Finding the Right Path: A Letter To 2017 Graduates, Our Future Leaders Of America

Michael Strautmanis, Vice President of Civic Engagement for the Obama Foundation, shared some life lessons with the University of Illinois College of Law Class of 2017. Read his inspiring message:

The year was 1994 and I was preparing to carve my place in the world as a newly-minted University of Illinois graduate.

Thinking back to that day, I have to be honest with you: I was kind of scared. I remember trying to convince myself — and everyone around me — that I knew what I was doing.

I guess I must have been pretty convincing. After all, unlike a few of my classmates, I had a job lined up, and with zero real legal experience, was going to make more money than my parents made in 20 years as Chicago Public Schools teachers. Given those advantages, I figured everything might work out OK. I was on the right path.

You know what? I was half right. Everything has worked out, even better than I expected, considering the twists and turns I survived along the way.

I’ve gotten to do things I never imagined possible. I’ve fist bumped the Dalia Lama. I danced to Prince in the White House, and dressed up as the Beast in Disneyland.

I even helped the nation elect its first black president, Barack Obama.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting with him as he told our shared hometown about the plans for his Presidential Center. Experiences that I couldn’t have dreamed were possible.

See, that’s the thing: the path I’ve taken has very little to do with the path I thought I was on. The values that drove me then still guide me today. However, I had no idea what the right path looked like. I suspect that’s true of many of us.

If you’re feeling that way, believe me when I tell you — it’s ok. I want you to relax a bit. You’ll work it out.

I want to share a few things I’ve learned about finding the right path and staying on it. I hope these will inspire your journey.

Life Lesson #1: It’s OK to travel an unpaved road

I’m going to start with something I learned before I even arrived at law school. See, for me, even getting there was a little improbable.

Everything I knew about the law came from books and TV.

I have to admit, I had a chip on my shoulder because I thought life dealt me a tough hand. My father left me before I was born. My mom remarried, got a divorce and my brother and I were separated from each other in the wake. It seemed like we were always short of money, no matter how hard we worked.

Looking back, I could have decided law school just wasn’t for me. That would have been easy. After all, most high-powered lawyers — on TV and in real life — didn’t look like me.

It might even have made sense. However, I’m so lucky that I had people in my life — my parents, my wife, and so many others — who believed in me, and so, I didn’t walk away from that dream. Instead, I decided to close the gap between me, and others like me, who did not know a lot of lawyers growing up.

The summer before my senior year in college, I was working as a bike messenger when I discovered the big law firms downtown.

I decided I wanted to work in one. So I started going into those buildings, finding excuses to talk to people. At one of the biggest firms in the city, I actually met the head of HR. Nice! She told me that they did hire students for the summer, but only law students.

She also told me to keep in touch. Big mistake for her.

Once I was accepted into law school, I figured that was close enough. So I called her every month, for thirteen months, looking to get a job the next summer, the one before law school.

She never answered and I always left a message. In the middle of that next summer, she called me back and told me she would give me a job as a paralegal for two months.

I didn’t get that job because I was the smartest or the most connected. I got that job because I hustled at every point in the process, even before I knew what a lawyer did.

Life Lesson #2: Get in the game and embrace competition

My next piece of advice is simple: Get in the game! Then when you’re in, don’t be afraid to compete. You won’t always win. But, if you walk away before you even take the field, you will always lose.

Competition is a part of life: there will always be someone next to you working to win that case, secure that client, get that job. If you embrace that competition — if you learn to enjoy it — it can bring out the best in you.

Plus, it can be fun. There were a lot of lofty things that were great about winning the 2008 presidential election, but frankly, it just felt really good to win.

If you’re willing to compete, even when it’s scary, sometimes the right path finds you.

The summer I worked as a paralegal, I met a young lawyer who saw something in me that I didn’t quite see in myself. She became a mentor and later a friend. Her name was Michelle Robinson. But you probably know her as Michelle Obama. She introduced me to her fiancé, Barack. The rest is history (I always wanted to say that and mean it).

Except, not quite. It wasn’t that easy.

See, like I told you, after law school I went straight to a big-time firm. All of my friends were so impressed that I had that job. A few years in, I had two kids, a house in the suburbs, and I was on the path to partnership. I knew how rare an opportunity this was: I was one of three black attorneys, out of several hundred attorneys in the firm.

Still, as I began to create a few quiet moments for myself, moments to pray or reflect, I slowly realized that I was not in the right place, or on the right path.

I was doing a good job at work, but not a great job. For a while, I just thought that’s what it meant to be a grown-up: unhappy most of the day, going through the motions, complaining about the job. I figured that’s why they called it work.

But deep inside, I knew I was falling short of my own standards. I remembered how back in law school, I wanted to be a great lawyer. Abraham Lincoln once told an aspiring attorney, “If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself, the thing is more than half done already.” But my determination was fading.

So, for the first time in my career, I did something that I’ve done a few times since then. I walked away. Our family moved to Washington, D.C. I followed my interest in politics and public policy into a job in the Clinton Administration, focused on international development.

It was a big risk. But when I sat in my chair in my windowless office on my first day, I knew that whatever happened, I had made the right choice. Everything I’ve gotten to do since then has flowed from that decision.

Life Lesson #3: Put your integrity first, last, and always

I’ve seen too many people let the very qualities that made them successful — a competitive spirit, a willingness to take risks — become their undoing. I’ve watched people lose everything they’d worked for — their job, their reputation, and more. I’ve seen people fired in disgrace, prosecuted for crimes, you name it.

So, what separates the people who stay on the path from the ones who lose their way? I can sum it up in one word: integrity.

The best definition of integrity I’ve heard is what you do when nobody’s looking.

An education is critical to your success. But as Samuel Johnson once said, “knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”

You may think this doesn’t apply to you — but trust me, you’ll be tempted, more often than you realize now. You’ll be offered shortcuts. You’ll be told it’s okay to break the rules just this once, or that everybody else is doing it.

But I will make you one promise: You will always pay for compromising your integrity. Always.

Now, it rarely happens in the moment. You’re too smart to get caught and nobody’s watching all the time. Cheating on that test. Fudging that billable hour. Expensing a personal expense. Nobody will see you. But small compromises lead to bigger ones.

The reverse is true as well — if you act with integrity, people don’t forget that. I have worked with and against incredibly talented people. Democrats and Republicans, colleagues, opponents, and competitors. You can always tell who has true integrity. They stand out.

There is a corrosive cynicism eating away at our culture. People assume the system is rigged, that the powerful and connected only care about themselves, and it’s never going to change — but you can change it.

Life Lesson #4: Give yourself the chance to be great

Some people find it at work. Some people work every day so that they can find it in their family, friends, and hobbies. Or side hustles.

Whatever greatness means to you, do that. And if you’re not sure, the best way to figure it out is to get engaged in something bigger than yourself.

Risk walking away from the thing that will never bring out the best in you.

Learn to love the fear that comes with setting your standards high. I also hope you know that getting on that path isn’t enough. You have to stay there.

At the Obama Foundation, we are focused on doing everything in our power to support the next generation of leaders. Guess what? That’s you. You are the minds that will lead us forward. If you each find your path, and follow it as far it leads, then I have no doubt the rest of us are in good hands.