Read Ed Walters '96's Commencement Address at the University of Illinois College of Law

From the Fastcase website:

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.

Read the rest of the address here.