Guys, let’s be honest: The very idea of a graduation speech is silly. We've all had radically different experiences at Princeton, and to try to encapsulate them in a speech would require someone to turn anecdotes into sweeping generalizations, ignore other perspectives, and take ideas from smarter people and pretend they're your own.
Luckily, I just completed four years of precepts at this school, so I am well-prepared to do all of these things.
In true precept form, I’m going to start with an anecdote, kinda get lost for a while, and only stop after I’ve alienated everyone in earshot.
I didn’t realize it then, but I learned one of my greatest lessons walking back from the Street on Princetoween 2010. That night, clad head-to-toe in a bright orange spandex onesie, I took a step forward. Not just into the future, not just into a life of thought and curiosity, but also into a puddle of vomit, in which I faceplanted. Lying there, this is literally what I thought to myself:
“Wow. This could be the vomit of a future Supreme Court Justice.”
To me, that moment captures the Princeton experience: Here, even the darkest moments could lead to bright realizations. That’s why they’re just as important as the happier moments, and why we can’t afford to forget them in the black and orange pageantry of graduation.
You don’t know those dark moments are coming at first, of course. When you first get here, going to Princeton simply seems perfect, like dating a beautiful woman: she’s smart, she’s successful, and damn is she well endowed. But soon enough, like the water polo team all touching their toes, the cracks begin to show.
For example, freshman year I auditioned for seven a cappella groups and got into none of them because I “don’t have the right tone” and they “don’t let guys in the Tigerlilies.” Did I cry? Yes. But I learned how to handle rejection. And not to threaten the Tigerlilies because they have very strong arms.
My first writing seminar draft got destroyed because it didn’t have “a thesis” or “analysis” or “seven of the 10 pages it was supposed to have.” Did I cry? Yes. But I also learned to write like a Princeton student, to produce a truly original contribution to the scholarly debate that will turn my preceptor’s world upside-down as he skims it in 12 seconds and gives it a B.
In the most recent time of darkness, we all spent a year writing a thesis that nobody cares about, including ourselves. Did I cry? No. I wept. But today I know how to ask an interesting question about the world, investigate it like a scientist, and stretch the answer into 70 pages. And it’s all thanks to Princeton … Monticello font.
So despite four years here and my best efforts, I haven't lost my sense of childlike wonder. Or my virginity. Turns out that I'm a lot like the PDF option, in that everyone passes, no one wants to F, and people certainly do not want the D. But it’s okay! It just means I don’t even mind that Shirley Tilghman isn’t here today, because I’m used to women leaving me.
Yet I’m still as wide-eyed as I was four years ago, because the lesson I earned in that puddle of vomit is still true: All the nasty stuff added up to one final realization. When we applied to Princeton, we said we were passionate about learning, that we wanted to change the world, that we deserved to be here. When Princeton admitted us, it didn’t just say “yes”. It said “prove it.” And then, through every challenge, it taught us that we can’t prove it. There will always be someone outshining us: making more money, or getting more PhDs, or scoring more likes on their beach week photos. So we had to learn to value other, more important things: long dinners with friends, or walking through the Institute Woods in the fall, or seeing Jeff Nunokawa running shirtless across campus screaming at the top of his lungs, or being on the dance floor when a really good song comes on, or yelling “Get it, Cameron!” at the DiSiac show, even if we didn’t know Cameron, or even if there wasn’t a Cameron in DiSiac at all. So after four years of worrying about being in the top 35 percent of everything, I realize now that the things that matter the most are the ones that didn’t keep score. So I wish I had spent less time counting. Not that I can count very high — I am a psychology major.
If you feel like I do — and if we’re imagining this is a precept, I’m going to assume that you feel like I do — that doesn’t mean we’ve lost that hunger for achievement that got us here. We will always have that voice inside our head telling us things like, “hey, you’re free on Thursday, why not start an orphanage in Sierra Leone?” And that’s good, that’s what keeps us striving to be the best versions of ourselves. But somewhere deep in the back of our minds, I think — and I hope — that Princeton humbled us enough to know that we can’t measure our lives in achievements alone. What can we measure it in? To that, I can only say the ten words I’ve been dying to every professor and preceptor I’ve had for the past four years: “I don’t know. Why don’t you figure it out yourself?”
I hope that’s the thought we take with us as we go out into the four corners of the world to do everything from corporate finance to wealth management.
Now in one last piece of preceptorial procedure, I’m going to finish with some quick, unsupported platitudes and go shop for shoes online while other people talk.
I know moving on will leave an ugly, gaping hole in our hearts. But if Princeton has taught us anything about ugly, gaping holes, it’s that one day they’ll be beautiful Arts and Transit Neighborhoods. It’s just hard to tell right now. And when we leave, we won’t be like a black North Face brought into Cloister, that is, lost forever. We’ve got the hardest-learned lessons to guide us and the greatest classmates to get lost with. And we have a glittering, beer-soaked north star called Reunions to lead us back here every year. And when we return, we’ll get caught up again both in Princeton’s wonder and its horror, and that’s what’ll make us get super horny, and make out with someone. And maybe that someone will be me.
Will I cry? Yes. But deep in my heart, thanks to what I learned in the darkest moments at Princeton, I won’t be worried about being in the top 35 percent of kissers.
Or maybe we’ll never kiss and I’ll fall in vomit again. Only this time it’ll be from an actual Supreme Court Justice.
And it will be an honor.