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Chang-rae Lee Keynote Speech at the 8th Symposium of Rising Scholars

4 minute read

For Polygence’s 8th Symposium of Rising Scholars, we were so fortunate to have Chang Rae Lee as our keynote speaker, sharing insightful stories about his career and youth to our students. Chang-rae Lee is the writer of six novels, the recipient of numerous literary awards, and a professor of creative writing at Stanford University (formerly at Princeton University). Professor Lee’s story of how he pursued his passion is applicable to students interested in pursuing all disciplines and walks of life. Whether you are a budding artist thinking about pursuing painting but are worried about job prospects, or an aspiring doctor excited and anxious about the long and arduous journey that is medical school - you can find inspiration and solace in Professor Lee’s remarks. As mentioned, read on if you want a tl;dr version of the keynote speech, but we also highly recommend watching the full presentation.

Cultivating His Passion for Writing

Chang-rae Lee’s interest in writing started out with accepting “realities.” He accepted the reality that he wasn’t going to be a pro athlete, and that he was not particularly good at math. But he had always enjoyed reading books despite the fact that the local high school he attended for one year treated literature as merely material for memorization.

It was only when he started attending a prep school did he find himself in an environment where he began to see “language itself as a wondrous creation,” and was surrounded by classmates who seemed to appreciate literature as well. He soon after started writing poems, even if they were bad (by his standards).

What I took away from this part of Lee’s speech is that often passion can be cultivated if you’re in the right environment. If you’re surrounded by others who care about similar topics, it can provide the spark you need to start pursuing something. This “right environment” can happen in a school club, classroom, or even an online community. At the same time, I think Chang-rae Lee may have been a bit lucky in that he had somewhat of a clear passion for reading and writing from an early age, whereas others may have to spend a bit more time discovering their passions.

Writing His First Novel

Chang-rae Lee’s first job out of college was on Wall Street, a job that he didn’t particularly hate but knew wasn’t right for him. He ended up quitting his job to write his first novel, thinking that it was going to be his ticket to literary glory. Lee said that he was writing constantly, sometimes to just keep hearing the sound of the keys, before ultimately finishing and feeling a sense of accomplishment. However, his novel was rejected by the publishing house. Lee spent some time trying to see what could be changed about it, but ultimately decided to leave it and try working on a new novel, feeling revived by the acceptance of failure.

“It was an utterly diminishing moment, this plain admission and acceptance of failure, and yet I must say I felt the small and intense shock of a revival too…I still desired to keep writing and keep working. It was like looking up at the sheer, unforgiving face of a thousand foot rock, having no equipment or tools or special shoes, and knowing despite the signs that you would soon begin searching anyway…”

I believe the above sound bite really captures what it means to be passionate about something. It means that you’re determined to keep working at something, even after a tremendous failure where you put a ton of effort into something. It’s the same way I feel about playing tennis, where usually after losing a close match I’ll typically be down on myself for the next few hours, but by the next morning I’m hungry to start practicing again. For more on following passions from the perspective of Harvard PhD, check out our recent blog post.

This story also emphasizes the importance of persistence. Lee is obviously a very decorated writer now, but his first novel was never even published. There are often lofty expectations that we set for ourselves even when we try something for the first time, and we shouldn’t be discouraged by failure.

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Understanding the Realities and Urges in Your Life

In the Q&A portion of the keynote presentation, one of the questions asked was,

What advice would you give high schoolers today who feel obliged to pursue careers in STEM, but would rather dedicate their time to language and writing?

Lee acknowledges that many of his Stanford students come from modest backgrounds, and he tells them that they should honor the financial realities of their lives while still maintaining their passions.

“Honor the realities of your life!  That's what we do as children and humans. But don't ever let go of your passions.”

Lee is of the belief that if there is something that you’re passionate about, it will rise up in you to the point where it becomes impossible to ignore. At that point, you can decide whether you have the financial capacity and time to start dedicating more to writing (or whatever else is calling to you!). He contrasts this feeling with stories of his older Wall Street colleagues, who always said that they wanted to write a novel, but they never did, perhaps because they never wanted it badly enough. I think the key takeaway here is that passions are a dynamic entity - sometimes they rise up and other times they may subside, but it’s important to pay attention to them.

The Similarities Between Writing Fiction and Research

Another question from the Q&A asked about the similarities between writing fiction and writing academic research papers. Lee discussed how the main similarity is the need for specificity in both types of writing. Being specific in fiction, which can mean including key details about a character’s background or what they’re thinking in a particular moment, gives the fiction its life. Lee mentions how most of his students who come in with little fiction writing experience often write in broad generalizations. Specificity is also extremely important for research papers, as there needs to be detailed analysis of references/sources, and a great thesis statement needs to be specific enough so that a debatable and compelling argument can be made. 

We were so grateful to have Chang-rae Lee speak at our 8th Symposium of Rising Scholars, and hopefully you took away something valuable from his talk!

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