In retrospect, his words seem bitterly ironic.
The vice president, Joe Biden, describing the satisfaction he found in the success of his eldest son, Beau Biden, in remarks in May for the graduating Yale class of 2015. Two weeks later, his son died of brain cancer.
We don’t recall Biden’s speech to peer into his personal tragedy. Or to stoke public speculation about a possible bid for the presidency.
We dwell on his valediction for the class of 2015 in welcoming the class of 2019, offering a bit of advice as you begin college. Biden’s speech holds lessons relevant not only for freshly minted graduates but for freshmen who arrive on campus today as new students — imagining the next four years of your life unfolding along these flagstone walkways and between these arched gates. Welcome. We’re thrilled to have you.
What Biden said about life after Yale is that success involves balancing ambition and happiness and putting aside convention in service of what is important. The same seems true for the brief four years we spend at Yale.
All of you have worked hard to get to this point. Some of you have surmounted formidable geographical, financial or cultural barriers to come here. You’ve withstood the blood sport of standardized testing and college admissions. And now you take your place at Yale. How will you live here?
The vice president’s words are instructive.
“There’s nothing particularly unique about me,” Biden said.
You are a small fish in a big pond. There are more than 12,000 students here, across the college, the graduate school and the professional schools. Groundbreaking research is being conducted as you read this. New insights are being made into centuries-old texts. A city filled with promise but beset by many difficulties lies beyond the gates of your residential college; New Haven can’t be ignored.
Let your smallness inspire you. You have an immense amount to learn. Listen carefully. Ask questions. And then question the answers you get. If you don’t like the standards your parents, peers or high school teachers have set for you, set your own.
As Biden said, “Neither I, nor anyone else, can tell you what will make you happy, help you find success.” Search for classes and friends and activities that will invigorate you. Take time to think, to correct your mistakes. Let yourself be surprised, outraged and impassioned.
Above all, search for understanding not merely in your course work but in your relationships with others. Let people in, and aim to know them in return. “Seek to find that sweet spot that satisfies your ambition and success and happiness.” It’s a tall order, but it’s why you’re here. It’s why, Biden said, he was able to endure the death of his daughter and his first wife. “Ambition without perspective can be a killer.”
Perspective means being willing to depart from the path that has been laid for you. It means being willing to buck tradition and the expectations of others when something important is at stake. Creativity is prized at Yale. We all want to be unique. But there is also a powerful urge to conform — to take this type of class, pursue that career goal, run in a certain social circle and see the world in a certain way. This is perhaps the greatest obstacle to taking full advantage of college.
It’s a lot easier to criticize than to engage. Don’t be proud of being jaded. Intellectual passion is not gauche. Don’t apologize for skipping a night out in favor of a book or a long night of sleep. And don’t apologize for doing the opposite.
“Some of the things your heart will tell you to do, will make you among your peers look foolish, or not smart, or not sophisticated,” Biden said. “But we’ll all be better for people of your consequence to do it.”
This was the vice president’s final message to the class of 2015, and it’s the note on which we’ll leave you as well. Take risks. Trust your instincts. Try again.