Pompous and Circumstantial

Standard

Natalie Portman gave the Class Day address at our mutual alma mater last week, and despite her nerves she did a ‘Professional’ job (okay, I’ll stop). It was refreshing to hear her recount the experience of first setting foot in such an overwhelming and impressive place full of overwhelming and impressive people – and comforting to learn she made many of the same mistakes I did.

The world is full of brazenly confident people, and Harvard Yard has more than its fair share. For Natalie, there were five different peers who announced on day one that they would be President someday; I only remember two in my first days, but we both believed all of them from the sheer force of their conviction. Bold declarations are impressive, and those of us not in the habit of making our own are inclined to be won over by their swagger.

(This is the only explanation for a particularly disastrous dating choice of mine freshman year; he told me he was the smartest, funniest guy in the room and I believed him.)

As I quickly learned, though, there is no guarantee of any substance behind the bluster. For every Babe Ruth who backs up a called shot there are a dozen Donald Trumps who are full of shit.

Both Natalie and I reacted to our bold new world in the same way: by letting it intimidate us. We accepted these people’s brazen visions of the world, their standards for greatness, and their definitions of success. Instead of asking ourselves what we wanted out of school or life, we worried about not being good enough – and once someone else is allowed to make up the rules, there really is no way to come out on top. Just ask any six-year-old.

In this past year, I have been drawing inspiration from Albert Einstein’s “Annus Mirabilis” (1905), in which he published four papers each of which was a major breakthrough in its own right. One of the recurring themes in discussions of his unparalleled achievement is the complete unwillingness Einstein had to ever accept any unproven principle as a given. Because he refused to believe time was an immutable constant simply because everyone else assumed it was and no one had seen evidence to the contrary, he was free to explore his own imaginings and now the world understands relativity. You’re welcome, world.

When we free ourselves from belief in how things are “supposed to” be, we open the door to far deeper understanding and far greater achievement. As Natalie put it in her speech, we should remain ignorant of the limitations the world has assumed for us. Or, as that six-year-old would put it, “Sez who?”

Look to the bumblebee for inspiration. For centuries, the world of physics expended a great deal of energy and hot air over the fact that a short, fat, fuzzy insect with stubby wings should not be able to fly. And yet they fly anyway. Mainly, as mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah pointed out, because a bumblebee does not understand the laws of thermodynamics. It simply doesn’t know it can’t fly.*

[*Also, as has recently been determined, it doesn’t flap its wings up and down like other flying things but rather front-to-back with a slight tilt, as though treading water. This creates mini hurricanes above each wing, with low-pressure centers that make it easier to stay aloft. But “because of ignorance” is more romantic.]

If Forrest Gump taught us anything, it is that if we dive into that box of chocolates listening to cries of “beware the cherry cordial” and “butter creams are the best”, we will very likely be disappointed, but if we go in hoping for a sweet treat, we will probably get one. At least I think that was the point.

In other words, don’t believe everything people say (especially about themselves), don’t believe everything you think (especially about yourself), and – to borrow from Stephen Colbert’s commencement address at Wake Forest – define your own standards for success and happiness. Then go for them. Everyone else can go suck a cherry cordial.

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