The Pursuit of Happiness – Ed Walters’s Commencement Address at the University of Illinois College of Law, May 12, 2012
On May 12, 2012, Fastcase CEO Ed Walters delivered the commencement address at the University of Illinois College of Law, at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts in Champaign, Ill. The text of the address follows:
University of Illinois College of Law
May 12, 2012
Thank you, Dean Smith. Members of the faculty, university administrators, distinguished alumni, parents, and members of the graduating class of 2012, it is an honor to serve as your commencement speaker today.
Like most of you, when I was growing up, I had a recurring nightmare – that it was the morning of a test, and I hadn’t done the reading. I would sit bolt upright in bed, in a cold sweat. I had this dream all my life.
Until the day I graduated from law school. On the night after graduation, I had the same nightmare. I sat bolt upright in bed, and then I realized: I had taken the last exam of my life. Then I smiled, and went back to sleep. And I’ve slept pretty peacefully ever since.
Welcome to the end of that nightmare. Welcome to the rest of your life.
Your Toughest Grader
Until now, you have constantly been tested by other people, evaluated by other people, and graded by other people. Your success has been measured by other people: your parents, your teachers, the SAT, the LSAT. Your success was measured by their standards for you. You had to constantly worry: am I passing? Am I failing? Will my standardized test scores be good enough to get me into law school? Will I make law review? Will I graduate cum laude?
But soon you will take the bar exam, the last major test of your life. This will mark the end of the era in which other people will be testing you and grading you. Starting today, you must prepare to enter a new era in which the primary judge of your success will be: you. And you are the toughest grader you’re ever going to face.
So today, I’d like to share some things to consider as you’re defining, measuring, and achieving happiness and success on your own terms.
The Fastest Hamster on the Wheel
Shortly after law school, I learned an important lesson in defining happiness for myself. In law school, I was very caught up in other people’s definitions of my success – getting good grades, making law review, getting a good job. I wasn’t quite a gunner, but let’s just say that people couldn’t put a hoop in front of me without me wanting to jump through it. I worked hard, and I was pretty proud of myself for it – a little too proud. As we said in law school, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”
Then I graduated and clerked for a judge for a year, and I carried that attitude with me to my clerkship. And my judge pulled me aside one day, and said very kindly: Ed, you’re doing good work here. But if you take this attitude into a big law firm, they’re going to chew you up. There’s no glory in being the fastest hamster on the wheel.
That lesson landed on me like a bag of bricks – but the judge was right. I had been looking for other people to recognize how hard I was working. So I spent my clerkship year letting go of what others expected. I got out of the Habitrail and cleared all the wood shavings out of my life. And I arrived at my firm ready to work hard, but also with my own ideas about what constitutes success.
And because I learned to stop worrying about what other people think, I was better able to make the very difficult decision to leave my law firm job in 1999 to start a legal publishing company in my living room.
Most of my classmates were on their way to making partner or getting great jobs as in-house counsel, and I was struggling to get a software company off the ground. But it was liberating and thrilling to be contrarian, and ultimately right – to define success on my own terms. It’s worth noting that I probably would not have succeeded without the full support of my family. Parents out there: I’m talking to you.
No matter what your job, people will put hoops in front of you for your whole life. But you get to decide which ones to jump through. Decide carefully, and make sure to look around. There’s no glory in being the fastest hamster on the wheel.
Defining Success on Your Own Terms
So you can define your career success however you want. By the hours you work, or how large your firm gets, or how much money you make. Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy health insurance.
But I hope you will also seek fulfillment outside the office, being a terrific parent to great kids. Being a loving partner. Becoming an MVP coach in a youth soccer league. Your calling may be in law, but you may be just as fulfilled in vocations in your community, helping to establish a neighborhood health clinic, helping to improve a neighborhood school, serving on a nonprofit board of directors, or building a church in your neighborhood.
When you pursue your passion for running, cooking, reading, sports, or travel – these passions aren’t a distraction from your success – they form the very fabric of your success. This isn’t thinking out of the box. It’s making your own box.
Graduation is a great time to take an internal audit, before you start your career. How will you know if you’re on the right track? How do you grade yourself and hold yourself accountable? Here are a few ideas.
Be conscious of how you feel as you head into work in the morning. Are you bounding through the door in the morning, or are you sitting in the car, idling, dreading walking in the building?
Do you feel uncomfortable doing something to get ahead at work? Are you sure that you’re making the world better instead of worse? And are you sure that what you’re accomplishing with your life – in the office and out – is commensurate with your skill and ambitions?
Are you helping the right people? People you like, relate to, and who are themselves doing what’s right? Do you like the people you work with? Is your community better for your involvement?
Look at your life today the way it will look in hindsight. Consider how you would explain your choices to your kids or to students. If you’d have a hard time explaining how you’re spending your days, or why you’re choosing one path over another, chances are that your choices are out of alignment with your values.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Finding fulfillment in your life – achieving happiness – is part of what it means to be a complete person, and essential to success in any job. It is also an integral part of the American experience.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in our Declaration of Independence that we are endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights were first articulated by John Locke, who wrote in Two Treatises of Government that people have natural rights to be secure in their “life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson thought that the notion of happiness was so important that he struck the word property and substituted the words “the pursuit of happiness.”
The phrase “pursuit of happiness” also comes from John Locke, but from a separate essay titled Concerning Human Understanding, in which he said: “The necessity of pursuing happiness is the foundation of liberty.” The essay discusses happiness in the classical Greek sense, of eudaimonia. Happiness for Locke and for Jefferson is a civic virtue that means more than making a lot of money and receiving awards.
It means living a considered life, social happiness over individual happiness. Happiness in their sense is knowing that you’re working on what’s important to you, making a difference, and achieving your potential, both for yourself and for your community.
Locke says that kind of considered, social happiness is the key to liberty – to freedom and independence. And that’s the kind of happiness, or fulfillment, I’m talking about today.
I’m talking about happiness a lot. And it’s in part because I know many of you are feeling anxiety about graduating into this job market. Happiness must seem less important than who’s going to pay your rent. Maybe your families are feeling this anxiety, too.
I completely understand the feeling of anxiety. At my company, it took us about four years of struggle, sweat, and bad coffee to launch our software and start making money. I went for years without a paycheck and sold everything I owned. I borrowed a ton of money, and I drove an old Ford Explorer until the drive train literally fell out the bottom of it. While I was driving.
But I have to confess, even during that time of great risk, I felt enormous satisfaction in what I was doing. I felt that liberty, freedom and independence.
My co-founder and I believed it was important to make legal research smarter, and put the law within the reach of more people, to change our little corner of the world. But we also ate a lot of Ramen noodles in those first few years.
A Broken Market
Everyone knows this is a terrible job market to graduate into. We’re not in a temporary downturn – this is a permanent correction. This is the new normal. The business of law is broken, and our generation – especially yours, will be called to fix it.
Too many law firms are chasing the same Fortune 500 clients, but they are finding that they have a glut of supply – talented lawyers sitting around with nothing to do. Meanwhile, one in seven Americans is living in poverty, and often can’t afford legal services for the most basic matters. Even above the poverty line, the fees for legal services are out of reach for all but the wealthiest Americans. If this seems abstract, wait until the first time you hire a lawyer. Your first bill from your lawyer will be a pretty rude awakening.
There is an enormous gap between supply of legal talent at high billable rates, and demand among people who need help – people who are fighting fraudulent foreclosure, trying to become a U.S. citizen, working through custody issues in a divorce, trying to open a small business.
And although you are graduating during a difficult era, this time also holds greater opportunities than ever for you, personally to be a part of this change.
The Power to Change
The tools of change are more accessible than ever to people. We are tightly networked and global, and the world is more malleable than ever. We’re more empowered to change the world in 2012 than at almost any time in history.
Here’s a great example of how individuals can help solve large, seemingly intractable problems. Last month, law students at two different law schools, most of them 3Ls like you, with no formal software experience, competed in apps for justice contests. They created small applications that solved recurring legal problems – problems that are huge for people, but too small for the traditional law firm business model.
These apps did all kinds of useful things, like helping parents figure out whether their kids born abroad were U.S. citizens, advising same-sex couples of their rights in different states, or assisting law enforcement officers during traffic stops. These tools would have been impossibly large and expensive as little as five years ago. But today, people just like you are coding them in about a semester. Not armies of lawyers, just individual people determined to make their mark.
When we started Fastcase, people told me that it was impossible to compete with two multi-billion dollar publishing companies. But today, Fastcase has more than 500,000 subscribers from around the world. Members of the Illinois State Bar Association get access to Fastcase for free. And our apps for iPhone and iPad have more mobile users than Westlaw and Lexis combined. These are nerdy, software examples (consider the source). My point is unrelated to software. People – individual people like you and me – can make a huge difference, and especially when the job market is tightest.
We are all a product of our time. This is our time – and now your time. The Chinese word for crisis is wei ji, a combination of the words for danger and opportunity. We must embrace the danger and opportunity of this crisis, the wei xian and the ji huay.
So this may not be the job market you anticipated, but it may well create the unexpected opportunity, an opportunity that you may otherwise have missed, that makes your career.
The shortest distance between you and your goals is rarely a straight line. It’s a little like driving across the mountains: the fastest way usually isn’t a straight line across the map. You don’t control the terrain. And the path usually takes you on a few turns in the opposite direction along the way.
This job market is full of mountains and obstacles. Your path across them may be different from the one you charted. But openness, flexibility, and hard work will get you there.
My last point is about urgency, and the power of this moment right now. I’ve often worried in my life about things in the distant future. But the most powerful times in my life have been when I’m rooted in the present, in this exact moment.
If you love someone, the time to tell them is now. Tell your parents, your children, your grandparents, your girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife, and your friends. Tell them often. You will never regret saying I love you to the people in your life.
If you’re waiting to quit smoking, or to exercise, or to cut down how much you drink, the sooner you do that, the greater the multiplier effect to your health or happiness.
When you’re in business, the time to cut expenses is always now – if you wait until later, the cost is always much higher, and the effect more drastic. And the time to seize a new opportunity is always now. There’s real urgency here, because windows of opportunity close very fast.
As I conclude, I want to encourage you to be very present in this moment. Your graduation is the culmination of three often difficult years of study. Of great friendships and cheap beer. Of thinking, questioning, reading. Today, this moment right now, will be one of the greatest in your life.
Remember to look around. Remember these friends. Remember the look of pride in the faces of your families, remember how hot these robes are, the pride you feel on graduating. Cherish this moment. Savor it.
I’m reminded of the expression by African musician Babatunde Olatunji: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.”
I later discovered that this quote was also used in the movie Kung Fu Panda, which made it seem somewhat less profound. The narrative arc of this speech is now complete. We’ve devolved from Jefferson and Locke to Kung Fu Panda.
This is your time. Make your own definition of success. Find your happiness – your liberty, freedom, and independence. Respect both the danger and opportunity of this time of crisis. And savor this moment.
Congratulations to the Class of 2012, and thank you very much.