13 Inspirational Quotes From Attorney and Author Helen Wan And A Dozen Other Commencement Speakers

“Aren’t you sharp as a tack?
You some type of lawyer or something?
Somebody important or something?
Well, I ain’t passed the bar, but I know a little bit.”

Last month, Above the Law highlighted some of the big names speaking at law school commencements this graduation season.

This month, I had the opportunity to reconnect with one of the featured speakers on the list: Helen Wan, author of “The Partner Track.” Wan will serve as the University of Virginia School of Law’s commencement speaker for the Class of 2023 on Sunday, May 21.

In our interview for the “Charge the Wave” podcast episode, we covered:

  • How and why Wan came to document her Biglaw experiences into her debut novel, “The Partner Track”
  • The advice she received when she started her writing project over 20 years ago
  • What inspired her to become an author
  • Her Netflix experience and the next projects on the horizon
  • Wan’s advice for aspiring authors and attorneys.

Here is some notable career advice by Wan that I hope reverberates with this year’s graduating class:

I think the best piece of advice that I could give folks who are just starting out would be to take the, take the time to do the research and meet the people that you meet to get a real authentic sense of the corporate culture or not necessarily corporate of the culture of whatever workplace you’re entering into.

And that means not just the people at the more junior levels, but, but really trying to introduce yourself in an organic and real way to people at the more the mid-level and senior level, you know, roles at your workplace and just get a sense of their career trajectory, how long it took people to get to a certain place.

Also importantly, whether the place where those folks are is someplace that looks actually good to you. So in other words, just because you can collect a whole bunch of gold stars, it doesn’t mean you have to, just make sure that the gold stars are the right ones.

If you are part of this spring’s graduation cohort or a recent graduate, I recommend you check out the rest of the podcast. Additionally, here are a dozen more quotes from some of our favorite past graduation keynote speakers to inspire you this commencement season:

There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas. And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you – you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life. That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair. Nobody promised you a crystal stair. And if you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the world as it is.

Barack Obama, Howard University, 2016

There is no straight path from your seat today to where you are going … . Careers are not ladders, those days are long gone, but jungle gyms. Don’t just move up and down, don’t just look up, look backwards, sideways around corners. Your career and your life will have starts and stops and zigs and zags. Don’t stress out about the white space – the path you can’t draw – because there in lies both the surprises and the opportunities.

Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard University, 2014

Ditch the dream and be a doer, not a dreamer. Maybe you know exactly what it is you dream of being, or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real. Just … do. So you think, ‘I wish I could travel.’ Great. Sell your crappy car, buy a ticket to Bangkok, and go … . You don’t have a job? Get one. Any job. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical opportunity. Who are you? Prince William? No. Get a job. Go to work. Do something until you can do something else.

Shonda Rhimes, Dartmouth College, 2014

You’ll meet a lot of people who, to put it simply, don’t know what they’re talking about … . Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt.

Aaron Sorkin, Syracuse University, 2012

Scientists have given a new name to the deaths that occur in surgery after something goes wrong — whether it is an infection or some bizarre twist of the stomach. They call them a ‘Failure to Rescue.’ More than anything, this is what distinguished the great from the mediocre. They didn’t fail less. They rescued more … . You will have failures. But it’s what happens afterwards that is defining. A failure often does not have to be a failure at all. However, you have to be ready for it — Will you admit when things go wrong? Will you take steps to set them right? — Because the difference between triumph and defeat, you’ll find, isn’t about willingness to take risks. It’s about mastery of rescue.

Atul Gawande, Williams College, 2012

My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either … . Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

Michael Lewis, Princeton University, 2012

In 2000, I told graduates ‘Don’t be afraid to fail.’  Well now I’m here to tell you that, though you should not fear failure, you should do your very best to avoid it. Nietzsche famously said ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ But what he failed to stress is that IT ALMOST KILLS YOU. Disappointment stings and, for driven, successful people like yourselves it is disorienting. What Nietzsche should have said is ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you watch a lot of Cartoon Network and drink mid-price Chardonnay at 11 in the morning.’

Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College, 2011

In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue — a complex problem, a deep inequity, and become a specialist on it … . Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives … . I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities, on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.

Bill Gates, Harvard University, 2007

Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary … . Stay hungry, stay foolish.

Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox.

Toni Morrison, Wellesley College, 2004

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders. Respect your elders.

Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, 1997

The work itself is the reward, and if I choose challenging work, it’ll pay me back with interest. At least I’ll be interested, even if nobody else is.

Meryl Streep, Vassar College, 1983

You’ve all heard these maxims a million times before — “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration,” “the best way to predict the future is to create it,” “the harder I work, the luckier I get,” “life’s a journey,” and “some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” They’re all true, a successful career is created by elements of passion, hard work, talent, luck, blessings, and opportunity.

Whether you strive to be the next Elon MuskStephen CurryMichelle RobertsSheryl Sandberg, or Michelle Obama, one trait is consistent in all their respective careers: grit — passion and perseverance. So may your life experiences help you develop grit and your grit help you develop life experiences. May your failures become stepping stones to success.

From its Latin root, “to initiate,” commencement means the “beginning.” This is the beginning of your next chapter. This is just the beginning of your outstanding career. May the law school graduating class of 2023 have a history of making history.

We here at Above the Law look forward to following y’all throughout your careers, and if you have any entertaining stories from your commencement ceremonies, be sure to send them our way!

Renwei Chung is the DEI Columnist at Above the Law. He currently serves as a Board Advisor for The Diversity Movement (TDM), and hosts the Charge the Wave podcast — focused on entrepreneurs, executives, and icons who are assiduously building companies, cultures, and communities.


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