Last week I was walking on Commonwealth Avenue, near Kenmore Square, in Boston. I saw dozens of graduating seniors walking around in their red graduation gowns, likely coming and going from pre-commencement events. I’ve got to admit, the sight made me tear up. I graduated from Boston University thirty-five years ago this month, and wore a similar gown. Not for the first time, I wish I could go back and time and talk to that Julie.
That Julie was beyond thrilled to be getting her degree in communications, and vowed she’d never go back to school again. She was wrong. I’ve got two more degrees, and have taken dozens of classes over the years.
That Julie loved theater, but she was convinced she could never make a life in the arts. She was wrong. I’ve been working in the arts for over thirty years now, though my communications degree has been very helpful.
That Julie also believed the creative writing teacher who told her that her writing didn’t have enough gravitas to be taken seriously. She was wrong. I’m working on what will be my eighth published novel, which is due to my editor on June 1.
Seeing those red gowns, I started to think. What would I tell that Julie that would really help her on her path?
I’d tell her that she had a great education, but she had a ton more she needed to learn. Acknowledging that was going to open up possibilities she couldn’t even imagine. When I was working for Harvard University I was able to take classes at the Extension School for very little money. I audited several classes, and then I decided to take some classes in management. I remember thinking that since I’d been a manager for several years at that point, what did I really have to learn? Needless to say, the answer was a lot. Learning isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s the ultimate sign of strength, actually.
I would tell her to ask for help. Network. Find a community of folks doing what you want to do. Network with them. Find some mentors. You might be able to figure things out on your own, but mentors and networking go beyond helping you get ahead. They add so much to your life it is difficult to understand.
At the same time, I’d tell her to look out for herself. I remember well meaning folks who discouraged me from trying something. They may have had their own reasons for that, but my own fear encouraged me to take their advice. But here’s what I’ve learned. Living a safe, small life is one option. But the dreams I had? They could only be realized by being brave, and taking risks. The other part of that equation is that no one cared, or cares, about my career as much as I did. If I wanted more, I needed to figure out how to get it.
I’d tell her to set audacious goals for herself, but make sure to celebrate every success on the way to achieving those goals. Dreams are essential to a life well lived. Don’t be afraid of failing, because you will fail. Dozens of times. But you’ll also learn from those failures, and keep on moving. The only way to reach a dream is by taking small steps consistently toward your goals.
Getting unstuck is harder than getting stuck. This truth isn’t only career advice, it is also life advice. A bad relationship, a job you hate, a career that's stalled. All of those things get you stuck, but getting unstuck is an active and difficult path. Like so many things, it requires bravery. Be brave. Always be brave.
Finally, I’d let her know that it will all work out. Not the way she expected. In many, many ways far better than she could have expected. But she had to learn patience. She still has to learn patience. Patience and trust.
What would you tell your younger self? Who is the person you hope to see in the mirror in thirty years?
It may be time to take out a journal and consider both of those things.
Happy commencement + thirty-five, Julie.