In an inspiring graduation speech delivered to the Harvard Law School’s class of 2023, acclaimed actress and martial arts icon Michelle Yeoh imparted invaluable life lessons she had learnt during her eventful career. Yeoh, renowned for performing her own daredevil stunts on set, shared with graduates the three guiding principles she has evolved on “how to survive the fall” throughout her career “leaps and dives”.
Yeoh began her speech by sharing how a spinal injury shattered her dance career dream in her younger days. But instead of letting adversity dampen her spirits, she remained composed and adaptable. And this positive attitude of hers ultimately resulted in new opportunities.
She referred to it as “staying loose”, explaining that “when falling, the tendency is to tighten up to brace for impact. But in truth, the safest thing one can do is remain calm, even curious about the shifting world around you.”
Yeoh eventually graduated with a degree in creative arts and returned to Hong Kong with an open mind, exploring new options that led her to start a career in film.
“When falling, the tendency is to tighten up to brace for impact. But in truth, the safest thing one can do is remain calm, even curious about the shifting world around you.”
Know Your Limits
Yeoh explained that there are two levels of limitations that one must acknowledge and understand. The first is our personal limits, and the other is the limits imposed on us by others. While knowing our own limits keeps us humbled, grounded, and motivated, recognising our external limitations empowers us to break through them.
To illustrate the importance of understanding limits, Yeoh recounted how she faced limitations and stereotypes as an actress. But recognising her own capabilities and determined to defy societal expectations, she broke through barriers, pioneered a path for herself, and launched her niche career as a female action movie star, joining Jackie Chan and Jet Li as one of the three people in action cinema “who Hong Kong insurers refused to cover”.
She said, “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.”
Yeoh further revealed that because she was resistant to being typecast, there was a time in her career when she did not work for almost two years while she waited patiently for the right role. And that’s when the turning point in her career came when the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon presented itself, not only rewarding her patience but also launching her onto the international stage.
In reflecting on her journey and the strength she found to persevere in her pursuit of meaningful roles, she expressed, “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.”
“Our limitations become our challenges, and there is nothing like a challenge to keep you working, striving, and pushing for more.”
Find Your People
“Most success stories are less about competition and more about collaboration.”
In her third and final pointer for the graduates, Yeoh emphasised that success is rarely achieved alone, and she stressed the significance of building a strong support network, which extends beyond personal relationships to include diverse individuals encountered throughout life.
By surrounding oneself with supportive, compassionate, and like-minded individuals, Yeoh believes we can draw strength from one another and overcome obstacles much more easily together than alone. “When you are leaping without a safety net, people become your safety net, and you become theirs.” And that was what she hoped to deeply instil in the graduates’ mindsets: the very power of community, which lies in its ability to empower individuals to become their best selves.
As a UNDP Goodwill Ambassador advocating for women and girls, Yeoh also highlighted the inequalities and struggles faced by marginalised communities globally that she had witnessed firsthand. As such, she urged the graduates, as they embark on their own paths, to always exercise compassion and empathy and carry the torch of change to create a more just and equitable future for all.
“Stay loose, be smart, and go with love,” Yeoh summarised in her closing speech, leaving us all with an energetic yet profound call to action: “And then leap. And then leap again and leap again.”
“When you are leaping without a safety net, people become your safety net, and you become theirs.”
As we reflect on Yeoh’s empowering words, we are reminded that life is an ever-evolving journey. By embracing the unknown, challenging our limits, and nurturing meaningful connections, we discover our capacity for resilience, compassion, and collaboration.
Let us carry these lessons forward and leap into the future with our hearts full of love and courage and minds open to unimaginable possibilities.