In her valedictory address at yesterday’s Class of 2022 commencement, Rebecca Chou ’22 shared how her Lawrenceville successes and failures have influenced her and prepared her for the future.
Two years ago, I decided that I was going to become a runner. Almost immediately, I was caught up in painstaking planning: Which shoes to wear? What route to take? What pace am I supposed to run? I was lost before I began. I finally broke down and called someone who actually runs, Thomas, and his advice boiled down to “see if you can make it a mile without stopping.”
I did end up running a mile. I ran it in 13 minutes, which, for context, is the average 5K pace of a 60-year-old woman. When I told Thomas afterward, he said with genuine surprise, “Wow, I didn’t think you’d make it a mile!”
As discouraging as it sounds, there was unexpected liberation in knowing that both of us wholeheartedly expected me to fail. Once I left behind the expectation of being perfect—or even good—I set aside the overthinking that kept me from stepping outside in the first place. To be clear, I never did “become a runner.” I never hit a half-decent mile time and I definitely did not join the track team. I did learn two lessons from my running escapade, though. One, I really hate running. Two, I can be happy doing things badly, despite the world of expectation around us.
For the majority of my time at Lawrenceville, I’ve had a fear of doing anything poorly. I can’t recall our freshman orientation exactly, but I do remember the overwhelming sentiment that we were stepping into the shoes of past Lawrentians far more accomplished than ourselves. I continually thought back to the saying, “Anything worth doing should be done well,” and thought, That’s supposed to be us. We were to become the people who would, eventually, change the world. And for the majority of my time here, living up to my idea of a Lawrentian has felt impossible. “Anything worth doing should be done well” felt like “Anything worth doing must be done perfectly.”
Setting the bar at perfection didn’t even seem unreasonable when I looked to my classmates. While Witt was researching genetics in the fruit-fly lab, Summer was editing and illustrating a book on the stories of refugee children. I was in awe watching Minh on the stage or Maria on the court. But I had no idea where I stood against this backdrop of brilliance. I felt like I had stumbled into a school that I had no right to be in. Most days I found myself thinking: “Today is the day that they find me out. Today is the day everybody discovers that I’ve accidentally tricked them all into thinking I’m smart and talented, and today they find out that I’m actually a fraud.”
In hindsight, those fears were ridiculous; yet I know that the feeling of being out of place is one that will return time and time again. Even Neil Armstrong, on being invited to a gathering of great scientists and artists and discoverers, once said: “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.” And if the first man on the moon feels like a fraud sometimes, then maybe it’s okay for us to feel like that, too.
In the end, I proved my fears right. Not in that I could never live up to my idea of a Lawrentian, but that I could not possibly be perfect—or even good—at everything I attempted. The nature of Lawrenceville made it impossible to avoid stepping outside my comfort zone, and it has been through exploration that I’ve had some of the most fulfilling experiences of my time at Lawrenceville. Our freshman Shakespeare play, for instance, was my first and only experience in theater. Despite not being and not becoming any kind of actor, I found irreplaceable friendships through that production. And while I have never once taken a dance class or even taken to the dance floor, floundering through the senior girls dance will always be a treasured memory of mine. I did badly at Lawrenceville, and I reveled in it.
And while I struggled, failed, and embarrassed myself time and time again, the Lawrenceville community has always had my back. In dancing, I’ve had Kaj’s endless optimism that I might somehow learn to do a body roll, even when I look like I’m trying to do the worm in the air. In theater, I’ve had Yee’s patience and positivity as I took note after note on how to properly die onstage. I learned to rely on those brilliant classmates of mine and learned to trust in my belonging among them.
Of course, Lawrenceville is not a perfect model of the real world, and our fears are not always as trivial as dreading the day somebody sees how slow we run. More often than not, failures come at a greater cost than embarrassment, and the issues we’ll face will undoubtedly have more importance and more consequences. But I like to believe that the same principle holds true: we don’t just have to accept the fact that we aren’t all superhumans—though some of you out there come close—but can actively find fulfillment in imperfection. That doing things badly, in and of itself, can be good.
One of my favorite quotes comes from writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton, and it goes: “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” For a long time, I believed “Anything worth doing must be done perfectly” because I believed that a worthwhile task should be performed by someone who could do the role justice. The person who could do it right the first time. But G.K. Chesterton was a proponent of the idea that great advancements are not necessarily executed by geniuses or experts, but often by amateurs. Because there is no one person, or any person, who can change the world alone. Progress must be made, then, by those who are willing to try.
When Lawrenceville tells us we have a responsibility to change the world, we are not bound to perfection. We are bound to bravery. We are bound to initiative. And above all, we are bound to using what we’ve learned here to begin somewhere new.
Thank you, and congratulations to the Class of 2022!
For additional information, contact Lisa M. Gillard H'17, director of public relations, at firstname.lastname@example.org.