This success strategist offers lifelong advice for new graduates
Carlota Zimmerman has a four-pronged strategy that will help grads make success the focal point
“Youth must be the worst time in anybody’s life. Everything’s happening for the first time, which means that sorrow, then, lasts forever. Later, you can see that there was something very beautiful in it. That’s because you ain’t got to go through it no more.” – James Baldwin
’Tis that time of year again: Across our fruited, Photoshopped plains, the young people are graduating. Clutching, in both hands, their diplomas and ravenous ambition, the next generation is ready to seize the day, because in these United States of America, the true measure of a person is their success … or lack thereof.
For the millions of young people trying to make sense of the whirlwind of emotions within them, not to mention their rapidly maturing debt load, ’tis the season when an avalanche of advice descends upon them.
We want to believe that success brings clarity to our world … or, at least, to the worlds within us. We want to believe that success is what rewrites the melodramatic scripts of our confusing psychodramas, giving us the standard happy ending of American exceptionalism. Success puts a strut in our step, clears the complexion, makes us popular, gets us laid. Success, baby — it’s the American way!
But read the biographies, blogs and Instagram feeds of famous men and women, and for all those moments in the sun, there are still plenty of dark days. There’s still a surfeit of day-to-day pain and regret, even as actions influence generations. There’s still reality. Our bruised, lonely world puts such a premium on success while refusing to admit that true success is knowing yourself, knowing what makes you happy and knowing your values so as to construct a life that makes sense to you.
Therefore, young people, as you march through your commencement ceremonies and people ask you what you’re going to do next and what you want to do with your life, realize that their questions are more redolent of their fears and concerns than anything to do with you.
I so clearly remember being 21, about to graduate from Wellesley College, with no plan whatsoever. I had been a child actor (#redundant) on Sesame Street, a produced playwright at age 18, and was graduating with academic honors. But how any of those “advantages” — as if spending your childhood chatting up Oscar the Grouch about favorite letters and numbers was technically an achievement, per se — added up to gainful employment …? I couldn’t quite figure out how any of my eclectic experience was supposed to come together and earn me a regular paycheck. And yes, I had internships. Yes, I worked on campus. As a child actor, I had been earning a paycheck since I was about 4, so I knew all about hard work. But wasn’t college supposed to explain everything in my so-called life?
Perhaps I was naive; I was, after all, majoring in history, with a concentration in Russian area studies. But I studied history because I loved history. (Still do.) Even at 21, when people “helpfully” suggested I make a living out of history, I thought that was hilarious. I studied history because I found it fascinating. What could my obsession with Russia’s experience in World War II have to do with paying rent, and making a career?
And yet, it was exactly my love of history — and the fact that I studied something I cared about, without expecting it to bring me any immediate financial gains — that allowed me, over time and effort, to build a successful life on my own terms. I attribute a large part of that attitude to being a voracious reader as well as child actor and learning, at a very young age, to not put much faith in the man behind the curtain. You’re 4 years old, and you see Snuffleupagus hanging from the ceiling — it’s all downhill from there, Sunshine. You gotta make your own way.
Is it the young people who need advice … or the rest of us? We who are watching the next generation graduate and hoping, worrying, that they’ll do all the things we weren’t able to do? Are we worried for them … or for ourselves? Do we want to give advice … or receive it? Are we perhaps hoping this time around we’ll know the secret: the secret to finding a job, to making a career, to successful networking, the secret to success? The secret to bouncy hair, to true friendship, to getting a boy to ask for a second date, to democracy, to parallel parking, to good pie crusts, to better credit scores. The secret to making our parents proud. The secret to life.
We older people know how good life is at devouring our joys and slurping, hungrily, at our courage, leaving us frightened and alone. We’re all wounded now. We know that the rules of life are, in large part, a formulaic construct meant to soothe the babies and cue the politicians as to when they should be shocked and outraged. We know that the majority of our lives seem to be shoddily constructed Potemkin villages: taxes, parking tickets, bad sex and worse wine. We love to mock millennials, but perhaps we should admit that we’re somewhat jealous. They are, after all, only on the cusp of this destructive knowledge. They still believe in their power, if not their responsibility, to have a meaningful impact upon life. They are very lucky.
And when the young people come to me seeking advice, of course, for many of them, their greatest fear is failure. Many of them, understandably, have no idea what it is they want to do … but they know they can’t afford to not be successful. Because success is the point … right?
In America, we use the talisman of constant, unrelenting success to wash ourselves clean of the confusing years of childhood, middle-school proms, our subconscious, dead pets, news you can use, eating disorders, failed friendships, divorced parents, loveless families, sexual abuse, weight gain, recorder lessons, touch football, date rape, the loneliness of life. All of that will be, must be solved by SUCCESS. SUCCESS must make us whole again.
Add to this toxic witches’ brew the real-time psychopathology that is social media, and think about what it is to graduate from college nowadays. Consider the impact of being constantly barraged by friends’ and enemies’ (#samedifference) Photoshopped amazing, unicorn-filtered lives. And now perhaps you may begin to grasp that our young people are under constant emotional attack. On the cusp of making their own lives — a journey that necessarily entails small successes and huge mistakes, taking risks, breaking your heart, challenging yourself — our young people are indoctrinated to the cult of success: i.e., the cult of fear, the cult of your permanent record.
When I graduated from Wellesley, I decided to return to Russia; I had spent my junior year of college there, and I was curious as to whether or not I could make a life. I told my parents and a few dear friends … and I hit the road. I had no audience watching, waiting, to see if I’d fail. I had no audience to make me feel that I owed them an entertaining journey, sprinkled with inspirational quotes. I had some savings, my boyfriend and a vague notion that somehow life would find me.
Life — as it is wont to do, as it’s been doing for millennia — did its thing. I was fired from my first job, got drunk, indulged in masturbatory self-pity and eventually found a much better job that launched me on a much more exciting career. Don’t worry, it wasn’t all days of wine and roses.
Here’s what I know:
Believe in yourself and your dreams.
The pressure on new graduates to achieve and be worthy of their debt load is suffocating. Take a deep breath and relax. You owe nothing to anyone but yourself. Be respectful to your elders … and then go ahead and do whatever makes sense to you. (It’s what the rest of us did.) Have empathy for yourself and resolve, here and now, to fight for your dreams. Fight for them … even as you’re still not 100 percent sure what they are. By “fight,” of course, I mean allow your dreams to happen.
I experienced so much success by simply going to Russia because I was interested in the experience. To this day, when things get difficult, I think, “Well, I survived Russia … I’m sure I’ll figure things out.”
If I hadn’t gone, I would have learned the lessons of fear and self-doubt, and those are very damaging lessons. Those are very potent lessons. They don’t just destroy your professional dreams, they attack all aspects of your life, from the love you want to the very life you allow yourself to lead. You have to believe in yourself, and your worth, to fight for what you want, and that’s very difficult to do if you keep letting fear be your guide. Fear has only one lesson to teach you: more fear. Fear is greedy. Fear wants everything you have. Fear is insatiable.
Fake it till you make it.
When I began this business in 2008, I was coaching myself as much as clients. Coaching myself that I still had something important to contribute. I had to talk big and present myself to outsiders as the success story that, trust me, I did not feel like inside. Inside I felt like a fraud, a hack, a disgusting failure. And yet, I still had to pay the rent, keep the lights on and feed the damn cats. I had to pick up my dry cleaning. I smiled for the world, cried in the shower and coached everyone, anyone I could. And s-l-o-w-l-y, things started turning around. Like the client who called me screaming to brag that she had been offered the job we had fought for, saying, “Carlota, I never doubted you!” Well, thank God, since I had doubted myself plenty.
I doubted myself, but I also knew that giving in to that doubt was a luxury that I simply couldn’t afford. I knew that doubt, if allowed to mature and fester, would lead to more doubt. In the midst of despair, I gave myself ruthless permission to hope. And I was ruthless: I surrounded myself with people who supported me and cut off friends who even implicitly encouraged me to give up. I was fighting for my life. So are you.
You can’t give up.
In the early years, people would say to me, seeing my poverty, exhaustion and other fun stuff, “When are you going to give up?” And I would glare at them. Give up? People say “give up” like it’s a one-size-fits-all remedy. Unhappy in life? Oh, hell, just give up! But giving up is a process: When you give up on one part of your life, you end up giving up on everything. And then what? You still have to live within the remains of whatever you’ve allowed yourself.
On the other hand, when you refuse to give up, you’ll have your own heartaches and regrets, lost loves, bad days and all the rest. I didn’t take a vacation for seven years. *shrugs* On the other hand, over those seven years I created a life that doesn’t require time off; I get to wake up in the morning and love what I do. (Do you believe that you deserve a job you love? You damn well better if you want any hope of creating that job.)
Be extremely wary of those people who encourage you to give up. Somewhere along the line, they gave up on their own dreams; therefore they absolutely hate to see other people doing what they didn’t have the strength to do themselves. Your dreams are as unique as you are, so don’t ask others for permission or approval! Do your dreams make you feel alive? Great. That sound you heard was you giving yourself permission to create a life you love. Ding!
Use what you have to create what you need.
How hungry are you? The men and women who shaped, for better or worse, our world, the people who inspire you … trust that they endured countless, brutal rejection. They lived and died alone. They affected humanity within the prison of their own suffocating loneliness. They created joy within a vale of private tears. But they had the courage, or desperation, to believe in something bigger than themselves. It’s hard, yes … but the alternative is far worse. The alternative is giving up on yourself. But spoiler alert: You still have to live with yourself.
Do what you believe in.
Do what makes you feel alive.
Do what makes your heart beat faster.