Class of 2010 Graduates

Dear Class of 2010 Graduates,

Soon, commencement speakers are going to hold sway over the advice racket. So I’m sneaking mine in now, just before the tsunami of entertaining, clichéd, quotable, original, soporific and lively guidance crashes over your caps and gowns.

I’m pretty sure you won’t hear this anywhere else. First, it’s advice designed specifically for women who want to succeed. It’s not PC to say that success is different for women than for men.But after interviewing 33 highly successful women, such as fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg, makeup artist Trish McEvoy, Food Network star Paula Deen and personal finance guru Suze Orman, on what they wish they’d known about success, I think it is. Also, my advice isn’t socially acceptable. Your mom would not approve. At least not in public. But here it is:

Be selfish. One of the key messages accomplished women wanted to give their younger selves: Don’t put your friends’, boss’s, husband’s and children’s happiness so far ahead of your own that you neglect your dreams.

Be bad. Attention members of the Good Girls Club: This is for you. You follow the rules, get good grades and wait to be noticed for it. Highly successful women know that “being good” usually means adhering to someone else’s idea of what you should be–or could be.

Be dyslexic. In their quest for perfection, many young women have an overdeveloped ability to dwell on their weaknesses. But superstars who struggled with learning, such as Shark Tank judge Barbara Corcoran, cosmetics entrepreneur Bobbi Brown and Ambassador Nancy Brinker, discovered, often painfully, that it was critically important to focus on their strengths. What about their potentially crippling weakness? Meh. They found a way around—or found someone else to do what they couldn’t.

Study your gut. Credentials be damned! It was surprising how many smart, talented successes wished their younger selves had followed their instincts or listened to and trusted their gut. Not a single woman counseled, “Do more number crunching” or “Get more advanced degrees.” Since no one has probably taught you how to hear your gut, you’ll have to teach yourself. Then you’ll need to honor its messages by acting on them.

Don’t be men in pink. Male culture still rules at most American companies for the simple reason that men shaped them and men, in the vast majority of cases, still run them. So it’s remarkably easy for women to absorb the prevailing—i.e. male—definitions of successful behavior and leadership in their work. Fine, if they fit. But many of the gifted women I talked to had to buck the customary testosterone-tinged corporate culture to lay claim to their own authentic leadership. “Don’t be men in pink” means: Resist being recruited by motivations and goals that don’t truly speak to your heart.

Ladies, congratulations and may real success be yours.

Gentlemen, I wish you the best as well.

Sincerely,

Ellyn