Yearbook letter to the Harvard Class of 2021

by Oliver Knill

February 26, 2021

I'm honored to have been voted again by the Class of 2021 as one of their favorite professors. This is a draft for the yearbook letter.
  • "Chamonix" was the letter for the Class of 2012.
  • "Advise" was the letter for the Class of 2018.
  • "Survival" was the letter for the Class of 2020.
  • "Risk" is the letter for the Class of 2021.
See this movie for an epic climb of a mouse.

Dear Class of 2021,

Risks are hard to navigate. We cherish success in sports, business, art or science, even if it involves recklessness. It is most vividly shown in recent climbing adventure movies like ``Free Solo" or ``Dawn wall". We adore the free climber Alex Honnold who without rope climbed a long and difficult route in Yosemite. Or Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson conquering during 19 days a 3000 foot rock never attempted before. On the other hand, we might honor fallen climbers with a Darwin award or label them as being crazy.

Because risks come with danger we try to avoid them. Danger lures everywhere: rock climbing can kill, beach time lead to skin cancer, a hike in the woods could catch lyme disease, a kiss might pick up a virus, eating sugar could lead to diabetes, a business start-up could end in bankruptcy, a joke be answered in silence.

Still, humans have not stopped pushing and also attempted riskier ventures. We have just landed an other Mars rover and might even fly a helicopter there. It was risky. From 17 landing attempts on Mars, 5 failed. The safest would have been not to try. The lunar landings even costed the lives of astronauts, but it has brought technology forward, technology which possibly could save us one day.

We can learn from risk takers in science or sports as they have shown to overcome nay-sayers, handicap, bias or adversity. Alex Honnold was cautioned by close friends and even the film crew who documented the climb. Another climbing legend, Tommy Caldwell reminds in ``Free Solo" about the many deaths of friends like the Swiss alpinist Ueli Steck. Honnold still did it. Taking risks can be brutal. It could also be the next breakthrough idea and push humanity forward or even secure its survival.

I wish you good luck in your future and a strong and smart ability to balance risks. Most of you will try new things and fail, some of you will succeed. In most cases, the outcome will almost certainly depend on circumstances for which you have no control about. Success can be influenced by timing, demand or luck. In the case of humor, it even sometimes needs a bit of magic. In any case, rest assured to have my personal admiration also for any failed attempts. To risk stealing a line from the first Shrek movie: 'some of you may die, but it's a sacrifice I am willing to make'.

So long.

Dawn Wall Shreck Free Solo