I had been asked by a university to give a commencement speech to their Fall graduates, and I’d learned in my work, be it building businesses, or writing books, that your audience is what matters. So I tried to sit in the audience, remembering what mattered to me at 22.
“Where are you going?”
Seems like such an innocuous question, right? Something your spouse or child asks when you’re getting ready to leave the house. A simple question, except if you’re 18, and waiting to hear from colleges you’ve applied to. This was the case with my very dear niece Rachel. She had applied to a state school that she really wanted to attend, and many of the friends at her high school had heard back that they were accepted to that school. She’d heard nothing. So she had no answer to this question.
“Where are you going?”
I remembered being asked this, too. An innocent question, except if you’re 21 or 22, graduating from college, and waiting to hear from employers about a job. After a while, any job looks good. That was the case with me when I was 22, as advertising agencies and packaged goods companies rejected me. No one would give me a job.
And yes, I was feeling the stress of not having a job. But what I remembered even more vividly was my spiraling self-doubt. Too much stress, and not enough self-worth, can be horribly destructive.
The graduating students heard a flowery bio about me, why the university had asked me to speak. But I needed them to hear the less-than-perfect parts of the story. I went with honesty, leading with “Here I was, 39 years old, Chief Operating Officer of a national media brand I’d helped to start up, with hundreds of employees — and I had a drinking problem.” Now I had their attention.
A week before I was to give my commencement remarks, during finals week, a student took his life.
So I told them to take inventory of their strengths. Own all of these gifts, the bright and shiny parts that make you proud to be who you are. Your most noble work is to become good friends with yourself. The tyranny of perfectionism can keep you from hearing the sound of your own voice, the voice that cheers you on. That’s the voice to listen to.
I told them that looks can be deceiving. Sometimes what you see is just the outer packaging. Most importantly, we can bounce back from anything if we work at it, as I did with my alcohol abuse. Asking for help is an act of courage. Being willing to be vulnerable enough to ask for help is not a weakness, but an act of courage. Whether that’s talking to someone’s crazy uncle who might have a job opening or calling a friend who will let you just talk, so you can give voice to how scared and overwhelmed with stress and worry you are. That you have no answer to “where are you going?”
I was quivering the day I gave my Commencement speech because I would be telling 4,000 people that I’d had a drinking problem. But being a storyteller, I knew I had to move them through that stark truth so they would understand there are solutions to everything. I did feel some after-burn later, telling strangers who would have only known my successes, that I’d failed, too. But I don’t regret it. The next day, I got an email from a grandmother in the audience who was grateful for my honesty. It’s in those moments that it’s worth the quivering, the vulnerability.
George Washington Carver said, “how far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young.”
That’s what we can all do. We can double down on helping our kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews — this overwhelmed generation of young women and men — by being brave ourselves. By sharing not only our successes but our stories of messing up too. Of not getting the job we wanted, of quivering beneath our Armani suits. But ah, the good news, that happens a whole lot less than it did when we were 22. We can paint a bright picture but an honest one, and in doing that, give them permission to not be perfect.