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You’re Not Special No. 2

After college

There is something so twistedly beautiful about a Harvard administrative website. From the OSL, to the FAS, to the HMC, to the GFAO, and all the way to the MAC, Harvard’s sites piece together a mix of classic Harvard prestige and current bureaucratic inefficiency into modern-ish webpage designs that make you chuckle to yourself and mutter “classic.” This past spring break, during a fit of boredom, I struck Harvard administrative website gold: www.alumni.harvard.edu/college/classes.

It’s a page that contains links to the official websites of each graduating class at Harvard, since 1955. Immediately upon loading the page, you can tell that you’re in for a treat. On the left-hand-side, there is a sidebar entitled “From the Dean.” It features an oddly cropped picture of an awkwardly smiling Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael Smith, accompanied by the following quote: “To kindle understanding, to untangle knots, to inspire spirits, and to excite minds—this is the power and the passion of teaching.”

I’m sure the straight-talking generation of the Class of 1955 can rest easy knowing their alumni donation dollars are helping students “untangle knots.”

The best part is browsing the listed class websites, as each seems to be created by members of the classes they represent. It’s just what you’d expect: The 50s websites look like straight html texts, with P.O. boxes to contact instead of emails. By the 70s and 80s, you have some blogger sites with nice pictures on the sides and at the top. By the 2010s, you have really sexy interactive sites, with moving images and text blocks.

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As I browsed the pages, I saw pictures of weight-gaining 30-year-olds at the 10th class reunions, pictures of middle-aged men and women at their 35th reunions, and old geezers waddling around Harvard Yard with smiles from wrinkly ear to wrinkly ear at their 50th reunions. As a senior, going through these sites is kind of like going through a B-movie montage of your life, where the studio couldn’t find the money to hire similar-looking actors for each scene and could only find white men to play the older roles.

Looking through them got me thinking about the future, the life I may have, and the impact I may make. I looked up some numbers: There’ve been more than 250,000 students who have graduated from Harvard since 1910. Of those, I could probably name about three dozen famous ones who have really made an impact on the world. There are many, many more non-world-famous ones who’ve made a significant positive impact. But I wonder how many of them just kind of wandered through life without any groundbreaking achievements, who kinda did their own thing and faded into obscurity. How many have done that? Will I do that?

As I further explored the sites, I stumbled upon the alumni directory, a database of almost all the alumni from all Harvard schools since 1930. I searched for a name and looked into the first four entries listed.

The four people I found had some varied life paths. There was a 2012 graduate who has some pretty broey pics online and currently works in investment management. One graduate from the 60s is a professor at a medical school in Washington. Another, who graduated in the 70s, works in real estate development and law in California. And the last person was a badass graduate from Radcliffe in the 70s, who met an untimely death while in her position as a professor of English in California.

There’s only so much I could glean from quick internet searches. I don’t know how happy these people are or were. I don’t know how much satisfaction they get or got from their work. I don’t know about their love lives.

One thing is clear though: They don’t fit the typical Harvard definition of “special.” Like hundreds of thousands of their alumni peers, they’re probably somewhat well respected in their fields but not broadly famous. They’re probably wealthy but not incredibly wealthy. They probably make a large impact in some niche of the world but not an impact that directly affects the lives of millions. By Harvard standards, they’re not special.

At Harvard, grade inflation makes us all brilliant. Famous guest speakers come to campus, making us feel distinctive. And administrators tell us over and over again that we’re exceptional. But, at the end of the day, after the four years, after the three years in consulting, after the 10th reunion, the 35th reunion, and the 50th reunion…the odds are, we’re not going to have done anything truly “special” with our lives. We’ll occupy respected positions. But we won’t control the kind of broad power or fame that Harvard may lead us to expect.

As the Class of 2016 prepares to graduate, we’re all asking ourselves this big question: Are we going to be special? And if we define success as specialness, will we be successful?

…Well, probably not.

But as I look at those four profiles from Harvard’s past, I wonder about unobservables: their job happiness, security of home, love of family. Maybe success is not the same thing as specialness. Maybe it’s those really not special, really non-exceptional things that happy people share: love for the things they do and the people they’re with.

I don’t know. It’s hard to define success. We can spend our lives trying to be special. But maybe…maybe the rest will be enough.


Dashiell F. Young-Saver ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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