Valerie Jarrett on Being Flexible in Life

Valerie Jarrett to Wellesley College graduates on May 31, 2013:

If you are willing to be flexible, you will find your true passion. So don’t restrict your options, and limit your potential, with arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines. During my senior year of college, I made what I thought was the perfect plan. First, I would head straight to law school, then find the love of my life, marry by the time I was 26, have my first baby by 30, ever mindful of my biological clock, and make partner at a great law firm by 31. Well, I went straight to law school. I married the figurative boy next door. After three years of practicing at an excellent law firm, I moved to another firm that I thought was even more prestigious. And my daughter was born just before my 29th birthday. Right on schedule, huh? Not so fast! By 30, I was separated from my husband, and I clearly remember sitting in my lovely office with a magnificent view, staring at a very lucrative pay stub, and bursting into tears because I was just miserable. So, I had to make a decision. Keep following my plan, or be honest with myself, and search for my true passion. A year earlier, at the recommendation of the senior woman partner in my firm and my first real mentor, I had participated in a young leaders program that exposed me to a diverse range of business, civic and political leaders, all working to make Chicago better. That experience motivated me to finally consider public service. So, I took a leap of faith, and began my career in the public sector. I moved out of my cushy office, and into a tiny cubicle facing an alley. But from my very first day, I knew that I was right where I belonged.

And as a bonus, four years later, I hired a brilliant young lawyer with whom I instantly bonded, because she too had become disenchanted with the law firm life, and wanted to serve her community. Her name was Michelle Robinson, and when we met, she was engaged to a skinny guy with a funny name– Barack Obama. And the rest, well, you know the rest.

But the lesson really is that it is healthy to explore, so that you may discover unanticipated detours that will actually hasten your achievement of your dreams. Do not blindly ignore opportunities to change course, and certainly do not let others impose their priorities on you. From the neurobiologist who becomes an author of children’s books, to the editor of law review who decides to run for state senator, to the mother of three who decides to go back to school when her children are older because she always dreamed of being a doctor, to the mom or dad who decides to scale back their responsibilities at work in order to spend more time with their children. These are not decisions that should be judged by others. These decisions are all choices made by people living their lives on their terms.

But to do this will require you to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, and to be resilient.

Life often surprises us. As I look back on my life and career I never expected to do most of what I did.

Life is not controllable and predictable. Life is messy, inefficient, and nonlinear.

Plan what you can; take bold action, reflect on your experiences, and change your course as necessary.

Travel boldly.

4 thoughts on “Valerie Jarrett on Being Flexible in Life

  1. Both her words and yours,Tom, are appropriately inspirational to live the life one hears for — and from — one’s self. There have been others whose similar words have inspired me, over many years, to make my life count — first of all, to myself. Wise words, all. Thanks for sharing these.


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