Advice to College Graduates: Seek Out Mentors Who Will Tell You About Their Mistakes

If you're like the kick-ass young women who just graduated from the college where I work, you've got a list of achievements racked up: honors theses, academic prizes or recommendations from your favorite professors. I hope that you and your friends are celebrating your successes and dreaming big. Afterwards, as you heed the call to "lean in" by starting an internship, graduate program or job, search out a couple of near peers -- women just ahead of you professionally who will talk openly about work, even tell stories about making mistakes. Because while you've always had to focus on doing things right, now is the time to learn about doing things wrong.

I know, you've heard it before: "We learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes." It's an empty cliché -- but it's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that we need to steamroll that cliché by seeking out real stories.

Here's one: Toward the end of graduate school, my advisor decided to "mock interview" me on the spot; I'd be on the job market soon. Why should I hire you? he asked, leaning back on his office chair, playing the recruiter. But I couldn't think of a single reason. Dumbfounded and ashamed, I burst out crying. Then, as he stared at me, my own crying gave me a nosebleed. Tears and blood streamed down my face as my advisor handed me a box of tissues, shaking his head. My mistake? Being so afraid of his judgment that I wasn't even able to improvise some self-promotion. After that, I learned to prepare and to toughen up.

I recount this moment when talking with students because I know that speaking openly about my own professional development is a kind of mentorship, and in fact social psychologists have found that the stories of admired (but real) women have a powerful impact. In one set of studies, Nilanjana Dasgupta and her colleagues at UMass Amherst demonstrated that when young women are exposed to successful female leaders, it can serve as a "social vaccine" -- a kind of booster shot for your sense of self and your interest in leadership. The only caveat: Those female leaders need to feel real to you, similar to you, so that their achievements don't seem too far away.

You might not think you need a booster shot, but you and each of you is entering the professional world with sexism slung around your shoulders like a fur stole from the fifties -- so cozy that you might not realize it's there. What I mean is that you grew up with our culture's expectations that you "measure up to an impossible standard," like the young women in Princeton's 2011 study. Researchers are starting to look at what this means in the classroom; an economist at Harvard, Claudia Goldin, recently found that while male students in Econ 101 were undaunted by Bs, women who got Bs were about half as likely to stick with economics as women who got As. Basically, they didn't do it perfectly and so they quit. Researchers at Duke found similar results when looking into the grades of women in introductory science classes. And it seems as though this attitude carries over into the workplace, where women are more likely than men to believe that their mistakes point to a lack of ability -- still holding themselves to an impossible standard.

The problem is that success requires making and learning from mistakes. One of the hallmarks of top leaders, according to psychologist Daniel Goleman, is optimism even in the face of failure. Angela Duckworth, who recently won a MacArthur "Genius" award for her research, studies what she calls "grit," working toward a goal over the long haul, even when there are failures and setbacks. And the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that your belief that it's possible for you to improve on any given task affects your performance of that task. Having a "growth mindset," knowing you can develop your skills through practice, makes a big difference.

So up until now, you've heard people say that the world needs more female leaders. And you're probably aware of the hand-wringing about young women and perfectionism. But you haven't heard enough about how the ability to persevere after making a mistake will be a key factor in forging the link between your triumphs at college and your future success at work. Be proactive -- seek out real stories from women who will share their successes and their struggles. Listen when these women talk about mistakes they made and what they learned and how they kept going. Ask them not to leave anything out.