2014 Commencement Address by U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez delivers the Commencement Address
Remarks Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Dean Wippman, for your introduction, and for your leadership in the education of this nation's next generation of great lawyers.
To the faculty—having been a law school professor myself, I know how hard you work and how proud you are of your students today. Thank you for your mentorship both inside and outside the classroom.
To the parents, family and friends of the graduates—thank you for supporting your students through their efforts, and congratulations, because their accomplishments are yours as well.
And to today's graduates—congratulations. You deserve this big celebration.
I think it's a universal truth that what a person remembers most about his or her graduation day isn't the commencement speaker. Not only do I not remember what any of my commencement speakers said, but I do not even recall who they were! I hope I can do better.
As I thought about what I might say, it occurred to me that it is important, but not necessarily original, to encourage graduates to aim high and to tell you that the world is your oyster, or something like that.
Let's be honest—as graduates of the University of Minnesota Law School, you already have a pretty good idea of what the keys to success are. For starters, you managed to get into the University of Minnesota Law School and to graduate. You've picked up enough knowledge—we hope, and your family hopes—to pass the bar exam. And by the way, the goal of the bar review is to prepare you to pass the bar—barely. Nobody gets extra points for getting an A on the bar. You will do just fine.
But I would suggest that in order to truly succeed, you have to be willing to fail. I want to talk to you about the importance of failure, and two other things—(1) the fierce urgency of now, and (2) justice and responsibility.
I know—you are thinking this guy's a little crazy, but just hear me out.
If you go to dol.gov and look at my official bio, you'll see that I successfully prosecuted hate crimes as an attorney at the Department of Justice. You'll see that I was a member of the Montgomery County Council, and the state labor secretary in Maryland, and Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. You'll see a long list of achievements. And I'm proud of those accomplishments. But let me tell you something you won't see.
In 2006 I decided to run for Attorney General in Maryland.
I traveled the state making my case to voters. I picked up important endorsements and built a coalition of support. I thought I had a real chance of winning a tough campaign. A few weeks before the election, our polling showed a dead heat, with us surging and my opponents leveling off. But I never got the chance to be judged by the voters directly. A couple days after we got the polling and a couple weeks before the primary, I was kicked out of the race by our state's highest court on a legal technicality in a ruling that nobody expected.
It was a crushing moment. Running for office any time carries the risk of failure, but being removed from the race in this highly public way was a huge blow not just to my aspirations, but to my ego.
As we go through life, we accumulate both knowledge and wisdom. You will encounter people in your lives with remarkable knowledge, who have degrees from the most prestigious institutions, who have achieved great success by most standards, but who lack real wisdom. Knowledge is what you gain from books and in the classroom.
Wisdom, on the other hand, is attained by refusing to play it safe. Wisdom is attained by living life—the high points and the lows—and collecting lessons along the way. Wisdom comes from embracing diversity—diversity of culture and diversity of ideas. Wisdom does not come from maintaining a 4.0 GPA. It does not come from plotting life's course based on what will look good on our resumes. Our resumes do not identify where we've stumbled or fallen—although those experiences are often the most formative. Those are the experiences that make us wise. Wisdom comes from getting the door slammed in your face.
And in 2006, a door slammed in my face. But, as is often the case in life, when the door slammed, a window opened. Were it not for that experience Governor O'Malley wouldn't have asked me to be state labor secretary. And if I hadn't served as Maryland's labor secretary, I wouldn't have been asked by President Obama to be the U.S. labor secretary.
So many of life's most successful people have failed along the way. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, started the business out of his garage at age 20, grew it into a multi-billion dollar company, and then got fired at the age of 30. Years later, he said getting fired from Apple was one of the best things that ever happened to him. As he told graduates at Stanford, "Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith."
When J.K. Rowling wrote the first volume of Harry Potter, she was receiving public assistance. Her first manuscripts were rejected. As she told graduates at Harvard "you will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity."
Or look at Barack Obama. He ran for Congress for the first time in 2000 and lost by a two to one margin. George W. Bush lost his first political race, as did his father.
You see, the only real failures in life are the failure to try, or the failure to learn from your experiences. So whether you know what you are doing next or are still contemplating your next step, don't hesitate to take educated risk.
Sometimes adversity is professional, and sometimes it's personal, and that brings me to my second theme—the fierce urgency of now. I shared a professional setback, and let me tell you about a personal setback that has profoundly shaped my life. I am the youngest of five, and when I was 12 years old, my father died suddenly of a heart attack. My mother, who had chronic health challenges, had just had major surgery a few months before, and shortly after my father's death, she was hospitalized again. I remember going to bed at night in the summer of 1974 not knowing whether I would have any parents when I woke up the next morning. I made a deal with God that if he would give my mother good health, I would live every day with the fierce urgency of now, and would ensure that I put their values into action. My mother lived another 30 years, and she actually entered college the same year I did, and graduated the same year I graduated from law school, and was a wonderful role model to my siblings and me.
This experience taught me a lesson about the fragility of life. Adversity, as J.K. Rowling said, stripped away the inessential things we often fret about, and caused me to address head on a question that so many people never answer: why am I on this planet? When I was a professor, I always asked my students to write their own obituary, so that they could answer that question.
And I believe I know the answer for myself: I am here to help expand opportunity, and to make sure that the ladder is down for others.
Now, if you asked me on the day I graduated from law school where I'd be in 30 years, I wouldn't have said I'd be U.S. Labor Secretary.
But I most certainly would have said that I'd be helping people, that I'd be working to expand opportunity. My parents came to this country from the Dominican Republic, and taught me and my siblings to work hard and aim high, but to make sure the ladder was always down for the less fortunate. They said if you want to get into heaven, you better have letters of reference from poor people.
There was never a 30-year plan. There wasn't even a five-year plan. There were just the values my parents taught me, a commitment to serving others and doing good, and a willingness to take chances on the unknown, without being afraid of failure. And don't worry if you don't know exactly what you want to do. As long as you have your value system and moral compass in place, this will guide you.
Because as one of your classmates can attest, even the best laid plans can get left in the dust with the blink of an eye. Eric Peffley was entering his senior year of high school when he signed a reserve contract for the U.S. Army. He was just 17. He knew he wanted to go to college, but he also knew he wanted to do something for his country in return for the benefits he felt he had been blessed with growing up here.
So he signed the contract with a delayed entry so he could finish school, and the plan was to go to basic training and then start college a semester late. It was August 2001. When the twin towers fell just 20 days later, his plans went out the window.
He was deployed to Iraq for the first time in 2003—a six-month deployment turned into a year. When he returned, he started college, only to be deployed again in 2008. It was the second deployment that set him on his current path. He was doing psychological operations, working face to face with locals—working to win over the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. He gained a keen appreciation for the rule of law as a stabilizing force, and he returned home dedicated to furthering peace and stability in the world.
He finished college and applied to the University of Minnesota—he wanted to come here because of the focus on human rights—but he was wait-listed. Undeterred, he spent some time doing contract security work in Washington, D.C., and then applied again the following year. And here he is today—he doesn't know what his next step will be, but he knows he wants to continue to serve, albeit this time by having a hand in shaping the national conversation about human rights and civil liberties.
Now this is where I pivot my final point—justice and responsibility. Members of the legal profession have a historic duty to work to advance justice. This is not a duty to take lightly. Your legal education has prepared you to take on some of the most vexing and important challenges we face as a nation—challenges that may seem insurmountable.
That's what one of this school's most famous alums did. For the past three years, you've spent your days in Mondale Hall. Your building's namesake devoted much of his life to the cause of justice. As you all probably well know, when Walter Mondale, then this state's Attorney General, received a letter from his counterpart in Florida asking for his support of Florida's position in Gideon v. Wainwright, Mondale didn't just say no. He spearheaded a counter effort, and convinced 23 attorneys general from around the country to sign onto a brief supporting the right to counsel for criminal defendants. The landmark ruling most certainly advanced justice in this country.
By 1968, it had become apparent that the Civil Rights Act passed a few years earlier was an effective tool to combat some forms of discrimination, but that it left a big hole in the area of housing. Now, standing up to housing discrimination was not a popular position at the time. But Mondale, then a U.S. Senator, knew that as long as a family could be denied housing because of their race, color, religion or national origin—that family would never truly have access to the opportunities that are the promise of this nation. So he took on the battle in 1967—and lost. The bill failed to even make it out of committee. But rather than throwing up his hands and moving on, he went for it again the following year, co-sponsoring a bill with his colleague across the aisle, Edward Brooke. And on April 10, 1968, less than a week after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act.
Walter Mondale took a look at the world around him, saw problems that needed to be addressed, and took it upon himself to address them.
Now, I'm not suggesting you have to be a civil rights lawyer, or an attorney general, or a senator to advance the cause of justice. So many of you have already done distinguished work as law students. There are countless ways that you can use your legal education to tackle the challenges we face. I have a friend, Randy Lewis, who is a retired senior executive from Walgreens. He had a very successful career there. He is also the father of a son with a disability. He has done more to advance employment opportunities for people with disabilities than almost anyone I know. He has helped facilitate gainful employment for literally thousands of people with disabilities at Walgreens, and has shared his keys to success with other employers. I am a civil rights and labor rights lawyer. He is a corporate executive. But, as Randy said to me recently, we may play different instruments, but we are in the same orchestra—the orchestra of opportunity.
So I'm here to tell you to pick an instrument, because we need you in the orchestra. Today, as we continue to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we find ourselves facing some pretty daunting challenges. The gap between rich and poor is growing, with low-income Americans finding it harder than ever to punch a ticket to the middle class. Large numbers of workers from every income bracket find themselves joining the ranks of the long-term unemployed. Today is the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Though we have come a long way in 60 years, we still see a great deal of entrenched inequality, de facto segregation and discrimination. This nation is founded on the promise of equal opportunity for all, but for an awful lot of our neighbors, that promise hasn't been fulfilled.
And lest you're thinking "those problems don't apply to me," I beg to differ. We can't approach the problems we face today with an every man or woman for his- or her-self attitude. On the contrary—the pervasive and growing problems we face today hurt us all. They create a drag on our economy, and imperil our standing in the world.
There is a perception that what makes us American is our rugged individualism—our belief that we each make our own fortune. But from its founding, our nation has also been driven by an understanding that our fates are intertwined, and that we are responsible for looking out for our fellow Americans. These ideas need not be at odds with each other. We can believe in hard work while also giving our neighbors a hand. If you blow out your neighbor’s candle, it won’t make yours shine any brighter.
We have a responsibility, as Americans, to work together toward a more perfect union.
And as attorneys, you have a unique responsibility. You will be well served if you resist today's selfie culture by always trying to imagine yourself in the shoes of those who don't have that advantage. Let's focus less on selfies on more on ussies. There is nothing more rewarding than helping people who have lost hope to regain their footing and restore their dignity.
It's your turn to use the knowledge and wisdom you accumulate not only to build a better life for yourselves, but to build better communities. This is not an entirely selfless concept—I'm asking you to create a better world for yourself, for your families, for your children and their children.
I and the people in this room have high hopes and high expectations for you. But remember, your time is limited. Find a calling that gets you out of bed in the morning with a hop in your step. Happiest is the person whose job is his or her hobby, because then you never have to work a day in your life. I've loved every job I've had, and I challenge you to do the same. As Steve Jobs said, your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. It's not how long your life is; it's how good your life is, and what you do with it.
You have the opportunity to do great work, to find great success and to effect real change. Good luck and congratulations.