You are asking me, I think, about the meaning of life, though you have posed your question in code — in terms of the observable and measurable phenomenon of senior career choice rather than the abstract, unfathomable and almost embarrassing realm of metaphysics. The Meaning of Life — capital M, capital L — is a cliché — easier to deal with as the ironic title of a Monty Python movie or the subject of a Simpsons episode than as a matter about which one would dare admit to harboring serious concern.
But let’s for a moment abandon our Harvard savoir faire, our imperturbability, our pretense of invulnerability, and try to find the beginnings of some answers to your question.
I think you are worried because you want your lives not just to be conventionally successful, but to be meaningful, and you are not sure how those two goals fit together. You are not sure if a generous starting salary at a prestigious brand name organization together with the promise of future wealth will feed your soul.
Why are you worried? Partly it is our fault. We have told you from the moment you arrived here that you will be the leaders responsible for the future, that you are the best and the brightest on whom we will all depend, that you will change the world. We have burdened you with no small expectations. And you have already done remarkable things to fulfill them: your dedication to service demonstrated in your extracurricular engagements, your concern about the future of the planet expressed in your vigorous championing of sustainability, your reinvigoration of American politics through engagement in this year’s presidential contests.
But many of you are now wondering how these commitments fit with a career choice. Is it necessary to decide between remunerative work and meaningful work? If it were to be either/or, which would you choose? Is there a way to have both?
You are asking me and yourselves fundamental questions about values, about trying to reconcile potentially competing goods, about recognizing that it may not be possible to have it all. You are at a moment of transition that requires making choices. And selecting one option — a job, a career, a graduate program — means not selecting others. Every decision means loss as well as gain — possibilities foregone as well as possibilities embraced. Your question to me is partly about that — about loss of roads not taken.
Finance, Wall Street, 「recruiting」 have become the symbol of this dilemma, representing a set of issues that is much broader and deeper than just one career path. These are issues that in one way or another will at some point face you all — as you graduate from medical school and choose a specialty — family practice or dermatology, as you decide whether to use your law degree to work for a corporate firm or as a public defender, as you decide whether to stay in teaching after your two years with TFA. You are worried because you want to have both a meaningful life and a successful one; you know you were educated to make a difference not just for yourself, for your own comfort and satisfaction, but for the world around you. And now you have to figure out the way to make that possible.
I think there is a second reason you are worried — related to but not entirely distinct from the first. You want to be happy. You have flocked to courses like 「Positive Psychology」 — Psych 1504 — and 「The Science of Happiness」 in search of tips. But how do we find happiness? I can offer one encouraging answer: get older. Turns out that survey data show older people — that is, my age — report themselves happier than do younger ones. But perhaps you don』t want to wait.
As I have listened to you talk about the choices ahead of you, I have heard you articulate your worries about the relationship of success and happiness — perhaps, more accurately, how to define success so that it yields and encompasses real happiness, not just money and prestige. The most remunerative choice, you fear, may not be the most meaningful and the most satisfying. But you wonder how you would ever survive as an artist or an actor or a public servant or a high school teacher? How would you ever figure out a path by which to make your way in journalism? Would you ever find a job as an English professor after you finished who knows how many years of graduate school and dissertation writing?
The answer is: you won』t know till you try. But if you don』t try to do what you love — whether it is painting or biology or finance; if you don』t pursue what you think will be most meaningful, you will regret it. Life is long. There is always time for Plan B. But don』t begin with it.
I think of this as my parking space theory of career choice, and I have been sharing it with students for decades. Don』t park 20 blocks from your destination because you think you』ll never find a space. Go where you want to be and then circle back to where you have to be.
You may love investment banking or finance or consulting. It might be just right for you. Or, you might be like the senior I met at lunch at Kirkland who had just returned from an interview on the West Coast with a prestigious consulting firm. 「Why am I doing this?」 she asked. 「I hate flying, I hate hotels, I won』t like this job.」 Find work you love. It is hard to be happy if you spend more than half your waking hours doing something you don』t.
But what is ultimately most important here is that you are asking the question — not just of me but of yourselves. You are choosing roads and at the same time challenging your own choices. You have a notion of what you want your life to be and you are not sure the road you are taking is going to get you there. This is the best news. And it is also, I hope, to some degree, our fault. Noticing your life, reflecting upon it, considering how you can live it well, wondering how you can do good: These are perhaps the most valuable things that a liberal arts education has equipped you to do. A liberal education demands that you live self-consciously. It prepares you to seek and define the meaning inherent in all you do. It has made you an analyst and critic of yourself, a person in this way supremely equipped to take charge of your life and how it unfolds. It is in this sense that the liberal arts are liberal — as in liberare — to free. They empower you with the possibility of exercising agency, of discovering meaning, of making choices. The surest way to have a meaningful, happy life is to commit yourself to striving for it. Don』t settle. Be prepared to change routes. Remember the impossible expectations we have of you, and even as you recognize they are impossible, remember how important they are as a lodestar guiding you toward something that matters to you and to the world. The meaning of your life is for you to make.