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Every year around this time, inspirational commencement speeches fill our feeds. This year, Mindy Kaling will speak at Dartmouth. MIT is hosting Sheryl Sandberg. Amal Clooney spoke at Vanderbilt, and Hillary Clinton at Yale, earlier this month. If that seems like a lot of women, it is. The majority of the top U.S. colleges are bringing in women for their 2018 graduating classes. It’s the first time in at least two decades that women have dominated the lucrative commencement circuit, accounting for almost 60% of the speakers at the 25 schools with the largest endowments. In years past, women made up only a quarter of those speaking gigs.
I watch these commencement speeches at my desk every year, and I’m filled with inspiration.
There was JK Rowling, reminding us that “personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a checklist...Your qualifications, your CV are not your life...life is difficult and complicated and beyond anyone’s total control.”
There was Shonda Rhimes, who knows first hand that “it’s hard work that makes things happen. Ditch the dream, be a doer, not a dreamer.”
Oprah advised us that we will fail, “and when you do, I want you to remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
I listen to these speeches, make a mood board, and feel instantly inspired. But then reality hits, and I’m in the third stall of the ladies room at work bawling my eyes out. (And that's assuming I make it to the bathroom in time.) What young woman doesn’t want to do their best work? It’s a paradox familiar to women and girls everywhere: we are achieving like never before, yet we’re consumed with self doubt. How could this be?
To get some advice, I talked to Jennifer Palmieri, former White House Communications Director and author. Her new book, Dear Madam President is a love letter to the first female president, and by extension, all working women trying to make it in any field. She told me that crying at work is okay. She’s cried in the Oval office, in front of Obama and in the bathroom of the White House.
“It really frustrates me when people say that to tear up at work is not professional. Because I know what that means. 'Professional' means it’s not the way men behave. Let’s lay it on the line, that is what that word means. And you want the workplace to be professional in the sense that you want it to be a place where everyone can do their best work.”
I also asked Claire Shipman, co-author of Confidence Code and Confidence Code For Girls. It turns out that young women are excelling academically at higher and higher rates. But once we graduate and get into the working world, the rules change drastically. Shipman told me that from ages 0 to 22, we teach girls exactly the wrong lessons.
“The whole system is set up for girls to achieve academically. It is heavily focused on coloring in the lines, sitting quietly for the teacher, pleasing people, doing everything right, getting A pluses. So what girls are internalizing is “this is what I do to succeed”. And they’re right... for the first 22 years. When they get out into the world, in fact, it’s a complete bait and switch situation. That doesn’t work anymore.”
Suddenly, young women are out in the working world and what we need to survive is confidence, not competence. In the professional space, it’s all about promoting yourself, taking chances, and speaking up. How could this happen?
Shipman tells me “it’s so much easier as a parent to have a people-pleasing girl who is focused on outward success. Who doesn’t want that? You have to actively fight against that and keep reminding yourself that gliding through life, without experiencing failure, is not what you want for your child.”
So what are the four lessons we didn’t get growing up that'd help build our confidence? Check out the video above. I list them out, then got a group of interns in a room, and passed them on to the next generation of female workers.
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