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Posts Tagged ‘“the Graduate’

This being graduation season, the other day I asked the over-achieving rockstars in my senior journalism capstone class what they’d most like to hear from a commencement speaker.

Thankfully, I heard no references to roads not taken nor endings-versus-beginnings.  (Though I would have enjoyed a quick reference to that four-word piece of advice from the iconic film about post-grad angst, The Graduate:  “In a Word: Plastics”)

But anyway.

The best answer came from a young woman who said she’d like to hear from someone who has failed – and was still okay.

Now, I suspect this is a young woman who, herself, has never failed.  And yet: she may have tapped into one of the biggest fears of young women who have been raised with great expectations, high aspirations and the message that they could do it all and have it all: What happens if they can’t?

If you’ve been following this space, you probably know that one of our key messages is the need to embrace failure, to put yourself out there, to take some risks – even when said risks might end in a big fat fail.  In most cases, if you can see that failure for what it is – just one step in a life-long process of trial and error – you may well learn something that can propel you forward.  Or, as psychologist Ramani Durvasula told us back when we were reporting our book: “You’ll always get over a failure.  But regret?  It’s not recoverable.”

In other words, to borrow a quote from another movie classic, you’ll always wonder if you “coulda been a contender.”

And so, as a nod to my student, and to graduates anywhere, here’s a short list of successful women who failed famously – and still, one way or the other, ended up on top:

Emily Dickinson:  Regarded as one of America’s greatest poets, she wrote over 1700 poems.  Only a handful were published in her lifetime.

Lucille Ball: The winner of four Emmys and a Lifetime Achievement Award was told by one of her first drama teachers that she should try another profession.

Marilyn Monroe: When she was just starting out, modeling agents told her she should go be a secretary.  Why?  She wasn’t attractive enough.

Kathryn Stockett:  Her manuscript for “The Help” was rejected by 60 literary agents over a period of three and a half years, before being picked up by an agent named Susan Ramer, who sold the book to a publisher three weeks later.

Oprah Winfrey:  At 22, she scored a gig co-anchoring the evening news in Baltimore, and eight months later, was fired.  Because she still had a contract with the station, they shuffled her off to a talk show, which ultimately launched her career.

Hilary Clinton:  The Yale Law School graduate failed the D.C. bar exam – but passed the Arkansas bar and moved there to be with Bill.  The rest, as they say, is the history of one of the most influential women in the United States, if not the world.

The list goes on, or could, but the point is this: while we all fail at one time or another (be sure to ask me about some of my own personal doozies) the only real failure is letting the fear of it hold us back.  Or, as former New York Times editor Anna Quindlen once said: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

By the way, our commencement speaker this year is Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, who has experienced a few failures of his own.

Let’s hope he doesn’t fail to mention them.

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So clearly, you don’t often start the day thinking of “The Graduate.” But I was reminded of the iconic film about post-grad angst this A.M. via an op-ed from the Daily Pennsylvanian, written by Juliette Mullin, a senior at Penn, where, Mullin writes, students tend to equate the Penn seal on their diplomas with a six-figure salary.

And what I thought was this: Funny how expectations can do us in. (This seems to be a recurrent theme on Undecided, yeah?) Here’s how Mullin’s piece begins:

Lately, I’ve been having the same conversation on repeat. It doesn’t matter whom I’m talking to or where I am, everyone loves asking the same question: “Do you have plans for next year?”

This question has become such a sore spot for so many seniors at this point in the year that most will flat out preempt it with “I know this is the question we’re not supposed to ask each other but…”

Now it’s not how you ask that bothers me. In fact, unlike most, I don’t even mind being asked. What bothers me is the response I often get when I tell someone my plans are still up in the air — the look of slight pity and concern that I still don’t have my life completely figured out, followed by a weak, “Sorry I asked.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? No matter how old you are. Sure, it’s a question college seniors have been ever asked, and it’s been ever loaded, mixed as it is with curiosity on the part of the questioner (I confess. Often guilty as charged) with just a dash of reproach. But add the expectations that ride the backs of so many women today — Succeed! Excel! Score Trophies! — coupled with the added onus of graduating from a prestigious school like Penn and you’ve got a boatload of angst, according to Mullin, who compares figuring out her future to the stress of taking one more class — but more so:

Unlike our classes, however, we tend to go through this alone, constantly feeling behind the pack. This year, it’s especially tough thanks to the economy. And, of course, it’s all made more stressful by being at a school with such a pre-professional focus.

When Career Services Senior Associate Director Barbara Hewitt used to work at a more “liberal-arts focused school,” she found that the general stress level surrounding the job hunt was not nearly as pronounced as it is at Penn. Here, we look at the students who have already secured well-paid Wall Street or engineering jobs for next year and immediately start to feel like we’re behind.

Which leads us back to expectations. Sure, they help us to move forward, to do our best, yadda yadda. But when they are impossibly high, when the you-can-do-anything mantra becomes part and parcel of the iconic self, well, anything less becomes grounds for disappointment.

Or indecision. That grass over there? Gotta be greener. Let’s check.

Meanwhile, scroll to the end of the story, and you find that our Ms. Mullin seems to have things figured out. At least right now. And I agree with her, but in a much larger sense: no matter your age, your job, your personal goals — life itself is a work in progress. Look at it that way, and you’re less likely to be lusting over that other side of the fence.

Until you get to that mindset, though, what then?

There’s always plastics.

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