• Ideas
  • Education

Former Obama Adviser Valerie Jarrett: ‘Tell Your Story. It Is What Makes You Who You Are’

17 minute read

Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to former President Barack Obama, gave the graduation address at Spelman College on Sunday. See her full remarks as prepared for delivery below.

Good Afternoon.

Thank you, Roz, for that generous introduction. I am deeply honored to receive the National Community Service Award. I accept it on behalf of the many public servants with whom I have had the honor of working.

To Dr. Campbell, President of Spelman College, the Board of Trustees, the faculty, staff, and devoted alums, all who have contributed to the extraordinary Spelman experience, thank you.

To the parents, grandparents, family and friends, without whose support, and love, this day would not have been possible—thank you.

And of course, to the Spelman Class of 2017, this is your day. We are here to celebrate your accomplishments, and we are all so profoundly proud of you. Congratulations!

It may surprise you to know that I still remember many details of my college graduation day, a long, long time ago. The celebration the night before, right on the heels of finals, that left me exhausted on graduation day. How proud my parents were, except when they realized that I had not packed a single thing before their arrival. The lovely dress that I saved up to buy for the occasion, not focusing on the fact that it would be covered by a robe. My boyfriend, with whom I had recently broken up, who regrettably decided to show up nonetheless.

In fact, the only thing that I don’t remember is a single word my commencement speaker said. Truly. Not One Word.

I’ll try to do better.

Class of 2017, if you are feeling anything like I did when I graduated, you’re excited, but a bit nervous — even intimidated — about what lies ahead. Will you find just the right job in the right location? If you are continuing on to grad school, did you make the right choice? Will you fall in love with the right person? Will you have exactly the number of children you want, when you want them, if you want them? Will all of the hopeful plans that you have carefully crafted actually come to fruition?

I cannot answer any of those questions. But I can tell you with certainty that throughout your life’s journey there will be unexpected delights and disappointments. Circumstances that may lead to a change in course. Some will no doubt underestimate and undervalue you. No matter how hard you work, and how prepared you are, there will be people who do not see you as we all see you today; gifted, beautiful, proud, and black.

But, when you are my age, my hope is that you’ll be able to look back knowing that you embraced your life, fully. Owned it. All of it. When you tell your story, and you must, you describe it honestly and completely as an adventure, with scary twists and turns, but throughout it all, you had the courage to focus only on your true north. That you did not let your mistakes, and there will certainly be some, define you. But rather, you’ll appreciate that they simply tested you, and helped your grow.

So many of you are first-generation college graduates so you have already made history by your achievement today. That you’ve all received this extraordinary education, in an environment that both nurtured, and challenged you, means you all are prepared to fulfill my hopes for your journey. The question is will you? And that’s up to you.

So to help you on your way, I offer some advice based on my story.

Let’s begin with me admitting to you that in my early adulthood, I did not own my life, or tell my story.

During my senior year of college, I made what I thought was the perfect plan. First, I would head straight to law school, then I would find the love of my life, marry by age 26, have my first baby by 30, ever mindful of my biological clock, and make partner at a great law firm by the age of 32. Sound familiar to any of you?

Well, I went straight to law school. I married the figurative boy next door. I practiced law at two prestigious firms. And my daughter was born just before my 29th birthday. Right on schedule, huh?

Not so fast! By age 30, my perfect marriage was… well, not at all perfect. And I had allowed my self-esteem to become intertwined with the success of my marriage. I defined myself as a part of a couple. Not as my own person. So when the reality that my marriage was crumbling sunk in, I crumbled too.

The same year, after six years of working towards partnership, I began to look closely at the lives of the partners, and I began to wonder was that the life I really wanted.

I thought there must be something wrong with me. My family and friends thought I had the perfect life, but I sure did not feel that way. Could this be my life, I asked myself? Central to my fears was whether my daughter would be proud of me, and look up to me when she grew up? But I felt helpless. And I spent months sitting in my beautiful office staring out the window at the remarkable view of the Chicago front, and going through the motions at home, feeling stuck.

So, I had to make a decision. Keep blindly following my plan, that perfect plan, that others thought was ideal, or listen to the quietest voice, but the most important. My own.

I confessed my growing unhappiness at my law firm, and its likely unhappiness with me, to a dear friend who worked for Harold Washington, the first African American Mayor of Chicago. Mayor Washington was a force of nature, and I had knocked on doors all over Chicago for him during both of his campaigns. My friend urged me to consider public service. He said I would feel each day the same excitement I felt knocking on doors, and I would be a part of something bigger, more important, than myself.

So, 30 years ago this summer, I took a leap of faith, and began my career in the public sector. I moved out of my cushy office, and into a tiny cubicle with a view facing an alley. But from my very first day, I knew that I was right where I belonged. I had found my true north.

I also slowly realize that just because my marriage was not working, did not make me a failure. My husband and I divorced and as I become secure in my identity — a resilient, devoted single mom. A public servant giving back to the city I love. That’s when I began to own my life.

Two years later, a dear mentor encouraged me to ask for a promotion. It had never occurred to me to do so. I thought my boss should just recognize my talent. My mentor said, “that’s crazy”— that I had paid my dues, demonstrated my work ethic and skills, but unless I advocated for myself, that cubicle would be my long-term home. So I worked up the courage, overcame my fear of rejection, and asked my boss, and he said yes.

And as a remarkable bonus, two years and another promotion later, I hired a brilliant young lawyer, and we instantly bonded, because she too had become disenchanted with the law firm life, and wanted to serve her community. Her name was Michelle Robinson, and when we met, she was engaged to a skinny guy with a funny name — who also wanted to be a public servant some day… And the rest, well, you know the rest.

Now, I am not promising that if are willing to take a leap, and change course, that you’ll become a senior advisor to the President of the United States of America, but it will enable you to discover your true north.

I challenge you, class of 2017, to use your great skill, intellect and talent to be a force for good, and challenge the status quo. Now when you do, you will face criticism, disappointment and setbacks. Change is hard. Very hard. And the higher you climb, the more brutal, and public the criticism. Trust me. I know. Just look at the trolls on my Twitter feed.

You also can’t let your fear of failure hold you back. For when you have the courage to overcome your fear, you will feel exuberant on the other side. I am sure many of you have already experienced that right here at Spelman.

Now you might think that after my decades of experience in the private and public sector, that it would seem logical for President Obama to appoint me has his senior advisor. But, there were those who said that because he and the First Lady trusted me and we were close friends, that that gave me an unfair advantage — that I had too much influence and power. They did not understand what I could possibly contribute because I did not have the conventional ‘Washington’ experience. That I would never survive the first term. Come on now! Could it be as simple as folks were just not used to seeing an African American woman in my role?

Now, did some of the hurtful things that people said get to me? Sure. At times. But President Obama gave me the extraordinary opportunity to advocate for gender equality, civil rights and criminal justice reform. To promote civic engagement to solve the challenges we face here and abroad. To advise him on every single matter that landed on his desk. To be in the room where it happens. It was such an awesome job, and one that I knew I had been preparing for my whole life.

That was not the time to shrink because of haters. It was the time stand tall, knowing that if I took the long view, worked hard, and kept focused on my true north, serving the public, that when I turned off the lights on January 20th, after serving longer than any other senior advisor in history, there would be no better revenge than success.

Now, for those of you who are wondering if owning your life means ‘having it all’ — well, I submit to you that we’ve been asking the wrong question. You’ll have so many choices that you’ll be tempted to take advantage of them all, all at once, and expect that you’ll be able to execute with perfection. That’s what high achievers often do. So the question should be not can you have it all, but do you own your choices and their consequences.

In my thirties and forties, I took great pride in trying to be super woman. Proving to both myself, and others, that I could do everything, without any help. That was not realistic. Honestly most days I felt like I was barely holding on by my fingertips, in fear of dropping one of the thousands of balls I was juggling. I rarely made time to just hang out with my friends, or read a good story, or exercise (and it showed) — multi-tasking became the norm. All of that lead to an awful lot of stress, anxiety, and guilt. I often felt I was not doing anything particularly well. Fortunately, after the reality check of dropping a ball or two, I began to ask for help.

But I also later came to understand that my choices had consequences. I was a single mom with a young child and a demanding job. That meant I couldn’t fly off with my friends on the spur of the moment for the weekend. I learned that I should not envy their freedom. I was simply at a different stage in life. So I say in each stage of life: own your choices, and don’t comparing the drawbacks of your choices to the advantages of others people’s choices.

If you decide to wait to have a baby, or not have one at all, do not yearn for the life of your friends who did. If you decide to stay home with your children, then do not mad at your friend who is traveling the world with an exciting career.

But your choices are also not binary, or linear. There will be zigs and zags. What may not be possible one year may be easy in another. Your adventure will have multiple chapters.

Keep in mind, that whatever path you choose, it is going to be a bit messy, and hard. Working is hard. Raising children is hard. Relationships are hard. My advice to you is to surround yourself with people and institutions that respect your values, and are committed to supporting what it takes for you to be healthy and whole.

I’ve had an incredible career, but there is nothing more important to me than being a mom. I could not have been the best mom without a lot of help from my parents, and employers who not only understood, but appreciated the fact that my daughter came first. I remember finding the courage to tell the Mayor of Chicago that I had to leave a meeting with him in order to attend my daughter’s second grade Halloween parade. A bit scary, yes, but I did it. If you do not stand up for your priorities, nobody will read your mind.

So when you interview for a job, make sure you are honest about your needs, in addition to selling your strengths. When I was recruiting her, it was Michelle Obama’s determination to make sure we had a truly good fit that lead her to invite me to a fateful dinner with her and her fiancé 26 years ago. Her fiancé thought taking the job in the mayor’s office was a risky fit, and he wanted to meet the person with whom she would work. Me. More in that dinner in a minute.

In addition to owning your life, you also must be willing to tell your story. Now… that is not always easy. You’ll likely want to gloss over, or delete parts of your journey, including mistakes you’ve made. Don’t. They are all what made you who you are.

Here’s a part of my story that I rarely used to talk about. My dad was a physician and when he left the army in 195, he could not find a job at a university where they would pay him the same as his white colleagues. So he and my mom looked for opportunities outside of the United States. He landed a job in Shiraz, Iran, where he helped start a hospital. We lived on a compound with people from all over the world. I spoke three languages — English, French and Farsi, sometimes all in the same sentence. When I was five, we moved to London for a year where I picked up a British accent.

Then we moved to my mom’s hometown, the South Side of Chicago. So imagine me. Age 6, starting in my local public school, placed two grades up from where I should have been into second grade. Bright red hair, freckles and British accent, born in place nobody had every heard of.

Because my childhood was unusual, I never talked about it. Much to my parents chagrin, I refused to speak Farsi or French. Dropped that British accident. When people asked where I was born, I would feel my face flush as I said Iran, and then try to change the subject. I wanted to be just like all of the other children. Not different.

So at that first dinner with Barack Obama, when I was trying desperately to recruit his fiancé, what did he do? He asked me to tell him my story. Slowly and reluctantly as he gently prodded, I opened up in a way I had never done before because he made me feel safe by also sharing with me his story. He described similar experiences to mine that he had when he lived in Indonesia. What it was like to be raised by a white mom and grandparents. The emotional and financial impact of having an African dad who abandoned him. We discussed how his mom and my parents valued education, and sacrificed in order for us to have the best. How their sacrifices made us feel driven to work hard, and prove our appreciation and worthiness. We talked about the courage to take the path less traveled. And our mutual passion for public service.

We discovered that we had similar worldviews that developed because of our childhood experiences. We agreed that the United States is the greatest country on earth, but not the only country. That there is much to learn from people with difference backgrounds and life experiences. It was a deep and honest conversation. We connected.

It is likely that our journeys would have taken us in separate directions had we not been willing to open up and share our stories with each other. So tell your story. It is what makes you who you are.

And now, a word about friendships.

This is where you already have the upper hand, class of 2017. You chose to go to Spelman understanding the importance of women supporting other women, and this lesson is going to be so valuable throughout the rest your life.

Today, you are surrounded by the friends who you’ve made here at Spelman. You must continue to nurture those friendships, and new ones which, trust me, is much harder when you don’t live in dorms and see them all of the time. But when life gets complicated, messy and painful, your rock of support will come from your family, of course, but also importantly the women in whom you have consistently invested the most precious resource: your time and love.

Solid and reliable friendships are lifelines that will help ground you. Lift you to safety when the downward pull of quicksand is mightiest. They are not sustainable by merely checking Facebook, or twitter, or using Instagram or Snapchat. Make the time and effort to truly be present in their lives, and select friends who want to be present in yours.

And as you go out into the world, please appreciate that so much of your success, both professional and personal, depends on relationships. Remember the wise words of Maya Angelou who once said that “people will not remember what you said, or what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel.”

My advice today has been directed to the Class of 2017, but in closing, a message to you all. Our great country needs us all to engage right now. The most important office is the office of citizen. Many of us were no doubt shaken by the last election, and much of what we have observed over the last several months. But we also must keep in mind that the journey to perfect our union has never been easy. The strength and resiliency of our democracy rests squarely on the shoulders of each citizen who embraces their power to be a positive force for change.

So yes, I am optimistic about our future when I see the incredible talent in the Class of 2017, but I see it in the rest of us too. We who love our country have the power to change it. For change often seems impossible until it is inevitable. Just as we must own our lives, we must own our country. For, we, the people, are ultimately in control of the America’s story.

Thank you.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.