Commencement ceremonies were about to begin, but the call hadn’t come in yet. Hours later I was back in my dorm room, diploma in hand, but had still received no message. What was keeping the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office? Didn’t they know I was finally graduating from Harvard? They must have forgotten. Otherwise, they would have called to say, “Hello, Ms. Wilf, we are thrilled that you are finally graduating from Harvard. There’s been a terrible vacuum here for the past four years. How soon can you be here?”
I never received such a call. I spent years in business until one day I realized that no one was ever going to call. No invitation was ever going to be issued. I had been made a victim of that debilitating malady that befalls so many of our best and brightest: the Red Carpet Syndrome.
I probably contracted the Syndrome at an early age. Growing up, I was raised to believe that if I did good work, those at the top would take notice, and one day I would be invited to perform all those important roles I aspired to fill ever since I was a teenager. I would be asked to be Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and later, its foreign minister. Other than the fatal illusion that college in America resembles “Grease,” it’s probably the reason I went to Harvard in the first place. I wanted to make sure that when invitations were issued, I would be prepared with a top-notch education and a diplomat’s English.
No doubt four years of Harvard education aggravated an already sensitive condition. The siren songs of Commencement speeches alone were enough to confer on even the most immune graduate a particularly virulent strain of the Syndrome. After all, we had just been told in English and in Latin that we were incredibly wonderful and talented. It was only normal to expect the world to roll out the Red Carpet for us. Hear ye, hear ye: hundreds of smart, talented, ambitious people are graduating from Harvard. World, make way.
As it turns out, the world doesn’t make way, no matter how great we are and how big our dreams. Whether we believe in God or not, we are secretly driven by the vague feeling that we were not endowed with our brains and talents for nothing. We have a duty to perform, a service to render to the world. We all come to Harvard carrying a dream, a private ambition for ourselves. But most of us will leave our dreams behind as we move through life. Unless our dreams are to become upper-middle class professionals, we will discover that our college dreams are difficult to fulfill. There are only so many senators and congressmen in the U.S. and only so many heads of states in the world. There are only 500 CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, few major Hollywood producers, and even fewer best-selling authors. Most of them didn’t go to Harvard. None of them ever got invited. No one is about to make way for us.
To fulfill our dreams, we must overcome the Red Carpet Syndrome. The sooner we do so, the sooner we can embark on the path less traveled. As long as we have the Syndrome we will be limited to the safer paths. We will work for companies that do roll out the red carpet for us, but we will never take a risk for the things we really want.
This week, as you listen to the Commencement speeches, enjoy their honey but beware their sting. Carry your dreams with you as you go out into the world, and let them be your guiding lights. Take risks, fail at least once, and get used to the feeling, because you might fail again. Be ambitious but patient, and above all, don’t give up. Life issues no invitations. So go ahead, crash the party.
Einat Wilf ’96 is a former foreign policy advisor to Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres and a recent candidate for Israel’s parliament
(The piece was published in the Harvard Crimson for the commencement ceremony of the Harvard Class of 2006 – my 10th year reunion)