Yale Bulletin and Calendar

September 6-13, 1999Volume 28, Number 3

President Richard C. Levin and Yale College Dean Richard H. Brodhead chat with some of the freshmen counselors who helped welcome members of the Class of 2003 to the Yale campus.

Hazards of Success

The following is the text of the Freshman Address presented by Yale College Dean Richard H. Brodhead on Aug. 28 in Woolsey Hall.

Mr. President, colleagues, proud parents and families, I welcome you to this great ceremony of renewal. Men and women of the Yale College class of 2003, I welcome you to your new home. Your arrival is cause for jubilation. Yale is supremely rich in educational resources, but Yale has annual need of people like you to actuate its promise. If we rejoice at the sight of you, it is because your high-spirited creativity and intelligence are the catalysts we need to make the reaction work. If you yourselves should feel some mild joy at this moment, well, who could blame you? I have played board games in which you sometimes have to go back and retrace a stretch you had already travelled, but this will not happen here. Your entry into Yale College means that you are done with high school forever. More amazing still, now that you are in college you will never, ever have to get into college again. All summer long this campus has been crawling with touring family parties, the older members trying not to look too anxiously protective, the younger giving off signals that they scarcely know these older people and are only letting them walk with them to be nice. Within days you will have ceased to think of these creatures as anyone you ever had anything in common with, and will look with kindly condescension at those in the strange if touching plight of needing to look at colleges. There will be no more S.A.Ts for you, no more achievement tests, no more essays in which subtly to convey the thought that you might be the most remarkable person your town, state or nation has ever produced. You have been there; you have done that. And the consequence is that you are here: entering Yale, crossing the threshold to a great new chapter of your life.

I have known students upon arrival to make the amazing discovery that, in their preoccupation with getting into college, they had given virtually no thought to what one went to college for. If you should suffer from this deficiency, I doubt that your first hours at Yale will have helped you much. You'll have had time to be recruited by various student organizations, time to study novel forms of furniture, time to introduce yourself to perhaps two hundred classmates who now know certain fascinating and revealing things about you (like where you're from), but you have probably not had time to think. Since you are obviously far too busy, in my kindness I have decided to do this job for you. Allow me to think what your reason for coming here might be.

We will require many things of you during the next four years, and you will no doubt impose yet further requirements on yourselves, but at bottom you have only two things to accomplish at Yale. First, you need to use this place to get outside your own head. We all begin our careers in some little world of familiar things and understandings; education is the process by which we break these barriers to seize a fuller knowledge of the world. You didn't begin this self-enlargement just now and you will not complete it in four years, but at the time when you are newly arrived at the fullness of your powers, Yale is here to help you make this reach of understanding in an intensified way. If you use this place right, you'll learn to see questions where others might see mere givens and will build a richer sense, if not of the answers, then at least of how you might go about developing an answer. When you leave here, our hope is that you will have a mind sufficiently stored and trained to be able to engage the world your experience presents you with in a knowing and constructive fashion; but this is only half of your task. You are also here, through your engagement with a host of challenges, to win a fuller knowledge of your own powers: to learn the range of strengths you can bring to the world and use to make your personal contribution.

Grasping the world in an ever-broadening way, learning what you have to offer as a citizen and shaper of the world -- these are the great projects you came here to work at. Now, what could block you from advancing on these goals? It's not unlikely that you have brought along with you some intermittent dread that you will not do well here. These fantasies are a predictable product of the moment of arrival, but if you fancy that your personal insecurities are better justified than other people's, I'm sorry to tell you that you're almost certainly completely wrong. If you have fears of insufficiency, failure, or impending collegiate doom, I hasten to assure you that whatever shocks the first weeks of college may bring you -- and I hope you'll find this place at least a little different from the worlds you've already mastered -- you are up to it, you will do fine here, you'll manage and probably even flourish. Nevertheless, you do show one tendency that causes me some fear on your behalf, and I'll name it even if I cause you pain. When I ask myself what might keep you from winning the full measure of what Yale could afford, I see one answer in your habit of chronic high achievement, your incorrigible addiction to success.

We know about your success habit. The shelves of our admissions office groan with the chronicles of your accomplishments. Even with some suitable markdown for inflation, it is clear that you are people of ability who have felt a serious obligation to turn your talents to good account. This sense of obligation no doubt reflects an authentic inward virtue, but I suspect that in each of you it has been amplified at least in some measure by a contributing external force, what I might call the culture of juvenile overachievement. The New York Times ran an article this summer about parents who had begun hiring personal batting coaches for their Little League-aged children at $70 an hour to help straighten out their swings. My reaction to this news was somewhat complex. On the one hand, I saw the happy prospect that if your career plans should fall through someday, people as talented as you might be able to live lives of affluence and high demand as correctors of the minor flaws of other people's children. As for the child who was tutored, I would be happy if I believed this training boost would turn him into a future Sammy Sosa, but it seems far more likely that what will be raised is not his batting average but his anxiety level, the pressure he will feel to do well in a game made more than ever a scene of triumph or humiliating self-exposure.

But as a student of cultural history, I confess that the principal thought this story provoked was that it marked a new turn in a comparatively recent historical development. It has not long been the case that children of above-average ability were expected to demonstrate that ability on a compulsive basis in every domain of their life. Mozart and Einstein were recognized as prodigies and given opportunities befitting a prodigy, but in their day children who were not prodigies were not expected to perform like ones, and even prodigies were allowed to be incompetent at activities at which they did not shine. (Herr Einstein hired no baseball tutor.) It is only since the 1950s, and in the accelerated form we now know it is only really since the middle 1980s, that it has ever seemed plausible to expect people in any number to have attained to success by age 17 where success is defined as a the amassing of a killer resumé, a crushing torrent of accomplishments and distinctions. As you know better than I, expectation creep has remade the world of youth in many parts of our culture, surrounding the really talented and the fairly talented but really privileged with hitherto-unimaginable opportunities for the exercise of their gifts, but simultaneously raising the pressure for high performance and spreading it deep into the former domain of play.

None of you is a pure product of this cultural phenomenon, but I doubt that any of you will have been completely immune to it either. You got into college, after all, and in our day college admissions offices are the secret audience for much high achievement in early life. Let me say too that, though I allude to it with a certain skepticism, I recognize that this new feature of the American youth environment has some highly positive aspects. This culture trains people to know the difference between the pretty good and the supremely good in different domains of performance and so supports the taste for excellence. Just as important, living in the presence of expectation helps people make something of themselves. In the face of such demands, people whose life could easily dribble away into the usual puddles of sloth and wasted time learn to embrace the discipline needed to bring skills to a high level, in this way discovering the reach of their powers. Whether it was in scientific research, in writing, in sports, music, or wherever, to the extent that you have developed a taste for excellence and for the discipline needed to attain it, you have come here with the best of preparations. But the culture of accomplishment can produce other by-products together with these very good ones, and I want to warn you against certain other of its leavings.

One thing that can travel with a high premium on personal achievement is an attitude toward others as people to surpass, people whose function is to admire you with jealousy and amazement as you outdo them yet again. To think that the best use of others is as the audience for your glory would be a huge self-impoverishment, but I do not much worry that you will fall prey to this stupidity. In case you do need to be told, I will tell you that a great luxury of your new life is that you have come to a place where others are interesting and talented too -- I'll dare to say it: where other people are in their own ways quite as remarkable as you! One of the lovely things about Yale is that students who are entitled to high self-esteem rejoice instead in each other's accomplishments, both in activities they share and ones that lie far afield. The enjoyment of your fellows will give you great pleasure, but it will also be a powerful means to education. While you are here you will want to open yourself to other members of this community the more the merrier and the more different from you the better. Entering into their different outlooks will give you a fuller acquaintance with the human field, and working with them will help you learn what people can accomplish together than no one of us could manage on our own.

Along with the trap of self-involvement, the culture of overachieverism also breeds certain kinds of self-limitation and even self-intimidation, and these are a far more serious threat. The enlargement of the desire to do well (or to be seen to do well) produces a corresponding enlargement of the shame felt in not doing well, and this can reinforce the tendency to seek scenes where we seem likely to shine and shun ones where we might fail to shine. This is understandable, but I can think of no more disastrous basis on which to approach your education. In your long and only dimly imaginable future life it will be crucial for you to know many things beyond the subjects you are now fairly certain to be able to ace. If you feel confident that you will never need to understand the action of national economies or of molecular and cellular processes or of global religious systems or of words in a sentence, I assure you, there is very small chance that you will turn out to be right. The short-term gains you win from avoiding things you are allegedly not good at will be offset by the lifelong limitations imposed on you through your refusals of education. In any case, are you absolutely sure you could only ever be interested in or good at the things it was agreed you were good at at age 16, or 14, or 12, or 10? How would you know whether you might now have a knack for acting or computer design or foreign language study or foreign policy debate except by trying? And if, upon trying, you should indeed fail to amaze, would that really be a reason to end it all? Let me tell you a great secret. The world will care far less about what you did and did not accomplish in your first years of college than your inner demons would like you to believe. By dint of much hard work, you've secured a new life that extends you a million new possibilities for enlightenment and self-enlargement and also a chance to pause a little, in your relentless career of accomplishment, to take stock and take new soundings. Please don't deprive yourself of the enjoyment of the prize you worked so hard to win. Do use this place to consolidate known skills and bring them to higher levels of attainment, but please: use it too as a place for experiment, for exploration, for taking new measures of the world's interests and your powers.

Last and in certain ways most troubling, along with the many benefits the culture of achievement may have brought you, it is possible that it may have induced in you some of the mindlessness it tends to promote toward its own goals. The trouble with habitually scanning the landscape for games one could enter and and do well at is that it promotes the thoughtless assumption that these are the games worth playing. But after awhile, however proficient you are at some events, you will want to make your own reckoning of what is truly worth your effort, time and care. I have known Yale students whose schedules were so crowded with commitments as to make the Secretary of State seem like a lady of leisure, and I in part applaud this way of life, since in my experience wisdom is more likely to grow from activity and involvement than from passivity and sloth. But as you construct your new life here, it would be well for you to remember that the goal of your activity is wisdom, not mere busyness, and to take pains to see what your involvements are teaching you. It's quite possible to lead a whole life in successful compliance with some external protocol of success. In Grove Street Cemetary you can see the gravestone of a long-deceased professor listing every degree and prize he won and every university position he held. (The ultimate resumé! I hope it helped him in the next admissions process!). But it would be at least as impressive to have lived up to some thoughtfully-achieved personal idea of what makes a valuable life, so I hope you'll take time, here, to think and reflect. If you leave here with a ripened sense of what life seems best worth living, you'll have the accomplishment best worth the accomplishing.

Women and men of the Class of 2003, I imagine that some of you are now mutinously muttering: "What's this: I've worked so hard to make a success of myself only to have some berobed stranger tell me I've had it all wrong?" But if I've been cruel, as Hamlet said, it was only to be kind. We know and respect your achievements to date, and we are certainly not indifferent to your future attainments. We chose you from 10,000 others because we see in you the capacity to lead important lives, lives of thoughtfulness, creativity and service in every domain of human effort. But if you are to capture that larger success someday, it will not be because you pursued some relatively timid idea of success while you were in college, but because you used this time to open yourself, to expand and explore, to take the fuller measure of your world and of your powers. Follow my prescription, allow yourself to get a real education here, and what you hope for will come to pass. Do this and it will truly be able to be said: he did well at Yale; she did really, really well. Do well. Go well. Welcome to Yale.


Employees invited to attend home football games for free

Broadway-bound stores include café and national chain

The Spirit of Adventure by President Richard C. Levin

Hazards of Success by Yale College Dean Richard H. Brodhead

Study reveals target of attacks by diabetes-causing cells

New medical students given their 'cloaks of compassion'

Nursing students will take bike trek to raise money for AIDS care

In the News . . .

Architecture School invites 'leading talents' to teach

Chester Kerr, editor emeritus of the Yale University Press, dies

Guide reveals widespead interest in bioethics on campus

Yale employees invited to 'Do Downtown!'

'Titanic' discoverer to discuss undersea explorations

Reaccreditation team to visit this fall

Open house marks completion of student-built home

Campus Notes

Bulletin Home|Visiting on Campus| Calendar of Events|Bulletin Board

Classified Ads|Search Archives|Production Schedule|Bulletin Staff

Public Affairs Home|News Releases| E-Mail Us|Yale Home Page