2010 Valedictory Oration
June 1, 2010
Princeton University Class of 2010
In a few hours, we will all be in possession of probably the most expensive piece of paper we will ever own. By the time we pick up our diplomas, they will be covered in ink -- our names, some Latin that Marguerite can translate for you, and our major. But not long ago, they were nothing more than blank sheets of paper.
Sure, it seems the natural choice for a sheet of paper embossed with the Princeton seal would be to create a diploma. But how about something a little more fun? Perhaps an airplane? Or maybe a paper football? Now, I wouldn't recommend any of these uses for your diploma -- it is fated to a life of sitting above your desk in an overpriced frame.
But even now that President Tilghman has recited the softly spoken magic spells, we are not stamped with a final purpose in the way that our diplomas have been. For example, Career Services has made us all aware that, no matter what our major, we may want to consider I-banking or consulting.
All kidding aside, the varying future plans I have heard from friends show that for many of us, we have done well to avoid letting our major dictate our path through life. I have met an engineer-turned-med-student, a physicist-turned-music-theorist and an economics-major-turned-high-tech-entrepreneur. And with any luck, all of them, and the rest of us, will be successful in our first adventures away from Nassau Hall.
But even success in our chosen profession should not limit the possibilities we allow for ourselves in the future.
In 1993, Michael Jordan scored 32.6 points per game and led the Chicago Bulls to their third straight NBA title. In 1994, he hit .202 and struck out 114 times for the Birmingham Barons, a performance that even Space Jam couldn't help mocking.
His Airness was unquestionably the greatest basketball player in the world when he left the game, but more importantly he was an athlete. The latter half of that statement holds for all of sports' greatest figures. Allen Iverson may spend every day practicing to be a basketball player … well, most days …, but he has often talked about giving football another shot, just to see if he has what it takes.
And so there is something to be said for what MJ accomplished by venturing into baseball. It showed a courage and desire to truly test his athleticism. And that is something to be praised, no matter what the results.
So what does any of this have to do with us? Just as Jordan was an athlete first, and a basketball player second, we are people first, scholars second and our majors third. And it is important to keep this hierarchy in mind when considering our choices in life. In this way, our future lives remain a fairly blank sheet of paper, for while a "physics major" may have limited options, a person in general does not.
And I say that we are scholars second for good reason. The scholastic achievements of our class are well documented, and I am certain that the intellectual challenges that we as a class will take on and solve will be numerous. But our time here has prepared us to handle far more than just academic pursuits, and our talents and passions clearly reflect this. Now that we have all successfully run the great intellectual gauntlet that is the Princeton undergrad experience, I hope that all of you will continue to seek out things that challenge you not just as a lawyer or a teacher or a hockey player, but as a person.
We all have varying degrees of certainty about what we want to do with our lives. But the neat thing, I think, is that a lot of us that think we know what we want are so very wrong. So when the opportunity arises to be a snowboarding instructor in Breckenridge, or a translator for the Ukrainian government, or a space elevator operator (if the MAEs do their jobs), let the fact that you never saw it coming be an attraction, not a deterrent. And let the fact that your Princeton experience, or practice, if you will, hasn't directly prepared you for it make the challenge all the more exciting.
And if someday you feel that you have accomplished all there is to accomplish in your field -- you are a Supreme Court justice, or you founded Amazon.com or you write the great American novel, all things that Princetonians have been known to do -- then truly congratulations to you. Or maybe you've gone for something completely nontraditional and found success in that, in which case my congratulations are double. But if you do reach that point of ultimate success, then perhaps it's time to dust off your mitt and show up for spring training, to fold up your diploma into a new paper airplane and see if it flies.
Thank you, and congratulations to you all.