Circuit Court Judge Kathryn Olita delivered the commencement address for the Austin Peay State University summer graduation on Friday, Aug. 9. Here’s an excerpt of her remarks:
When I started to think about what to say to you all today, I thought back to my own commencement nearly 20 years ago. The keynote speaker was Jim Haslam, owner of Pilot Oil Company. Jim’s son, Bill Haslam, would later become governor of the State of Tennessee. I don’t really remember what Jim said, but what strikes me now is that there is no way I could have imagined back then that in 2018 I would be sitting in Gov. Haslam’s office being interviewed by him for the judge position I hold now. I could not have imagined that I would become the youngest female to serve as Circuit Court judge for the 19th Judicial District. I could not have imagined that I’d be standing before you today trying to share some insight into life after graduation. But here I am.
And so I thought, what would it look like if I could send some real advice back to me 20 years ago? If I could even put it in writing and send myself a letter, what would I say? I think it would sound something like this:
Dear Katy: Say yes to the next right thing. You might have been annoyed when Dad gave that advice growing up, but guess what – it’s great advice! It’s not about certainty or about finality – it’s really about the opposite. It’s about opportunity. It’s about being open to growth and unexpected blessings that can come when you lean into saying yes to the next right thing. So, say yes to leaving your friends, your comfort zone and your beloved Rocky Top to move across the state for law school. Say yes to new study groups; to law review; to the chance to come home to Clarksville one summer to work at Batson Nolan – your future law firm home. Say yes to the blind date. Say yes to the first job that’s not at all what you saw for yourself. You only think you’re going to be a contract lawyer looking at documents all day. Instead you’ll become a litigator and learn the importance of not just actual justice, but of social justice and fairness in our legal system. Say yes to moving home to Clarksville. Take the blind date (who is now your husband) with you. Say yes to getting connected in your home town all over again. Find ways to serve. You’ll occasionally be over-committed, but you’ll also be developing relationships that will be important to you later. When someone suggests you should apply for an open attorney position at APSU, say yes. Go for it!
Which leads me to my next point: You will fail! You will also fail when you apply for a federal judge position. But you can’t let that stop you. Being a trial lawyer will teach you that sometimes you have to fail gracefully. You must still prepare and go into every situation with all the confidence you can muster. But in life and in law, you can’t win them all. The key is to be willing to keep showing up. To get back up after each failure, or disappointment or setback. When you eventually figure out that your goal is to connect your education and profession with your desire to serve others, you have to keep searching and trying and failing in order to get there.
And while you’ve got to be willing to fail, don’t waste your time looking back. And definitely do not let your failures turn into fear. There will be times when you question yourself. When you wonder if you’re good enough or if you have what it takes. You will wonder if you’re ready. You will be terrified of giving up what you have. Of disappointing people. Of putting yourself out there into the world for judgment. You will have to really work on setting that fear aside and focus that energy somewhere else. Like focusing it on doing your very best. Think about how much time you could put towards actually achieving your goal if you set aside the fear that only exists in your mind.
When you get your mind right and set your fear aside, give yourself the tools you need to succeed. Invest in yourself. Do whatever it takes. Hire a coach. Buy the new suit. Make phone calls. Take meetings. Ask for help. Practice. Prepare. Surround yourself with a community of people, friends and family who believe in you and empower you. Listen to their voices. Take their advice.