an unrelenting treadmill or tells you how you must do something more to impress some nonexistent constituency. Don't let us make you afraid.
As it turns out, the world's great religions, which rarely speak in a unified voice, all counsel us to forsake fear and embrace love. In my own religious tradition, we are taught that love is the antidote for fear and is our most important ambition. This unusual convergence of the wisdom traditions suggests that we should pay attention.
Before Harvard, my wife Trina and I spent a year traveling around the world, after abandoning high-power corporate careers. Our twelve months were mostly sublime, studying history and cuisine, climbing mountains in Norwegian Fjordlands, and laying on equatorial beaches. But one memory taught me the lesson I'm emphasizing today. In Kolkata, India, we were doing some service work and Trina fell deeply ill. With medicine and aggressive attempts to keep her cool, her temperature soon climbed to 105 degrees. The doctor I spoke to recommended immediate hospitalization, sending an ambulance in the middle of the night. Despite filling her with chilled liquids and ten antibiotics, her temperature remained unmoved. In the longest night of my life, I held my nearly convulsive wife and softly sang songs like "Silent Night" to her, something her dad used to do when she was a little girl and couldn't sleep. Moments like that bring your life into stark relief. Let's just say I wasn't wondering if I was going to get into Harvard or make magna cum laude.
Trina survived her antibiotic resistant e coli and is here today, 38 weeks pregnant with our firstborn son. I'm proud to say that my experiences helped me keep some perspective here at Harvard, despite many failures along the way. I did well in law school while maintaining a vigorous relationship with Trina, and sleeping at least eight hours a night, eating well and exercising regularly. I kept fidelity to my faith, chose my career with integrity and after the first weekend of 1L I swore off seven day workweeks. You can live well and succeed.
Kolkata taught me a lesson, a lesson that also comes from my faith. Jesus taught that you have to lose your life to find it, that our white-knuckled grip will not bring us the security we so desperately desire. My own greatest moments have involved letting go and choosing to really live -- for me that meant quitting my job and traveling, writing a book, applying to law school, prioritizing my family, and choosing to work as an entrepreneur instead of a lawyer. Ironically, it's only in the moments that I let go that I finally find myself, when I become what William Earnest Henley called the "Captain of my soul."
For you, losing your life to find it may mean something else. It may mean New York, or public interest, or choosing family over partnership. I don't know.
So yeah, work hard, and change the world for God's sake. Who else is going to? I know you will impress everyone around you and accomplish much. But I hope and I pray that you will also flourish, living lives of deep meaning. Don't forget to take the helm as the captain of your own soul. Don't wait for your own Kolkata moment.
Learning from you has been one of the great privileges of my life. Bless you all.
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