Academy Award-winning actor and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Goodwill ambassador Michelle Yeoh shared some valuable advice with the Harvard Law School Class of 2023 during the Class Day celebration on May 24 as they prepared to embark on a “presumably bright but unpredictable future.”
Yeoh, known for her early career in action films in Hong Kong, where she performed her own stunts, drew from her personal experience of “leaping off high perches into scary voids” to offer pointers to her audience.
Her first piece of advice was to remain flexible. Born in Malaysia, Yeoh revealed that her true passion was dance, not acting. She recognized her gift for communication through movement at a young age and emphasized the importance of discipline and focus in her training. She also highlighted the significance of training her mind to silence self-doubt. Dance became her safe space, inevitable future, and undeniable path.
However, her journey took an unexpected turn after a spinal injury while studying ballet in England. Yeoh credited her school principal for encouraging her to remain open-minded about her future.
“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 shared.
She described how her degree in creative arts and her return home opened her up to new possibilities beyond traditional boundaries. This included participating in a commercial in Hong Kong and pursuing acting roles, ultimately launching her career in film.
Yeoh’s second piece of advice was to know one’s limits. She emphasized the importance of understanding what one can and cannot do—both internally and externally. Knowing personal limits keeps one humble, motivated, and focused on goals. Recognizing the limits imposed by others provides an opportunity to defy those boundaries.
As a young woman trying to break into the film industry in Hong Kong, Yeoh faced limitations at every turn. Initially cast in stereotypical roles, she desired action roles typically reserved for men. Leveraging her dance training, she convinced a producer to give her a chance to prove herself, leading to her breakthrough role in the well-received film “Yes Madam.”
Yeoh expressed that learning to fall taught her how to land, giving her the courage to jump higher. When she was offered a role in the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies,” she believed she would play the role of James Bond. In reality, she was offered the character of Wai Lin, a formidable agent who challenged traditional portrayals of women in the franchise.
For two years, Yeoh waited for the right role, rejecting scripts lacking nuance or depth. Despite occasional doubts, she sought roles that allowed her and other creatives to reflect humanity onscreen, as she did in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Her persistence paid off, and at 60, she is busier than ever.
Yeoh’s third piece of advice was to find “your people.” She said her achievements were the result of the support and belief offered by those around her. Her community extended beyond family and friends to include individuals she has worked with and those who inspired her. It also extended to the broader community she serves as a UNDP ambassador—fighting for equality and essential services for women and girls worldwide.
Before concluding, Yeoh mentioned her recent award-winning film, “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” which defied genres and limitations while fostering a community of passionate individuals.
In her final words of advice, Yeoh urged the graduates to stay flexible, be smart, embrace love, and take leaps into the unknown.
To watch the speech, go to youtu.be/PZ7YERWPftA