Dear Future Self, Listen Up: 5 Lessons for Success From Women Who Achieved It

Dear Future Self,

What's new in 2053? Both the year and your age - 61 - sound like the stuff of science fiction. Who's president? How's the robot dog? Have you started highlighting your hair, or have we cured the Gray Plague by now?

I'm writing because I'm in my last semester of college and figuring out how to proceed through the next forty years feels as impossible as traveling through time.

I scour job posting sites, picking through possibilities to find something that I might be good at, that might give me a start in life. I juggle potential futures: one moment I'm an administrative assistant to a globe-trotting C.E.O., the next I'm the media mogul who reinvented the literary magazine, the next I'm a kick-butt homeschooling mom of four who writes bestselling novels in her free time and then I'm the latest companion on Doctor Who, running under the electrified Pyramids to save the world from the Laser-Chicken of Planet Zora.

Buried underneath the job hunt frenzy are the big questions. Why am I here? Will I make a difference? Will I be able to balance a family and career? These questions have become real for the first time, tangible, like a maze in my head. I wander through them, left, right, in nightmarish repetition, feeling lost most of the time.

Then I wake up from the frantic day-dreaming and write cover letters, worry about missing my friends, order Domino's and search for life advice.

In the course of that search, I attended Wellesley's Alumnae Achievement Awards ceremony and dinner. I hope you make it back to campus each year for the awards, but in case you've forgotten, the ceremony recognizes Wellesley grads who have gone on to do great things (question: have we won one yet?) In the shared wisdom of the 2013 recipients - a prominent author, a journalist, a surgeon and an activist - I discovered living portraits of 20th-century history, as well as life advice that has me feeling that I might not be so lost after all.

So I'm writing to you about it in the hopes that by writing I will remember, and by remembering, become a Future Self worth writing to.

One. Start Somewhere.

"Take the first bus," advised Barbara Lubin Goldsmith, bestselling author, Emmy-award winning screenwriter and activist. She told us to grab the first opportunity, no matter how small, in our desired field and work our way up.

Goldsmith worked her way into the print business. In her early twenties she became an assistant to the entertainment editor of a major New York magazine; only, there was no entertainment editor. As a young college graduate, "I interviewed Pablo Picasso," she said, "Audrey Hepburn, Clark Gable..." The jaws of the audience dropped simultaneously.

Even the first bus can take you places.

Two. It's Hard.

"I don't envy young women today and the problems you face," Marilyn Yalom told us. A highly influential scholar of gender research, Yalom writes books like How the French Invented Love and The History of the Wife. She helped create one of the largest gender research institutes in the country at Stanford University and is credited with first challenging traditional concepts of what it meant to be a family.

It's comforting to know that a gender expert and staggeringly successful woman like Yalom doesn't envy us. It takes some of the pressure off.

Three. It's Wiggly.

"The road to success is like," said Diana Farmer, and then wiggled her hands like she was a preschool teacher demonstrating a "slithering snake." Diana Farmer's hands know success intimately, since they are the hands of the world's first female fetal surgeon.

"Medicine was my third attempt at a career," she added. I listened to the story of how Dr. Farmer failed to make it to her Rhodes Scholar interview because of a serious car accident, and how the insensitive medical care she received inspired her to become a doctor herself. She told stories of failure after failure, adjusting for spousal careers and family needs and about "temporary jobs" that turned into vocations.

Four. Don't Panic.

"Don't panic if you don't know where you're going," said Callie Crossley, a well-respected voice on national and local radio and television. Crossley was one of the first 19 African-American students to integrate her Memphis public school back in the 1960s.

Despite her intellect and demonstrated fortitude, she too did not have a job when she graduated from Wellesley and so Crossley moved back home. Her father threatened to get her a paper route. She soon talked her way into a job in a local television station, which led to jobs at other local TV stations, which led to her making the Oscar-nominated Eyes on the Prize documentary about the civil rights movement.

You don't have to know where you're going, it seems, to go somewhere incredible. But if you freeze in panic, you don't go anywhere at all.

Five. Don't Go By Yourself.

After the awards ceremony, I walked with a group of friends over to the official dinner. My dining companions included two previous award recipients, both in their late eighties or early nineties; a group of Barbara Goldsmith's friends, who had been friends for 60 years and regaled us with stories of living in the 'vil (aka, the Town of Wellesley) during the 1950s; and an alumna and friend of Callie Crossley, who told me about what it was like to go to Wellesley during the social upheaval of 1969-1970, when almost everyone was involved with the anti-Vietnam war protests and all the old social rules were disappearing.

My dear 61-year-old, I sat there, half-listening to the toasts and half-drinking the white wine we kept toasting the recipients with, half-eavesdropping on friends catching up on what-has-your-grandson-been-doing, and then I realized what I was hearing.

It was the sound of the world changing.

It was the sound of women who witnessed some of the most dramatic social change in American history. It the sound of women who made that change happen. It is the sound of women who took their steady hands, their uncanny wit, their fierce honesty and decided to serve the world with those gifts. And when women serve the world together, they make music.

I don't know what you ended up doing, Gabrielle. I hope you watched Doctor Who and learned something about time-travel. I hope you told stories. I hope you wrote books. I hope you grew in your faith and loved well. I hope you didn't panic, and that you became stronger in achieving that which was difficult. I hope you found yourself in losing your way.

And I hope, future self, that our friends and I make such world-changing music with our lives.


Class of 2013

Want to get inspired? Watch the speeches from the 2013 Wellesley College Alumnae Achievement Awards.