Passion Forward: An Interview with Sherry Williams

Editor's Note: Ms. JD's Annual Conference, Passion Forward, will take place February 21st-22nd in Austin, Texas.  In the months before the conference, we are pleased to be bringing you posts from our conference speakers.  To learn more about Passion Forward or to register for the conference yourself, click here. We look forward to seeing you in Austin!

If there is one word I would use to describe Sherry Williams, it would be, well, impossible because there are too many superlatives to choose from, but I think I would start with “refreshing.” It was refreshing (and inspiring and motivational and enlightening) to speak with someone who, even after achieving such great honors as being named to two Most Powerful lists in as many years (2013 On Being a Black Lawyer; 2012 Women Looking Ahead), is frank and honest not only about the obstacles that she faced to get to where she is, but about how we owe it to ourselves to follow our dreams even when they seem impossible.

The youngest of nine children, Ms. Williams was the first in her family to finish college, but it almost didn’t happen. The list of people that she credits for helping her realize her dreams, from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, to an on-campus recruiter from Pepsi, all had one thing in common: they provided her with the focus that she needed to continue pursuing her dreams.

By her own admission, though, Ms. Williams doesn’t know how to fail, and although she admits that self-doubt is inevitable, she has learned to embrace the things that other people see in her and encourages other young lawyers to do the same because it will help you push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

But, getting outside of your comfort zone is not enough. You must be authentic and honest to gain the support of others while you pursue your passion (*read to the end to see Ms. Williams’ authentic responses to fun questions!). Too often, Ms. Williams has seen young lawyers let their egos direct their goals rather than defining success on their own terms. She stressed the importance of making time for self-reflection every few years and asking the following questions:

  1. Do I like what I do?
  2. Am I passionate/significantly interested in it?
  3. Do I like the people I work with?

Once you’ve gone through that process on your own, she advised that you should gather people together who love you and seek their honest input about the path you are on. As Ms. Williams can attest, honesty may not always be easy, but we all know the saying: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Or, in the authentic words of Ms. Williams, “nobody controls whether or not you’re average but you.”

It is easy to settle for a life that is “good enough” when you’ve accumulated various trappings of success – especially for the stereotypically risk-averse lawyer crowd. But, if we’re honest with ourselves and take Ms. Williams’ words to heart, it’s possible that we might find a glorious passion for life that has continued to smoulder despite our best attempts to avoid it.

I can’t wait to hear what Ms. Williams has to say at the 6th Annual Ms. JD Passion Forward Conference and I hope you can join us!

* The following questions were adapted from Inside the Actor’s Studio:

  1. What is your favorite word? Mama
  2. What is your least favorite word? Whatever
  3. What sound or noise do you love? My daughter’s laugh
  4. What sound or noise do you hate? Honking horns
  5. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Party planner/caterer or clinical psychology
  6. What profession would you not like to do? Run for political office
  7. What personality trait do you admire most in yourself? Not taking myself too seriously
  8. What personality trait do you admire most in others? Spontaneity
  9. What was the best piece of advice you received about following your passion? Find something that you would do even if they didn’t pay you.
  10. What piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to follow their passion? Sometimes, the word passion doesn’t mean anything and it is used as a way to avoid having a hard conversation about what you really want to be doing. You don’t have to be passionate about your work, but you have to be passionate about something to make work worthwhile and you have to put in the work to find out what that is.

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