- Photograph by Jim Harrison
Several years ago when a women’s magazine asked CNN special correspondent and 2013 Harvard Class Day speaker Soledad O’Brien ’88 about the best advice she ever received, she recalled what her tough Cuban mother once told her: “Most people are idiots.”
The words were a bit too harsh to make it into the magazine, but O’Brien said the advice has stuck with her because it rang true: Most people are idiots, she said, because instead of building you up, they will tell you why you will fail.
“Do not listen to others people’s take on the life you should lead,” O’Brien told the audience of seniors, families, and friends gathered in Tercentenary Theatre today for the Class Day ceremony. “By not listening, you can figure out what your heart is telling you to do.”
O’Brien called her own parents excellent role models in not listening. Her Cuban mother and Australian father were a couple in Maryland in 1958, when it was illegal to be in an interracial relationship. As they walked down the street together, they were regularly spit on and called names. When O’Brien—one of six children who all graduated from Harvard—asked her mother how she dealt with such racism, her mother replied that she knew America “was better than that,” and wanted to be part of the change.
At Harvard, O’Brien studied English and American literature and was pre-med. But then she realized that telling stories was her passion, so she switched majors and began working at a local television station. “It kind of worked out,” she said. “Now I travel the world telling stories.”
If she has learned one thing from her career in journalism, she said, it is that bad things sometimes happen and they will continue to happen until good people get in the way. She therefore urged the Class of 2013 to be good people and decide who they want to be beyond their professional careers. “People can be mean and unfair, but more—far, far more—people are good and generous and helpful and hopeful,” she declared, adding, “That means you are going to have to lead with an open heart. And it also means that that little heart is going to get stomped on a few more times than you would like.”
Recalling advice that Sheryl Sandberg ’91, M.B.A. ’95, included in her New York Times bestselling book Lean In, O’Brien said that “leaning in” is not just a strategy for women in business early in their careers—it’s advice for everybody. “Lean in to invest your heart and your soul in ideas or people maybe others don’t care for,” she told her audience. “Leaning back when you are young is just another word for cynicism.”
O’Brien closed her speech by asking students probing questions—including “What do you want to stand for?”—and reminding them that their Harvard education obligates them to use their voices to help others, especially those in need. Selflessness, she said, is ultimately what makes you great.
“Not taking advice means you will break those boundaries—those walls that exist that make us feel like we are different from other people we meet,” she said. “Remove people from your life who make you feel bad about who you are and what you want to be…Find greatness and seek out goodness in other people.”
Watch a short excerpt:
The Class Day ceremony also included four student speeches: two Harvard Orations, by Damilare Kolawole Sonoiki and Julie Minda Zauzmer; and two humorous Ivy Orations, by Blythe Burke Roberson and Philip Michael Gillen. Watch highlights below: