Choose a career that you care deeply about, and although you are sure to encounter setbacks and disappointments — like everyone else — you won’t lament your decision, said Sharon Block, a professor of practice at Harvard Law School during an event last Wednesday.

Block, who is also the executive director of Harvard Law’s Center for Labor and a Just Economy, was delivering her Last Lecture to the Class of 2024 — final talks by faculty members who are selected by the graduating students’ class marshals to share parting words of wisdom.

Formerly a key labor policy official under Presidents Barack Obama ‘91 and Joe Biden, Block began by repeating the best — if a tad coarse — advice she had ever heard in a graduation speech, from writer and humorist David Sedaris: “If you want to be successful in life, don’t be an asshole.”

She said she had pondered what other wisdom students might expect to hear from her and decided to tell them about the highs — and lows — of her own career in public service, in the hopes of encouraging them to choose a path with meaning.

“I defy anyone to find someone who has loved their career more than I have loved mine,” Block said. “So, you may be expecting me to just share with you all the great jobs I’ve had, and why I’ve loved those jobs so much.”

Indeed, Block first recalled a few of the highlights of her career, including the first time President Obama told her that she was doing a good job and attending VIP-studded holiday parties at the White House (“Yes, the eggnog really is that good and that boozy.”).

She also told students about the “real best moments” — when she got to see the positive impact of her efforts on American workers — like an event celebrating a new Department of Labor regulation that would limit coal miners’ exposure to coal dust.

“The indelible memory that I have of that day is of the oxygen tanks that so many of the miners in the audience needed just to breathe,” Block recalled, “and then the thought that because of the rule that we were rolling out that day, in 10 or 20 years, someone could have a meeting of coal miners, and you wouldn’t hear that noise anymore, because the next generation of miners would be free of [black lung disease].”

But good work should not just be about personal achievement, she advised.

“I love sharing my very strong belief that the way to have a great career is to really love what you do, is to really care about what you do, not just to find it interesting, or a challenging intellectual puzzle, or a path to a big office, or an even bigger paycheck,” she said. “If those other things happen, great, but I’ve learned that what makes me happy, what makes me excited to get out of bed every day to go to work, is to feel like what I am doing matters and that it matters in a way that I think is important.”

“I’ve learned that what makes me happy, what makes me excited to get out of bed every day to go to work, is to feel like what I am doing matters and that it matters in a way that I think is important.”

That attitude helped motivate her to continue even after she experienced one of her “worst moments” — when her tenure on the National Labor Relations Board by President Obama was cut short because of the controversy over the validity of her recess appointment. Her confirmation chances were scuttled by Democrats after making a deal with Republicans, who had opposed her.

Block had anticipated objections from the other party. “The thing that I didn’t foresee was that push in the small of my back would come from my own team,” she said. “In fact, it was Democrats who sent me flying under the bus.”

In the aftermath, Block said she was “embarrassed and scared” as she considered what to do next. She worried about what her peers thought, and she even wondered whether she wanted to continue a life in public service.

But when the dust cleared, she said, she had learned a few important lessons. “First, I learned not to make big decisions when you’re angry or hurt or in a place of great emotion,” said Block. “My mother had always told me ‘Don’t burn bridges.’ So, here’s some extra advice: Listen to your mother.”

She added that she also learned that she had many supportive colleagues, a virtue she recommended students emulate: “Make time to be a great friend.”

Finally, Block said, “I also learned in that time that sometimes you just have to get over yourself. As I was steaming and perseverating about what had happened, I was making myself the center of the drama … But with a little bit of time, I began to see a different picture alongside my own drama.”

What Block saw in the fracas was growing support for the National Labor Relations Board among Democrats. Instead of a personal setback, she began to reframe the situation as something different. “This small New Deal-era agency had brought the D.C. policy world to a standstill.”

If she had not taken a step back, she said, she might have missed this realization, and she might have let her pain take her career in another direction. “Context matters, and it’s critically important that you’re seeing the big picture when you make a big decision about your life and your career.”

With this new perspective, Block decided to continue in her career in public service, joining the Department of Labor under Tom Perez ’87. “He gave me a hug and then he launched into telling me all the big plans he had to marshal the power of the department to make life better for working people,” she said. “There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to continue to serve.”

Not everyone wants to work as a labor lawyer, or in public service, Block acknowledged. But she insisted that everyone in the room held the potential to foster change. “Take the precious commodity you have, of your wonderful selves and amazing potential, and use it to do good in the world.”

She concluded by telling the graduating class that they could not go wrong by following their passions and trying to make things better.

“Do what you care most about that can have a positive impact on others,” urged Block. “I would bet that if you do, you won’t ever regret your career choices, even if you momentarily find yourself ‘under a bus.’”

Want to stay up to date with Harvard Law Today? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.