The Harvard Fallacy

I’m about to throw out something that could offend some people or come across as snarky, so consider this fair warning.

I went to Harvard. I graduated “with honors”, having dutifully written my senior thesis on the role of Complement Receptor 2 in the progression of lupus in a mouse model. In plain English, I described what happened when we bred mice deficient in a certain protein, and the results looked a lot like the human disease called lupus. Two copies of my thesis, leather-bound, are sitting on a shelf somewhere in my parents’ house. I’ve done some other things since then, each of which may sound “sexy” in its own way, to different groups of people. I graduated from medical school. I was a partner in a private equity firm. I started my own business, teaching children the fundamentals of learning and life through violin.

But what if, even after all of that, I haven’t yet taken the greatest risk that could lead to the full manifestation of my creative life force, and fulfillment of the remaining dormant dreams within me? What if my need for success at each step of my life – the declaration that “failure is not an option” – has not only led to a series of “successes” but also in fact limited my potential?

I ask this question from the perspective of several observations, which I’ll summarize here. First is with my students. I started my business and always believed that there would be no selection criteria for the students admitted to the program – only for the parents. As long as I could work with the parents, and they could carry out my message, then I knew that any child of any ability could do the work necessary to learn to play the violin. I’ve seen this happen over and over again in my school, and I know that with enough patience and resilience, it will continue to be possible over and over again in the future. I’ve always bristled at the labels “prodigy” or “gifted” or “talented” when it comes to people, because I believe that any snapshot that we see of a person’s performance is the result of a unique combination of innate ability, the right kind of practice, the right kind of guidance, the right amount of dedication (a lot), and the environment to support all of those things coming together. It’s not just a “chosen few” who have access to a certain level of talent. But perhaps it’s a lucky few who encounter all those circumstances aligning over the right period of time in their lives to make the most of their abilities. I feel like I am one cog in the complex machinery that goes into propelling a child’s life forward. But I have seen with my own eyes that a coordinated, well-oiled machine that nurtures the right process – something Carol Dweck calls “growth mindset” – can do wonders for any child’s development. This has led me to believe deeply in each human being’s limitless potential.

Second is with a particular group of my college classmates. I was the only person from my 500-person graduating high school class to go to Harvard. For a variety of reasons, I never expected to be surrounded by “people like me” and yet I did long for an eventual sense of belonging and understanding that comes from shared experiences. Since graduating from college, I have never been surrounded by a large concentration of Harvard alumni. At University of Michigan, thirty percent of my medical school class had graduated from Michigan as undergrads. A full fifty percent of the class had gone to high school in Michigan. There was exactly one other Harvard alum in my class of 170. So I didn’t exactly walk into a culture of shared understanding about what I’ll call the “Harvard fallacy”. When I moved to the Bay Area in 2004, part of me was excited at the chance to be around more people “like me”. Meaning what? Well, I had plenty of hats that I had worn in the past that could potentially connect me with people out here – the Harvard thing, the doctor thing, the finance thing, and now the “startup” thing. But I hit the ground running, and focused fervently on building my business, not worrying too much about the few cocktail party conversations I had that left people with an odd array of reactions – sometimes it was a stunned silence, not knowing what to say in response to my passionate proselytizing about the vision for The Music Within Us (even when I had just two students). Other times it was a polite attempt to summarize their understanding of what I’d said, creating a reference to something they knew, like, “Oh yeah, my cousin grew up taking piano lessons. I know what that’s like. Wow.” or “Let me think if I know anyone with little kids who might want to take lessons. I’ll send them your way.” Neither was really the type of engagement I was looking for.

But I was unflappable in those early days. For more than two years, I kept pounding the table at those same cocktail parties, attached to my story and my identity more than trying to “market” or recruit students from any of these gatherings. I knew that students would come, once I had a chance to show my product – meaning, once my students could go out and perform. It was my teacher who encouraged me to take the group out as often as possible, even in the early stages, to give them performance experience. I never thought they were quite “ready”, but I followed her advice. Taking this early risk has led to a remarkable array of performances for a group of children this age, and has become one of the signature aspects of my program.

At these cocktail parties were a gathering of highly educated (often from fancy Ivy League institutions), well-employed professionals who, almost uniformly, had secured the trappings of success for themselves. They were owning homes, holding down jobs with big companies, putting away retirement money, traveling the world in their freetime, and all under the age of 35. Almost no one was married yet, and everyone seemed to be enjoying the freedom of this life of coziness and relative security.

But there was a vacuity to the conversations that bothered me. It seemed to me that the people who frequented these gatherings got together in order to escape together. To bond over the passionless comforts of success that they were supposed to be enjoying. It seemed that they created events in order to compensate for the lack of direction and purpose in their day-to-day lives. Going to work, coming home, and looking at a growing bank account didn’t make a lot of sense without something “fun” to do with it. And so gave rise to these gatherings. Needless to say, they weren’t that fun, for me at least. I kept searching these crowded rooms for people who had done something with their fancy educations other than just “get a job”. People who hadn’t simply been satisfied with going up the prescribed ladder, or holding on to the next job until summoned to move on, either through a layoff or a promotion. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I’d like to believe that they were justified by the outsized opportunities they had been given in their lives – degrees from blue-chip institutions, jobs with sexy companies, a chance to live in the Bay Area… I mean, to me this was The Dream! I had come out here to be surrounded by other people who embraced the dreaminess of this dream-like place we live in! And yet, to me, they were taking it all for granted. Wasting it. Consuming, but not producing anything of meaning with the wealth of resources at hand.

And that really pisses me off. To the point where I find it very difficult to spend time at these cocktail parties anymore. I can’t pretend to engage in yet another conversation about someone’s vacation in Belize, or hiking trip in Costa Rica, when it’s all an escape. If you are an Ivy-League educated person, and especially if you are the child of immigrants who risked everything to give you the chance at living your dreams, and now the sole purpose of your work is to fund your escapes, then I think you are missing a huge opportunity.

No, let me take it further. I think you are WASTING the huge opportunities you have already been given. [This is where I know I will offend some people, but please read on.] You are embodying the “Harvard fallacy”: that somehow, by virtue of the fact that you happened to be one of the 9% of applicants during your year who got accepted to one particular college, you are automatically entitled to “more” in life. That people will actually reward you merely for having this label, and if they don’t immediately recognize your superiority, then you should immediately move on to someone who does. You will walk around for the rest of your adult life with this expectation, this fallacy, and you will have one of two responses: you will be continually disappointed when people don’t care, or you will take great care to surround yourself only with people who do.

Maybe my expectations are so high because I work with children, who are as yet untainted by any labels of what their potential should or shouldn’t be. They haven’t yet been told that they can’t do something, or that it’s difficult. They just do it. They just keep doing it. And they discover that yes, eventually they can do it. One small success, which was achieved only after many more small failures, gives them the confidence to keep going, both with the knowing that they will have to fail again along the way, and the belief that another success is just around the corner.

If you believe Jim Rohn’s adage that “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” then maybe you’ll understand why I’ve reevaluated the amount of time I spend with people I consider to be living in the “Harvard fallacy”. Maybe this whole description speaks to the quality of the network I’ve managed to develop so far, having moved out here knowing no one, and having started a solo-run business in an esoteric field. Call it what you will, but it is time for a change.

OK, I’m done with snarky, and ready for some inspirational.

The greater our capacity for success, the greater our responsibility to do something that may scare us, and that may bring us to the edge of failure, because beyond that edge is where our greatness awaits us.

Each of us has something unique to offer the world, if we have the courage to dream, and the determination to make our dreams come true.

– Betty Haag Kuhnke

Most of us have a dream tucked away inside us, probably unvoiced or unattempted. So start with courage. And then grapple with the hard part – determination. How determined you are will be tested by how many failures you are willing to go through before your dream really does come true. I’ve seen this happen week after week with my students, and I’ve seen little impossible dreams become possible. So why is it so hard for a bunch of Harvard graduates to find it in themselves to go for a dream? Why do so many tiptoe, covering little ground and taking only tentative steps that never lead to a definitive failure or success? What is the missing link? Is it the exact opposite of growth mindset, what Carol Dweck calls “fixed mindset” – the fear of never living up to the “Harvard brand” or any previous success, which leads a person never to risk a possible failure?

I write all of this, of course, because I’m asking the same questions of myself at this juncture in my life. I have always felt that “failure is not an option”, and through a combination of luck, very focused work, and sheer determination, I have made that statement somewhat true – in one definition. I have made for a clean résumé, if I were to rattle off my list of major life experiences so far. But have I really even reached for my greatest success, if I have never allowed for failures along the way?

Conan O’Brien, in his Commencement speech at Harvard back in 2000, said it best:

I’ve dwelled on my failures today because, as graduates of Harvard, your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way.

I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of The Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet, every failure was freeing, and today I’m as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good.

It’s really worth reading the text or watching the video of this address. It’s great. I’ve revisited it about every three years since I first saw it.

Personally, I know it is hard for me to imagine being “nostalgic about the bad”. I have been blessed with abilities and experiences that have enabled me to mask (at least publicly) my capacity to fail. But these blessings are not the true gifts of my life. Only when I demonstrate my capacity to reach beyond those masks, into the zone of potential failure, and to embrace these as essential, will I come to experience the beautiful fullness of my life.

We can only teach what we have actually learned for ourselves. It’s time for me to get to my own next level.

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One Response to The Harvard Fallacy

  1. dancerk says:

    I think this is the best post you’ve written so far.

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