Today, new scientists and engineers, economists and financiers, academics and professionals leave MIT and begin their careers, among them many of my closest friends and colleagues. What strikes me most about this time of year is the atmosphere: not the fatalism that follows exam week or the relief at having reached a vacation, but rather a quiet (or not so quiet) sense of anticipation and hope for life beyond the Institute from those convening in Killian.
To be fair, the vast majority also appears thrilled and terrified in equal measure at having to enter the “real” world. Nevertheless, after long years of study, this class of passionate, ambitious individuals can now pursue purpose, or at least possibilities. There is a palpable sense of idealism around how the world will be shaped by those who have already left indelible marks on MIT. Ills both social and medical may be alleviated, corruption cleaned, and companies constructed.
Yet there is no greater poison pill, no more insurmountable barrier to finding that purpose and achieving progress than falling prey to cynicism. As comedian George Carlin aptly stated, “Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.” This climate of idealism provides fertile ground for such cynicism because disappointments will come.
The last time I felt this atmosphere was as a freshman, facing a wealth of opportunities and a mostly-blank slate upon which to write. Yet as the years passed, I have felt in my own class and in the Class of 2015 a weariness biting. A veil of fatigue has slowly fallen, obscuring the possibilities that once excited and delighted. Living pset to pset and enduring repeated all-nighters has left many jaded, whether about the present circumstance or the future promise. Idealism distorted to cynicism. It may again, soon.
In the celebrations that have already begun, it is painless to forget that the coming challenges may dwarf those already surmounted as undergraduates. It is painless to imagine that societal problems are for others to address and to absolve oneself from shouldering the burden. It is painless to concede that the minds of individuals cannot be changed and therefore any such effort made is futile. It is painless to criticize those who do not take said painless routes, struggling with failure and mistakes to make that progress.
It may be painful to admit that those with the ability to act have the responsibility to act, and that we have the ability. It may be painful to admit that lifetimes must often be committed to achieve breakthroughs; as Max Weber put it, “Progress is the slow boring of hard boards and anyone who seeks to do it must risk his own soul.” It may be painful to hope and believe in the face of repeated disappointment, the price of idealism.
It is infinitely more difficult to remember these lessons when surrounded by congratulatory friends and family, after the long and arduous journey that is the undergraduate degree. Yet to forget them is to lose sight of the road ahead.
Two of my personal heroes, Louis Brandeis and Mahatma Gandhi, embodied practical idealism, using ideals to set their goals and pragmatism to guide their approaches. Whether by fighting in the courtroom as the “People’s Attorney” and as a Supreme Court Justice, or by fighting in the hearts and minds of the people for nonviolent civil disobedience, both Brandeis and Gandhi accepted progress, however slow and steady, yet driven by a clear vision. When aspiring to do great things, whether as a schoolteacher or a CEO, this is among the most impactful means. These icons did not live to see all their goals fulfilled, but the strength of their actions and characters continue to shape our world.
There is great work yet to be done, and I hope that this sense of possibility does not disappear, but rather acts as a new fuel to the roaring flame of the graduating class’s achievements.
Congratulations and well done! I expect I shall have more and more cause to say that in the coming years.