Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie urges Harvard grads to develop a “fantastic bullshit detector”

You’ve got work to do.
You’ve got work to do.
Image: AP/Dominic Lipinski
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Today at Harvard University, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told the graduating class of 2018 an anecdote about meeting an established male writer at a conference, well before she herself was famous. She knew his name, but not his works. Despite that, she shook his hand and told him she was a huge fan. Then his wife turned to her: “So which of his books have you read? she asked. Adichie froze. “The one about the man discovering himself?” She fled the scene quickly.

The beloved and bestselling author of Americanah was issuing an imperative to tell the truth. “I’m not asking you to tell the truth because it will always work out,” she said, “But because you will sleep well at night.”

And being an advocate for truth also means being able to suss and call out lies.

Adichie described her deep mortification at the mistake she made speaking to the male writer, and how, after the matter, she developed admiration for the “fantastic bullshit detector” of the writer’s wife. She told the graduates, “So have a good bullshit detector. If you don’t have it now, work on it.”

She went on:

Sometimes, especially in politicized spaces, telling the truth will be an act of courage. Be courageous. Never set out to provoke for the sake of provoking, but never silence yourself out of fear that a truth you speak might provoke. Be courageous. People can be remarkably resistant to the facts that they do not like. But don’t let that silence you from speaking the truth. … Be courageous enough to acknowledge that democracy is always fragile. And that justice has nothing to do with the political left or the political right. Be courageous enough to recognize those things that get in the way of telling the truth: the empty cleverness, the morally bankrupt irony, the desire to please, the deliberate obfuscation, the tendency to confuse cynism for sophistication.

To that end, Adichie implored the crowd of new graduates to throw out the false-modest euphemism, “I went to school in Cambridge.” “Please, class of 2018,” she urged. “When you’re asked where you went to college, just say ‘Harvard.'”