Do you remember anything that was said at your college graduation other than “congratulations” as you were handed your diploma? I can’t recite a thing the keynote speaker said at my own graduations, my daughter’s graduations or any other multi-hour event I’ve attended to fete academic success…
…Except the graduation speech I heard recently at Berklee School of Music when my niece was in cap and gown. The speaker was Dee Dee Bridgewater—the three-time Grammy Award winning jazz singer who has an enormous stage presence and a commanding voice.
Graduation speeches, as you know, are usually full of platitudes. Bridgewater touched on popular notes: push through personal fear, dare to dream, don’t sell yourself short, nothing will be handed to you, and more.
What was different about Bridgewater’s speech, however, was her refusal to let any listener off the hook. She acknowledged that there will always be struggle in pursuing your dreams, but to never accept the word “no”. She advised graduates to step around obstacles, go the next door, and the next, until you find one that will open. And to remember that all the people who help you along the way need your respect and thanks, because they’re pursuing their dreams, too.
As I listened to Bridgewater’s words, I looked around the huge auditorium and wondered what all the young women were thinking. They’ve attended a highly selective school that has turned out a very long list of famous musicians. They have exceptional talent, unparalleled connections and ambitious professional aspirations. How long will they keep at it, I wondered? How many will keep working toward their dreams even if they marry and have to care for both music and families?
College graduation speeches tend to focus on the launch—not the ongoing management of the career. Though Bridgewater acknowledged that her successful adult children always saw “Mommy pursuing her dreams”, I’m going to assume that her advice to find the open door extends through all of life’s ages and stages—not just when you’re young and unencumbered by family.
So I’ll take the liberty of adding a few lines to Bridgewater’s speech…
Young women who graduated from Berklee and on every college campus this year, know that the biggest career challenge you will face won’t be finding your first job, gaining recognition or making real progress toward your professional goals. Someday if you try to mix career with family, you may find a door that seems like it won’t budge.
Some of you, like many women before you, might decide not to even try the handle of that door. Others will walk through the door, try to integrate work and life for a few years, and then decide the door should be closed for a while—or forever. Too often women give up, thinking they’ll never be able to mesh their personal and professional selves. For more than a decade I’ve coached thousands of women who completely left the workforce when their employers said no to a flexible schedule. 99.9% of the time that “no” followed a simple ask for flexibility, not a professional proposal that might have gotten them to door #2 or #3 at current companies or thousands of others of every shape and size.
Too often mothers give up their professional selves—and all the ambition they felt on their college graduation days—without really exploring many ways to work beyond traditional 9 to 5 jobs, companies that think progressively about flexible work structures, entrepreneurial ventures that allow you to be the boss, schedules that minimize or eliminate the need for child care.
As you stand on the precipice of your career, don’t just think about the next few months as your transition from student to professional, think about all the years far down the road. Choose your careers, companies and collaborations with the clear knowledge that someday you may choose to be a mother, too. Know that few mothers—even those who seem to hit it big initially–will have the luxury of never working again. For long-term financial security, you’ll need to find a way to make work work at every age and stage.
It’s not going to be easy, and as Dee Dee Bridgewater says, you will find a lot of closed doors. Keep moving, thinking, strategizing, creating and figuring out work-arounds so that you’ll never sing the last note of your professional song. —KAS
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