Natalie Portman, 33, who attended Harvard College from 1999 to 2003 and earned an A.B. in psychology, reflected on her own experiences at the University and in her career as she battled self-doubt. Even 12 years after graduation, with an enviable body of work and a rich personal life, she confessed to still feeling pangs of insecurity:
“Today I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999,” she said. “I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress.”
Describing herself as “completely overwhelmed” and intimidated by many of her classmates, Portman said she spent her early years here trying to prove to others — and herself — that she was a serious student by taking only very difficult courses. But after a while, she said, “I realized that seriousness for seriousness’ sake was its own kind of trophy, and a dubious one, a pose I sought to counter some half-imagined argument about who I was.”
Portman counseled graduating seniors to find their own internal motivation and satisfaction from the choices they make in their lives, and not to allow others’ opinions or expectations to rule them:
“Sometimes your insecurities and your inexperience may lead you, too, to embrace other people’s expectations, standards, or values,” Portman said. “But you can harness that inexperience to carve out your own path, one that is free of the burden of knowing how things are supposed to be, a path that is defined by its own particular set of reasons.
“Achievement is wonderful when you know why you’re doing it. And when you don’t know, it can be a terrible trap,” she said.
“Accept your lack of knowledge, and use it as your asset.”
She added, “If your reasons are your own, your path, even if it’s a strange and clumsy path, will be wholly yours, and you will control the rewards of what you do by making your internal life fulfilling.”
Watch the full talk below.