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2020 Commencement Speech—Jeffrey Lehman

Dean McConnaughay. Faculty Colleagues.  Distinguished guests.

Members of the Peking University School of Transnational Law Class of 2020.

This is certainly not the kind of commencement ceremony you expected when you came to STL four years ago. 

So much has happened this past year that I am sure it is difficult for you to remember who you were when you came to STL back in 2016.

You arrived as smart, talented, highly accomplished and motivated young adults, eager to develop your understanding of the law. You knew what ordinary people thought about law and lawyers. But you came to STL because you wanted to develop a much deeper, much more sophisticated understanding.

And sure enough, four years later, you have developed that kind of sophistication. You now understand how legal rules use imperfect, ambiguous words to promote larger social goals. You understand how good, reasonable, well-meaning people disagree about the best way to interpret those ambiguous rules. You understand how the rule of law enables people to resolve their disagreements fairly, in ways that promote important values like equity, equality, and efficiency.

That is what you expected you would accomplish. And through your dedicated efforts, you have now accomplished it.

And yet, in so many ways today’s world is not at all what we expected it would be when you started out back in 2016.

Back then, we all thought that globalization was a progressive force that would continue to move forward, promoting economic prosperity and cross-cultural integration. We thought the arc of history was bending towards an ever-stronger rule of law, under which no amount of wealth or political power could enable a person to escape accountability to universal norms of behavior. And we thought that the nations of the world were joining forces to confront common threats to human well-being like climate change.

Who would have imagined that, in 2020, we would find ourselves looking at a world where globalization is in retreat, a world where xenophobic nationalists have gained power, a world where nations are disavowing legal norms that took decades or even centuries to craft, a world shaken by pandemic, one where cooperation has given way to mutual recrimination?

And yet my message to you today is simple. Do not be discouraged. You are about to set off on a quest. A quest to craft a life of worth and purpose. And nothing I have described can prevent you from succeeding in that quest.

As one of my favorite authors, Atul Gawande, has noted, the path to a life of worth and purpose is deeply personal. For some people it is primarily about finding a meaningful way to help one or more other people, or one or more other living beings, about whom they care. For others it is primarily about finding a meaningful way to serve a cause they consider important. For others it is primarily about being the author of their own story, about exploring and understanding the complex, beautiful, surprising, and frustrating world that we share.

You can define such a path for yourself. Indeed, you must. And no matter what path you pursue, the qualities that you developed during your time at STL will serve you well.

One well-worn path seeks deep satisfaction through paid work. If you pursue this strategy you will probably earn your living by providing service to others. You could do so via a job in the public sector, the private sector, academia, civil society, or an international organization. Or you could do so as an entrepreneur, by creating a new organization that produces a genuinely useful good or service. Or you could do so by becoming a creative artist, producing work that enhances the lives of those who experience it.

An equally well-worn path seeks deep satisfaction through activities outside of paid work. If you pursue this strategy you will probably use paid work to acquire whatever resources you require in order to live comfortably, while managing that work so as to preserve energy for more important activities relating to friendship, family, charity, creativity, intellectual exploration, or community service.

Many – perhaps most – people end up combining these paths. They pursue one strategy for a few years, then switch to the other one, then invent one that somehow blends both.

Members of the STL Class of 2020, trust me when I tell you that you can do it. Just be sure to keep reading, to keep finding new sources of intellectual stimulation. And also be sure to stay connected with one another, with others among the nine classes of STL alumni. And also be sure you stay alert to new possibilities that will present themselves to you from time to time, often when you least expect them.

Those possibilities will present themselves because the world needs people with your knowledge, your skills, and your virtues. Almost all of them will not be ones you want to accept. But every now and then you will want to try one out, just to see where it leads.

Of course, some of those leads may be dead ends. That is normal. Any life of worth and purpose includes decisions that, with the benefit of hindsight, turn out to have been mistakes. Whenever that happens, whenever life knocks you down, you will need to pick yourself up and go on exploring.

Members of the Class of 2020, you are about to embark on lives in which you provide invaluable service to a society that desperately needs you.

So, as you go, let me conclude by stating a few hopes that all your STL teachers hold for you:

  • May you enjoy the special pleasures of craft — the private satisfaction of doing a task as well as it can be done.
  • May you enjoy the special pleasures of profession — the added satisfaction of knowing that your efforts promote a larger public good.
  • May you be blessed with good luck, and also with the wisdom to appreciate when you have been lucky rather than skillful.
  • May you find ways to help others under circumstances where they cannot possibly know that you have done so.
  • May you be patient, and gentle, and tolerant, without becoming smug, self-satisfied, and arrogant.
  • May you know enough bad weather that you never take the sunshine of Shenzhen for granted, and enough good weather that your faith in the coming of spring is never shaken.
  • May you always be able to admit ignorance, doubt, vulnerability, and uncertainty.
  • May you always have listeners who find your words persuasive.
  • May you frequently travel beyond the places that are comfortable and familiar, the better to appreciate the miraculous diversity of life.
  • And may your steps lead you often back to Shenzhen.  Back to the Peking University of School of Transnational Law. Class of 2020, the STL story is very much your story. And STL will always be happy to welcome you home.