“Where are you going?”

This seems like such an innocuous question. Your partner or child may ask it when you’re getting ready to leave the house. A simple question, except if you’re 18, and waiting to hear from colleges you’ve applied to. This was the case with my very dear niece Rachel.  She had applied to a state school that she really wanted to attend, and many of the friends had heard back that they were accepted there.  She’d heard nothing.

“Where are you going?”

An innocent question, except if you’re 21 or 22, graduating college, and waiting to hear from employers about a job.  After a while, any job looks good. That was the case with me when I was 22, as advertising agencies and packaged goods companies rejected me.  No one would give me a job.

I had all this on my mind, because I’d been asked by a university to give a Commencement speech to their December graduates.  I tried to sit in the audience, remembering what mattered to me at 22.  And yes, it was feeling the stress of not having a job, but what I remembered even more vividly was my spiraling self-doubt.  Too much stress, and not enough self-worth, can be horribly destructive.

A week before I was to give my commencement remarks, during finals week, a student took his life. 

So I told them– Take inventory of your strengths.  ‘Own’ all of these gifts, the bright and shiny parts that make you proud to be who you are. Your most noble work is to become good friends with yourself.  The tyranny of perfectionism can keep you from hearing the voice inside that cheers you on. That’s the voice listen to, not the one that tears you down.

They’d heard a flowery bio about me, why the university had asked me to speak, and I needed them to hear the less-than-perfect parts of the story too. So I said, “Here I was, 39 years old, Chief Operating Officer of a national media brand I’d helped to start up, with hundreds of employees—and I had a drinking problem. 

I told them that looks can be deceiving. Sometimes what you see is just the outer packaging. Most importantly, that we can bounce back from anything if we work at it and at times, ask for help, which I did with my alcohol abuse.  The willingness to be vulnerable enough to ask for help is not weakness, but an act of courage.  Whether that’s talking to someone’s crazy uncle who might have a job opening, or calling a friend who will let you just talk, so you can give voice to how scared you are.  How overwhelmed with stress and worry. That you have no answer to: “Where are you going?”

I was quivering the day I gave my Commencement speech, because I would be telling thousands of people that I’d had a drinking problem. But I don’t regret it.  The next day, I got an email from a grandmother in the audience who was grateful for my honesty.  It’s in those moments that it’s worth the quivering, the vulnerability.

George Washington Carver said: How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young. 

That’s what we can all do.  We can double down on helping our kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews– this overwhelmed generation of young women and men–by being brave ourselves, by sharing not only our successes but our stories of messing up too, of not getting the job we wanted, of quivering beneath our designer suits. But ah, the good news, that happens a whole lot less than it did when we were 22.  We can paint a bright picture but an honest one, and in doing that, give them permission to not be perfect.

I learned on Commencement speech day that my niece Rachel had been accepted to the state school of her dreams.  Now she knows where she’s going, at least for the next few years, and isn’t that grand?