What happens when you’re afraid you can’t hack it and want to give up? Ann talks with Hillary Clinton about imposter syndrome, the intimidation that comes with new challenges, and pushing forward instead of quitting.
[Excerpt from Hillary D. Rodham's 1969 Student Commencement Speech]
We’re not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest… [applause]
ANN FRIEDMAN: In 1969, Hillary Rodham, then just 21, stood in front of her graduating class at Wellesley College as its first ever student commencement speaker. She was calm, collected, very confident in her words. And her speech touched on themes that she would echo in the coming decades of her political career—challenging the status quo, conquering fear, and facing the future.
[Excerpt from Hillary D. Rodham's 1969 Student Commencement Speech]
Fear is always with us but we just don’t have time for it. Not now.
FRIEDMAN: Looking back, it’s easy to trace a line from this moment to her future career in politics.
But it almost didn’t happen.
I’m Ann Friedman, and this is Going Through It, a show about how hard it can be to figure out when to quit and when to keep going.
Four years before that commencement speech, Hillary Rodham left home and moved almost 1000 miles away, far from everything that was familiar. Far from her parents, her small community that made her feel like a superstar, especially academically. And she began her first year at Wellesley College, a place she never expected would bring out her deepest insecurities.
HILLARY CLINTON: I was emotional because I was basically telling them that I can't succeed here. It's too hard. I don't want to stay. I want to come home.
On this episode: What happens when you’re afraid you can’t hack it, and you’re tempted to just give up?
FRIEDMAN: Can you take me back to the moment when you first set foot on campus, and tell me what that was like?
CLINTON: I was excited but also really apprehensive. My father and mother drove me. They took me to Wellesley, which is a beautiful campus in a suburb of Boston and dropped me off at my dorm and there I was.
I didn't know anybody. I walked down the hall the first time to use the restroom at the end of the hall and I walked by an open door and there was this exotic looking 18 year old girl there with really really long blond hair and a beauty mark on her cheek and an accent I couldn't place. And within three minutes I learned she spoke fluent French and she had traveled the world and it was a shock to have the first person I met seem to be so much more worldly and ready to tackle college at Wellesley than I certainly felt.
FRIEDMAN: And next to this women, what did you look like at that age and what did you feel like?
CLINTON: Well I wore glasses. I also had long hair because everybody did. But it certainly wasn't as blond or shiny as her hair. I didn't have much of a wardrobe. I didn't really care that much about clothes and I was looking much more like a typical college freshman—not quite sure what I was doing there.
FRIEDMAN: How did it feel like once you got into your classes?
CLINTON: I did not feel at all prepared. We had to take a language. I signed up for French. I was totally lost—remained lost—for two years until the French teacher told me that my talents lay elsewhere and once I finished the requirement I should pursue some other field. The math and science courses were really hard and I had done well in science but this was at a different level. I was feeling both socially out of place and overwhelmed by the academic load and level of expectation.
I was distraught and disappointed and thinking that maybe I should just leave because I was never going to be successful.
FRIEDMAN: Did it get to a point where you actually did want to leave school?
CLINTON: I did. In fact I lived in a dorm. I had a single room and there were phone booths. Old fashioned phone booths that were available for students. I was in one of those phone booths. calling collect. I called my parents collect—this was six weeks, a month into being there —and I said that I just didn't think I could make it. I was emotional because I was basically telling them that I can't succeed here. It's too hard. I don't want to stay. I want to come home.
My father who never wanted me to be that far away anyway said, “OK come home. He said you can get a job and then you can go back to college somewhere near next year.”
And my mother said, “No, you have to stick it out and if you still feel that way at the end of the year we can talk about it but you can't be a quitter. You have to stay.”
FRIEDMAN: Why did you listen to your mother and not your father?
CLINTON: Well because I think my mother understood me a lot better. I think my mother understood that any new experience is going to be rocky whether people admit it to themselves or not. I was admitting that it was rocky and I didn't think that I could do it. And the idea that somebody would have the chance to go to this great school and walk out on it because it didn't work out exactly as you had expected or hoped, was just unacceptable to her.
Because I'm sure she thought, boy if I'd been 18 years old and I'd had a chance to go to that college you know they would have had to drag me out of there what are you saying? You think you want to leave. Absolutely not. You're going to stick it out and get your head in the game and you're going to do better.
FRIEDMAN: And did it feel like a pep talk? Like when you hung up that phone were you like, “Alright, I’m gonna do this”?
CLINTON: No it was an ultimatum, it wasn’t a pep talk. It was “You are going to stay and you are going to do better. And if you still don't like it at the end of the year we can talk about it.” Yeah. It wasn't a pep talk.
Which actually was exactly the right thing to say, because you know she couldn't say “Oh, I loved my college years” since she didn't go to college. “Oh, I remember how bad it was I was a little off balance too.” She couldn't say any of those things. She just was appalled that, somebody with the opportunities that I'd been given might be a quitter.
I was just going to have to apply myself and work harder and try to do better and feel that this was more of the place for me.
I had developed good friends, people that I really cared about that I stay in touch with to this day. And I think became more forthcoming with them about how hard some of this was and of course then they began telling me how hard things were for them and slowly the mask of trying to show the world that you are doing just fine began to disappear. And there was a real community of people who were all in it together.
FRIEDMAN: This process of your early years there and kind of realizing how hard it was and then realizing that you couldn't quit. And then realizing that everyone else was struggling in the same way. What did that reveal to you about yourself or about the world?
CLINTON: New experiences are always testing grounds. I heard a great phrase the other day that paraphrased is, part of life is finding your comfort zone and then staying out of it. And I'd been in a comfort zone. If you do things that are new and different even something as predictable as going to college, you do learn about yourself and you do learn about resources that you have, and resilience, and determination... that can begin to be called upon to keep you going.
You also get sort of moments of epiphany.
I remember really clearly that the first time I felt like wow I love this place and I'm going to stay here was in late November early December when we had one of these massive snowfalls that just blanketed the entire campus and it was so beautiful. And the then-president of Wellesley came to our dorm asking for volunteers to help her gently shake the snow off of the branches and leaves of a lot of the trees so that they wouldn't break from the weight. And it was a clear night and the moon was bright and we were going through knee-high snow gently shaking the snow off and I thought wow this is this is a perfect place to be in a perfect time in my life and I'm going to make the most of every opportunity that I have.
FRIEDMAN: That's so romantic. That scene.
CLINTON: It was beautiful. Yeah it was absolutely beautiful.
FRIEDMAN: So many of us have heard the commencement speech that you gave as Valedictorian a few years later, I’m wondering who you were at this point and how you were different from your freshman year.
CLINTON: Not only did I change and grow, mature—but the country went through so much. Obviously I showed up at Wellesley in the autumn of 1965. President Kennedy had been assassinated. The following four years were filled with turmoil and challenge. Everything from you know the Vietnam War heating up. The civil rights revolution taking off. The assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Kennedy. I mean, it was just one body blow after another that we were living through. And I found my voice, which led to my classmates asking me to give that speech at our graduation.
[Excerpt from Hillary D. Rodham's 1969 Student Commencement Speech:]
The question about possible and impossible was one that we brought with us to Wellesley four years ago. We arrived not yet knowing what was not possible. Consequently, we expected a lot. Our attitudes are easily understood having grown up, having come to consciousness in the first five years of this decade—years dominated by men with dreams, men in the civil rights movement, the Peace Corps, the space program—so we arrived at Wellesley and we found, as all of us have found, that there was a gap between expectation and realities. But it wasn't a discouraging gap and it didn't turn us into cynical, bitter old women at the age of 18. It just inspired us to do something about that gap. They ask us quite often: "Why, if you're dissatisfied, do you stay in a place?" Well, if you didn't care a lot about it you wouldn't stay. It's almost as though my mother used to say, "You know I'll always love you but there are times when I certainly won't like you."
CLINTON: There are things you should walk away from in life. I'm not saying that every experience you start it is imperative that you see it through. But I knew that for me it would have been a big blow and a psychological defeat if I had walked away when I was 17-18 years old.
[Excerpt from Hillary D. Rodham's 1969 Student Commencement Speech:]
We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty. But there are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We're searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living. And so our questions, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue. The questions about those institutions are familiar to all of us. But along with using these words—integrity, trust, and respect—in regard to institutions and leaders, we're perhaps harshest with them in regard to ourselves…
One of the most tragic things that happened yesterday, a beautiful day, was that I was talking to a woman who said that she wouldn't want to be me for anything in the world. She wouldn't want to live today and look ahead to what it is she sees because she's afraid. Fear is always with us but we just don't have time for it. Not now. [...]
OUTRO: FRIEDMAN: Forty-eight years later, in 2017, Hillary Clinton returned to Wellesley College to give the commencement address. It was about her optimism for the future.
FRIEDMAN: Going Through It is an original series from MailChimp. I’m your host, Ann Friedman, and it takes a village of producers to make this podcast, including Eleanor Kagan, Megan Tan, Gabrielle Lewis, and Claire Tighe. This episode was edited by Joel Lovell. It was scored and mixed by Hannis Brown. Thanks to my miracle bro Max Linsky, and everyone at Pineapple Street Media.
FRIEDMAN: On the next episode: what are the limits of self-reliance?
CAMERON ESPOSITO: You can't fuck over your network. Who's going to hire you after that? Truly. You’re like, “Seeso folded so I moved to the desert, by the way, this is also my haircut—do you have any work for me? I’m gay and I’m loud and I’m really feminist and I like never shut up and I only say exactly what I think, and also I don’t complete my projects. Is that fine? Are you good with that?”
FRIEDMAN: Comic Cameron Esposito tells me about how she got the biggest break of her career—a TV show—only to have the network shut down, and leave her in limbo.
Ann Friedman sits down with writers, comedians, politicians, and musicians to hear about the pivotal moments in their lives, careers, and relationships when they had to decide whether to quit or whether to keep going.
Antje Danielson was fired by her best friend.
Ellen Pao lost her lawsuit—and her job.
Charlotte Cho never thought her skincare hobby could be her career.
Soledad O’Brien’s dream job wasn't a dream at all.
Jessamyn Stanley couldn't stop saying "I'm sorry."
Samin Nosrat wanted to be a writer, not a chef.
Glennon Doyle fell in love with someone who wasn't her husband.
Claressa Shields was told to put her Olympic dreams on hold.
Hillary Clinton almost dropped out...of college.
Cameron Esposito got her big break...and then it fell apart.
Amanda Nguyen took Congress to task for survivors’ rights.
Rebecca Traister went freelance and almost went broke.
Audri Scott Williams ran an unlikely political race.
Kathleen Hanna hated being the face of Riot Grrrl.