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Michelle Yeoh’s Speech to the Harvard Law School Class of 2023

Michelle Yeoh Addresses the Harvard Law School Class of 2023
Michelle Yeoh Addresses the Harvard Law School Class of 2023

‘Stay loose, be smart, and go with love… and then leap. And then leap again. And then leap again’

Michelle Yeoh, Academy-award winning actress, advocate, and United Nations Development Programme Goodwill ambassador, offered the Class of 2023 some advice during the Class Day celebration on Wednesday as they were poised to dive into “a presumably bright but unpredictable future.”

Below text was compiled by 9696 site. We checked and edited sentence by sentence based on YouTube transcript. This should be the most accurate transcript for this speech.


Wow, what an introduction that was!

Good afternoon and thank you, Dean Manning, Dean Ball, and Dean Bok for this rare and distinguished honor, and congratulations to the class of 2023. What an incredible day, “le dénouement” of an impressive academic journey. Congratulations as well to parents, partners, and family members of all the students here today. I can only imagine the pride and joy you must have to see your loved one’s graduate from what I understand is the best law school in the country to the graduating cohort. I consider it a privilege to have been asked to speak to you as you are about to unleash yourself on the world.

This moment conjures up the exciting image of a high diver poised to leap into the void. As you know, I am not a lawyer, I can’t even say that I have played one on the screen, so why am I here? Why have I been asked to deliver the keynote speech to you on this pivotal day in your lives as you dive headfirst into a presumably bright, but unpredictable future?

Well, maybe the reason I’m here is because I happen to have some experience leaping off high perches into scary voids, so do allow me to offer some simple pointers that I’ve picked up along the way in my career full of leaps and dives, how to survive the fall in three easy steps by Michelle Yeoh.

The first one is obvious, but not always easy. Stay loose.

My journey from Malaysia, Ipoh (a city of Malaysia) Malaysia to the Academy Awards SAG began with my first love which was not acting but dance. I knew at a very young age that my gift was to communicate through movement. In my studies, I found freedom in discipline and focus. I trained tirelessly day and night drilling my body in every aspect of the craft. More importantly, I trained my mind to be still, to silence the whispers of self-doubt. Dance was my safe place, my inevitable future, and my undeniable path. So, I enrolled in a ballet school in England and began living my dream.

Unfortunately, life had other plans. I suffered a spinal injury. And just like that, I watched everything vanish into thin air. Life as I knew it was over. With my dreams of dance crushed.

I credit the principal of my school for giving me the encouragement that ultimately led me to a career beyond my imagination. It was she who encouraged me to stay loose about my future. When falling, the tendency is to tighten up to brace for impact. But in truth, the safest thing one can do is to remain calm, even curious about the shifting world around you.

After graduating with a degree in creative arts, I returned home more open to other possibilities outside the box. With this awareness came the freedom to make choices I might not have otherwise been able to.

This opened the door to doing a commercial in Hong Kong, then to acting roles and the start of my life in film which leads me to my second piece of advice.

Know your limits.

Although understanding what you can do is essential, understanding what you can’t do is pretty important too. This works on two levels, both internally and externally. Internally knowing your limits keeps you humble, motivated, and focused on a goal to point your finger toward. Externally knowing the limits that are set for you by others, gives you a place to point a different finger, I am talking about the middle one(finger). In other words, limitations set by yourself gives you boundaries to respect, but limitations set by others gives you boundaries to bust through.

As a young woman trying to break into a film in Hong Kong, I was confronted with limitations at every turn. Initially casted in stereotypical roles, the demure, docile, damsel in distress, I soon realized that what I wanted to play were the action roles, the heroes. Of course, these were then reserved exclusively for men. But I could see that the outfight sequences were highly choreographed and I knew in my bones that my dance training would allow me to excel at them if only I was given the chance. So, I went to my producer and said, I did say ‘please’, “I want an action role. I was prepared to do everything the men were doing, the choreography, the stunts, taking the blows, the wire work, all of it. What? Like it’s hard?”

But when the chance finally came, I knew it was make or break. I had a one-shot to prove my bankability as an action star and if I failed, I would not get that opportunity again. So, I seized the moment with everything I had. And as it turned out, thankfully, audiences were more than ready for a female star in action comedies. The film ‘Yes, Madam’ was well-received and launched my career.

I knew I had made it when soon after, I joined Jet Li and Jackie Chan as the three people who Hong Kong insurers refused to cover. They took one look at the scenes we were shooting and ran for the hills. I wore that as a badge of honor.

Eventually, things progressed and before I knew it, I was regularly running on rooftops, riding motorcycles onto moving trains, and rolling off vans onto oncoming traffic. Don’t try that at home again. There were injuries as you can imagine. But with every nick and scratch and bruise and fractured vertebrae, I came back better and braver.

Learning how to fall teaches you how to land and learning to land gives you the courage to jump higher. So, when the James Bond producers knocked on my door about a film called ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, I thought yes, they want me to play James Bond. I was fortunate that the producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson had a substantial role in mind in the character of Wai Lin, a formidable agent who was always one step of her adversaries and equal to bond. Many regard that character as instrumental in modernizing the franchise, and its retro-grade portrayals of women. So, Thank you, Barbara and Michael.

Although offers came in after the Bond movie, I waited two years for the proper role, rejecting scripts that lacked nuance or depth in their character. Honestly, there were times I had doubts as to whether I was doing the right thing in waiting. After all, actors want to act. However, I knew I would not be happy unless I continue to seek out roles that allowed me and like-minded creatives to dig deeper and reflect three-dimensional humanity onstage. That was ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’.

So, I must have done something right because I am busier than ever. These examples illustrate the importance of limitations. Because our limitations become our challenges and there is nothing like a challenge to keep you working, striving, and pushing for more. Every demeaning role I was offered, every rejection I was handed, and every time someone underestimated me, I found energy and renewed motivation. This brings me to the third and final tip.

Find your people.

Life is not always a zero-sum game. For every winner, that doesn’t have to be a loser. In fact, most success stories are less about competition and more about collaboration. The truth is, I could not have done any of these alone. My achievements are the results of those around me who offered and continue to offer support and believe.

There are times where as much as I don’t want to let myself down, I don’t want to let them down even more.

My definition of community is vast, including my family, loved ones, and friends. But it also includes the other actors, directors, producers, stunt people, film crews, dancers, musicians, and artists with whom I’ve crossed paths. My community transcends time in the sense that I stand on the shoulders of those who have come before me, and I am energized and inspired by those who come after me. My community extends beyond people I know personally, which is why representation matters and why diversity on and off the screen have been a major priority for me, particularly for women, and particularly in lead roles.

When we shine a light on the rich and varied world around us, we empower the whole of our humanity. I can see no better reason to wake up in the morning and get to work. Lastly, my community is not limited to the film industry. In my work as UNDP Goodwill Ambassador, I have witnessed the deep inequalities that continue to plague societies around the world. And I have seen up close how women and girls are often the last to get essential services like clean water and vaccines, especially in crisis. For this reason, I have committed myself in walking in lockstep with their struggle.

The prerequisite to change is empathy. Seeing through other people’s perspective activates our compassion, which becomes the driving force for real-world demonstrable action. Compassion is the ultimate superpower within us. When you are leaping without a safety net, people become your safety net and you become theirs.

So those are my tips. Stay loose, know your limits, and find your people.

But I want to conclude by speaking briefly about that little movie that called ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’. This was a film that in many ways brings together all the insights I have shared with you today.

It defied genre, playing loose with free expectations and defying categorization. It flouted limitation by taking a smaller budget and turning it into an international phenomenon. It brought together a community of creative and talented individuals working with a common passion to tell a universal human story.

This was some WOW: I’m creating waves as I can see. This was a movie made entirely with love that was in many ways the culmination of my life’s work. And the reverberations of that love continue to be felt as ‘Everything, Everywhere, All at Once’ has caused a tectonic shift in the industry, opening the door to more independent efforts and greater Asian representation.

When I think of a glorious leap into an unknown void, I think of that movie.

So, Class of 2023, this is my offering to you. Today you graduate, and today you leap.
Stay loose, be smart, and go with love and then leap, and then leap again and leap again.

I look forward to living in the world you all help build and I am honored to have been one small voice at the beginning of your journey.

Thank you all, and I wish you every success.

Happy graduation!

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