You Should Love What You Do, But What If You Don’t?

(Photo: Memphis CVB/Flickr)
(Photo: Memphis CVB/Flickr)

Vanderbilt Law School Commencement: May 8, 2015

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Dean Guthrie, distinguished colleagues, parents, family, and friends — this is a great day of celebration. I know I can speak for the class of 2015 when I say thank you for everything you have done to make this day possible.

Now, to the class of 2015: I feel a very special connection to you. Three years ago, we started here at Vanderbilt together. You were my first class — and today you’re graduating. Call me sentimental, but I am so touched that you would ask me to speak at what is, in effect, your last class in law school.

But I have to say, when I found out that I’d be speaking today, I was a bit concerned that you all didn’t think this through. Because as you know, I don’t give lectures. I teach using the Socratic method.

Now, maybe you thought that this speech would be your revenge for 14 weeks of getting called on, every single day. Maybe you thought this would be your chance to get answers from me instead of just more questions. Maybe you even thought to yourself, “there’s no way he can call on all of us in a graduation speech.”

Well, think again.

You don’t have your diplomas yet. I’ve still got time.

And I want you to know that I’m not afraid to ask some of you to stand up and lead us in pronouncing our favorite Latin legalisms. I see you there, Mr. Hilley. And I will ask you one last time to “spin it out.”

But before we get to my questions, let’s just think for a minute about what you’ve learned since you first arrived here.

You’ve learned that laws can be rules or standards. Drive 55 miles per hour — that’s a rule. Drive an “appropriate” speed — that’s a standard.

And you’ve learned how to apply these ideas in your everyday lives. Like last night, many of you probably said to yourselves “There’s a rule: Beer before liquor, never been sicker.” I can see looking out that some of you thought, “I really prefer standards.”

You’ve learned how to use evidence to support your arguments. See, e.g., your legal writing briefs.

You’ve also learned how to irritate everyone you know by using language like “see, e.g.” in casual conversation.

You’ve learned, from the Office of Career Services, what the appropriate etiquette is for eating at a professional dinner.

And you’ve learned from criminal law, that if you’re ever stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean with two colleagues and no food, you can probably get away with cannibalism. The upside is you will definitely use the correct fork.

Yes, you have learned many things in law school.

You know about important Supreme Court cases: 1803’s Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. Board of Education from 1954, and of course, the very important 2004 case of Aliens vs. Predators.

You’re learned how to be attentive to detail — leading to epic debates on whether you can really tell the difference between an italicized period and a non-italicized period. For the record, you totally can.

Perhaps most importantly, you’ve learned that lawyers have strong professional ethics rules. Of course, you’ve also learned that when tested, you always go with the second most ethical option. We’re lawyers, not saints.

But this is a serious event, your parents are here, your loved ones, everyone is on their best behavior. So let’s get serious. Let’s talk about one of the most prominent Supreme Court cases from your time in law school: the Hobby Lobby case. Why Hobby Lobby? Because a graduation speech seemed like the perfect time to discuss a hotly-contested political issue about religious beliefs — oh, and birth control. Don’t forget, the case is also about birth control.

So Hobby Lobby. The issue in Hobby Lobby was whether employers must provide access to contraception in the health plans they offer employees. The case raises a variety of interesting legal issues — but I want to talk with you about something you might not have thought about. No matter what side you come down on in the case, in Hobby Lobby, the Court recognizes that the owners of the company are people of religious faith — and they want their company to operate in alignment with their deeply-held beliefs. In other words, they wanted to integrate their most cherished values with their professional lives.

I want you to think of this as one model for how you might live your lives — let’s call it the integrationist model. You will integrate your private life, your personal beliefs, into everything you do in public life or in the marketplace. You will live your values and passions twenty-four, seven. Like public servants, religious leaders, artists, maybe even professors, you won’t even think that work is work — it will simply be a calling. You will gain meaning from the perfection and practice of your craft, independent of any paycheck. Or to put it in language more familiar to graduation speeches, you will “do what you love and love what you do.”

But this isn’t the only approach out there. For many people, a job is just a job. Think of the recent immigrant who works three different shifts so she can provide a better life for her kids. Or the young family saving up to put a down payment on their first house. For many people, a job isn’t an expression of their deepest values and it doesn’t define them as individuals — it’s simply a way to pay off student loans, save up for a new car, or put their kids through college. Let’s call this other end of the spectrum, the work-life model. In its purest form, purpose and profession are separate. You don’t ask “what job will I love,” you ask “where can I find meaning in my life.”

You don’t ask “what job will I love,” you ask “where can I find meaning in my life.”

I genuinely hope that all of you will find meaning in your work — that you will end up doing what you love. I wish this for you for a very simple reason. There are 168 hours in a week. Take out sleep, the basics of getting ready in the morning and the evening, grocery shopping, laundry, dishes, and the like, and you’re down to less than a hundred. As professionals, you will spend much of that time — 40 to 60 hours at least — working. If you don’t love your work, you will not love your life.

But you guys have heard this “do what you love” stuff pretty much your whole lives. And if you haven’t, you should Google pretty much any graduation speech. They all cover it. So for this, your last lesson, what I want you to think about is how you might confront a harder question: what to do if you don’t love what you do.

What I want you to think about is how you might confront a harder question: what to do if you don’t love what you do.

A few months ago, I was talking with a friend of mine. He had spent the better part of the decade after college founding start-up companies in the tech industry. It was all-encompassing work and he was extremely good at it. A little while ago, between ventures, he came across the writings of a Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel argues for the reinvigoration of the Sabbath. He calls it a “palace in time” that we must build for ourselves — not because it provides space for recovery between productive efforts during the weeks, although it does do that, but because this palace in time becomes a sanctuary, in which we can discover and understand ourselves.

If you build yourselves a palace in time, whether on weekends or anytime, I think you will find sources of meaning in your lives that open up joy and purpose beyond the professional — whether it’s friends and family, faith and philosophy, or culture and trips to the countryside. Whatever your sources of meaning, they will give you purpose when you’re in a job that has lost its excitement — or worse yet, never had any. They will give you comfort when the job you love has moments of tedium, pain, and frustration — as every job does. And even if you are totally fulfilled at the office, they will provide you a different kind of happiness that even a calling cannot bring.

If you build yourselves a palace in time, whether on weekends or anytime, I think you will find sources of meaning in your lives that open up joy and purpose beyond the professional.

But once you start thinking this way, you will notice very quickly that these sources of meaning, the ones you’ve created outside of work, are constantly under assault. From the legitimate last-minute crisis to the creeping tentacles of technology, throughout your lives, you will be torn between the all-encompassing pull of the client’s needs and the meaningful life you have built away from your desk.

Very quickly, you will see this tension not just in your own lives, but in the lives of your co-workers and in our society as a whole. Will you let email and texting turn work into something that overtakes your vacations or family dinners? Will you advocate for policies in your company that help others get time off to spend on meaningful pursuits? Will you support efforts that enable everyone in our country — especially if they don’t have the privilege to do what they love — to build a palace in time of their own?

These are serious questions, and you will have to confront them when you look beyond the usual advice to “do what you love.”

You may not realize it yet, but today, you join a profession that has much to say about these questions. As lawyers, you are now part of a long tradition that is built on the premise that we are not necessarily what we do, that our private values do not always align with our professional activities, and that our society cannot endure without some separation between ourselves and our work.

As lawyers, we celebrate John Adams who defended the British Redcoats after the Boston Massacre. We celebrate the Jewish lawyers who represented Nazis trying to march in Skokie, Illinois. We celebrate the pro-bono attorneys who defend criminals and even terrorists.

We do this not because we agree with the actions of Redcoats, Nazis, criminals, or terrorists — or because we think those lawyers share their clients’ beliefs. No. We celebrate these lawyers because we know that it takes courage to distance your personal self from your professional self. Because we know it is harder to advocate vigorously for causes you disagree with, than those that you feel passionately about. And because we know that preserving our society’s way of life — including the rule of law — requires some people to take on roles they might not love.

We know that preserving our society’s way of life — including the rule of law — requires some people to take on roles they might not love.

As lawyers, you will not always advocate for causes you believe in. You will take on clients whose views you will disagree with, even despise. You will not always do things you love. But, as lawyers, you make a commitment to serve others, uphold the rule of law, and promote justice. And that commitment — even when you’re checking for italicized periods, even when its the 18th hour of document review, even when you know deep down that your client is guilty — that courageous commitment to serve is just as noble and just as worthy as living a fully integrated life.

Now some of you who have been paying attention might think that this speech hasn’t made any sense. I’ve hoped you will do what you love, but told you to focus on finding meaning outside of your work. I’ve celebrated lawyers who advocate for causes they disagree with, but said nothing of the fact that they feel passionately about their craft. And what about the bigger questions: Is it better to do what you love or to keep work separate from your sources of meaning? Was my reference to Hobby Lobby just an excuse to make a not-so-funny joke about birth control?

What about the answers to these questions, you ask? Well perhaps you have forgotten. This is a Socratic graduation speech. I’m here to ask questions. It’s your job to answer them.

But after watching you grow these past three years, I have complete confidence that you will find answers. And I have complete confidence that you’ll make all of us proud, not just as distinguished lawyers, but as people who live meaningful lives outside of the law.

Thank you and congratulations.

Ganesh Sitaraman is an assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt University. You Should Love What You Do, But What If You Don’t?