Student Commencement Speech by Marian L. Leonardo
"The Luck of a Doer"
For many years I've had a passage from a Theodore Roosevelt speech sitting framed on top of my dresser. It faces me every morning, putting into perspective the trials of senior year, challenging me when I wake up complacent, and occasionally annoying me when I feel like wallowing in self-pity. It is titled The Doer, and I keep it near my mirror, next to the program from Ariel's memorial service, where in my vanity I cannot ignore it.
"It is not the critic that counts," it reads, "not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in worthy cause. Who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither defeat nor victory."
The philosophy of the doer appeals to me. In contrast to my experiences in real life, where success is so often the result of knowing the right person, having the best smile, or being in the right place at the right time, the value of our lives, according to the doer, is completely within our control. We can control our decisions and actions if not always their consequences. The rewards of risking defeat for a worthy cause are inherent and independent of the success of that venture. The role of critic, standing outside the arena and distanced from both victory and defeat, is always inferior.
I've reflected on this thought frequently this senior year, when I received rejection letters from fellowships that I wanted more than anything; when I lunged for a tackle in a rugby game and hit nothing but dirt; or when I was my own worst critic, thinking that my thesis was woefully imperfect and that the commencement speech I submitted was an embarrassment. Saying that the credit belongs to the woman in the arena, and that it's not the critic who counts, doesn't make the bruises go away or pay for grad school. It does let us judge ourselves by our own standard and take control of our lives, so that in the end we might have found them worthwhile, and not realize that we had tiptoed through life merely to arrive safely at death.
The end may not be in 50 years. It may be this afternoon, maybe tomorrow. One of the greatest challenges facing us as we leave here with our high hopes for the future is to not let our ideas of what we might do and who we might become cloud our responsibility for who we are now. This is where the optimism in the doer is coupled with a challenge. Be bold and daring in support of a cause that you deem worthy, and do it now. There is no better time. Tomorrow belongs to luck, but the present is yours. It is riskier to put off the doing - until you have a better job, until your kids leave the house, or Comet Hyakutake comes around again - than it is to take action now. There is no better time to live up to the Wellesley motto "to serve and not be served," whether that means taking a job that pays poverty wages but makes your day feel worthwhile, or venturing off to frightening new territory - be it New York or Norway. There is no better time, because luck is with us today.
Luck is the other half of the equation - the part that the doer can't control. By acknowledging the role of luck on this occasion, I wish not to encroach on today's spirit of optimism and accomplishment with a twenty-two-year-old's cheap cynicism, but rather to bring to mind the responsibility, the compassion, and the gratitude that our good luck demands of us. We all know by now that there is no guarantee that hard work will reap the rewards of our choosing. And, to my great benefit I often think, hard work is not always even a prerequisite to such rewards. As graduates, we have a lot to be proud of. But our pride of accomplishment must be coupled with the humility inherent in the realization that despite our hard work, our brilliant intellects, and sparkling personalities, we are here today receiving Wellesley diplomas because we have been very lucky.
We are lucky to be in a time and a place that affords women an uncommon freedom to pursue their own personal and intellectual fulfillment. We are lucky to have families that value education, and my have made great sacrifices to help us attain ours. We are lucky to have generous alumnae donors and government loans to make such an expensive education a possibility for so many of us. For every one of us, there are thousands who have worked just as hard, are just as bright, but just aren't as lucky. And because we are both lucky and educated enough to know it, we must have compassion, we must appreciate those who have helped us, and we must take charge of the part of destiny that is our responsibility - the doing. If loftier ideals are not motivation enough, remember that luck is fickle, and our luck might run out.
I think a lot about luck running out as I plan for my upcoming travels in South America, and I realize that my friends are equally terrified about their first teaching jobs, the challenges of medical school, or the great uncertainty of not having immediate plans and not knowing what they'll be doing in a month. We are all embarking on a journey of sorts, into varying degrees of uncertainty and fear. That is something to celebrate. To paraphrase Camus, what gives value to travel is fear. It breaks down an inner structure we have. One can no longer hide behind the hours spent in class and in the library - those hours we sometimes protest so loudly which protect us so well from the pain of being alone. We will all find new structures and routines soon enough, but perhaps in this unstructured time of transition, be it a week or a year, we can come to truly appreciate what we have had here, to understand the devotion of alumnae before us, to recognize and embrace our elusive independence.
Though we are leaving Wellesley today to enter what some would call the real world, be confident in knowing that we are not stepping for the first time into the doer's arena, forced to decide between risking great failure or acquiescing to a timid soul. We are in the arena now, and we've made the choice time and time again. As long as we have the luck to live we have the opportunity to become doers, to know at best in the end the triumph of high achievement, and at worst, if we fail, at least fail while daring greatly, so that our places shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither defeat nor victory. Celebrate the risk. Bring on the dust and sweat and blood. Get a little dirty.