Of course you feel restless. You’re underutilized and undervalued, and you’re clearly not alone. Every day I meet women who are yearning to grow and stretch themselves, to use their gifts and talents to somehow make a difference. Whether searching for security, a better job or promotion, or simply trying to get their foot in the door, we are all collectively waiting, waiting for opportunity to present. But the trouble with waiting is it’s hard to stand still. Over time, frustration and disappointment can build, eventually wreaking havoc, damaging our careers and lives, leaving us wounded and weak.
This is what I worry about. Over the years I have seen countless women- competent, hard-working women- self-destruct around me. Ironically, their demise is often facilitated by the encouragement of their colleagues and friends who urge them to stand up for themselves, to assert their value and self-worth. Although well-intentioned, such advice can serve to amplify the damage that can come from feeling stuck, fueling the narratives of victimization and fragility that ultimately do us in.
When I see women self-destructing I yearn to yell STOP or SLOW DOWN, urging them to tackle their growth through a different lens. Of course I want to acknowledge their pain and frustration, to listen to their stories and affirm their worth. But more importantly I want them to realize that the very systems and organizations that they long to lead or contribute to are inherently insensitive to their own needs and talents that they’re trying to assert. To put it clearly, our systems are not about us or what have to offer. They are about limited opportunities, expectations and access. Virtually insensitive to talent, they are driven instead by changing priorities and parameters which are largely outside of our understanding or control. Opaque, complex, and riddled with roadblocks and dangers, their successful navigation takes wicked skills and composure, accessible only to those who have the social and economic capital to master their intricacies or endure the ride. Within these systems are nuanced rules that can change at any time. But almost uniformly, any hint of perceived weakness or fragility can shut opportunities down, leaving us feeling marginalized and victimized without even knowing what happened.
This is clearly bad news, and I’m sorry to be the one to deliver it. But frankly, I’m tired of going to women’s leadership conferences or reading books that suggest we must simply toughen up, lean in to the challenges, or set our aspirations higher. It is time we admit that the challenges and roadblocks that threaten our growth, both individually and collectively, are increasingly complex, subtle and nuanced, calling for sophisticated tools, frameworks, and support.
In addition to being smart and competent within our respective areas of focus, we need to be strategic, flexible, and resilient. And of course above all we need to be likable and pleasant to be around, regardless of the conditions or expectations we are expected to endure. These qualities are necessary for us to be successful, to be given opportunities to work and support our families, and to cultivate spheres of influence through which we can eventually (collectively) steward institutional change and community impact.
This last piece is absolutely critical, although many continue to suggest that our own individual security and needs must come first before we can set any larger humanitarian goals. With recognition that I approach these thoughts from a position of financial stability and privilege, I would like to test this assumption, suggesting that the act of expanding our lens beyond ourselves and our own immediate needs is a necessary ingredient for the type of growth and fulfillment that we crave and need. It is also a necessary ingredient for being strategic, nimble, and an effective leader- and indisputably necessary to save and change the very systems that threaten our collective future.
Despite varying levels of realization, the status quo is no longer an option. The new frontier is about ideation and generativity- expanding opportunities and creating new spaces and models toward greater impact and opportunity. In forging our new pathways we can draw from diverse disciplines and frameworks, cobbling together a new more comprehensive toolkit with which we can empower ourselves and one another to be more mindful, strategic, and resilient. The tools exist although it is up to us to recognize their value and commit to their utilization.
At the end of the day one simple truth continues to drive me; the indisputable fact that the world needs every drop of our collective talent. Talent remains THE natural resource, bubbling up around us waiting for us to recognize its value and applications. While I continue to look forward to the day that our systems are designed to develop, harvest and leverage talent in its most varied and resplendent forms, I know that it’s up to us to make it happen. Yes, the work ahead is more complex and challenging than we may have realized, but the benefits are also exponentially more profound.
Our collective notions of power are in need of a major makeover.
Forget about the greedy self-serving kind, or the influence that comes with wealth and control. Although these are the connotations that are sold to us by a male-dominated society, they are not the type of power that we desperately need or crave.
What we need at this particular moment in time is an inherently feminine version of power, an ability to connect our gifts and talents with needs and opportunities around us, to add value, to build unity, and to create something inherently better.
This notion of power represents a dynamic interplay between two component forces- a clarity of mission and purpose, and a responsiveness to the ambient world. Honing and knowing what we bring to the table, what we represent in terms of our gifts and potential, and then tracking our focus on opportunities to respond and engage.
When viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that our power is magnified when we work together. Not in a solely strategic or calculated way, but instead through intimate and personal connections, activating one another’s talents and networks to accelerate and amplify our impacts beyond what we could achieve alone.
This is the type of power- the only type of power- that nurtures our souls, that heals our wounds and fills us back up, undoing the damage that we have collectively incurred. Fear, aggression, victimization- all weapons that have drained our essence leading us toward self-destruction instead of the brilliant future that waits within reach.
But how can we find our power when so many of us remain trapped in darkness? Like a riddle, the answer is hidden in our false assumption, a fundamental error that is exquisitely simple yet profound. To find our power we cannot start with our supervisors, titles or salaries, or any other label or thing that is given to us or put upon us. For looking to others for our power is the surest way to never find or keep it.
The type of power we seek is neither ephemeral nor uncertain. Its permanence and strength comes from a sense of clarity and purpose tied to our own talents, mission, and what we uniquely bring to the world. To find it we must go deep, getting personal, moving well beyond our degrees, titles, and jobs that are externally bequeathed. We must delve into the very core of our experiences, insights and realizations, allowing ourselves to think, feel, and know.
And then we need to make things happen- big things, important things, things that matter. And we need to do it together, supporting one another, and celebrating and reflecting on our impacts, creating more spaces and opportunities to shine and help others shine, creating a world that values and leverages talent toward the greatest good.
Only then will we know what it feels like to be truly powerful, to be no longer afraid or hurt or angry. Only then can we shine.
We could all use some distance. Some room to breathe, to gain perspective, and collect our thoughts. When our emotions drive us we are reactive, vulnerable, and often find ourselves up against the wall.
Space is critical for good decision making- a buffer of calm, a sense of control, the knowledge that it will somehow be all right.
When we’re too close to life’s details our emotions kick in. Like being trapped in a pinball machine, our anxiety is triggered, activating those around us, shifting energy and ultimately depleting our collective resources.
While many of us yearn for more space, solitude, and calm, we mostly wait for it to appear. We somehow fail to realize is that space is created, constructed and controlled by us alone.
Every second we receive stimulation from the environment- sounds, images, experiences that our minds interpret as we establish threats and priorities, making attributions and planning and executing our actions.
Although we often feel like we don’t have control or choices, our constructions are largely our own doing. While they can default to an automatic mode, the framing of our experiences can be brought under deliberate volition.
Let’s consider space in a different way. Imagine a telescoping lens that can move your field of vision both outward and upward. As it pulls away from a specific experience or situation that is highly emotional, it creates a larger field around it with more room to move, breathe, and think.
Imagine your lens spreading outward from a place of “I can’t believe she said that,” to the larger frame of “negativity in the office” and finally to the positive notion that “everyone deserves a safe and supportive work environment.” As we expand our focus outward, we stretch the space towards more abstract frames or categories. And as we do so we become more emotionally detached. And when we find the optimal lens, new solutions and approaches begin to emerge. Space generates innovation.
This telescoping also moves upward from reactions that are ego and fear driven to those that are tied to core values and beliefs. As your lens moves from “he doesn’t respect me” to “everyone deserves to feel respected and valued,” and finally toward broader notions of universal love and support, we can feel our energy lifting. And as we move our gaze upward we begin to see threats differently, compassion kicks in, moving us out of the victim role towards a state of higher self.
To be clear, this transformation is not automatic. It takes control and time, especially when we are feeling threatened or under duress. Contemplative practices can help, giving us tools and frameworks, and signs to recognize in advance of anxiety taking over. Rituals and practices can establish time and space, making it easier to reach and maintain a place of balance and higher thinking.
The alternative to creating space is to be reactive and emotional, a highly dangerous and exhausting way to live. Since the notion of waiting for life to calm down or for others to gain perspective is not a particularly viable solution, we are left with really no alternative, that is if we truly want to do and be better.
When did we give away our power? I found myself pondering this question at the prompting of a graduate student who was sitting in my office, eager to soak up every drop of insight I could offer. It was an excellent question, rooted in what I knew to be his complete sincerity and a palpable longing to make a difference in the world.
My answer rang cynical as it reverberated through my consciousness- how can you give something away when you never had it in the first place? As I reflected on the various leaders with whom I’d worked over the years, I was left with a general sense of disappointment, potential unrealized in so many ways.
I offered that true power comes from a place of clarity, some value or proposition that one knows to be absolutely and unequivocally true. Powerful people are able to steward a mission, an idea, or a contribution- holding it up, creating a path forward, dodging distractions, and elevating everyone in the process, moving us collectively toward a better and more enlightened place.
While non-traditional, this conceptualization of power does not preclude one from earning a good living or rising to a position of influence. On the contrary, it supports many of the familiar trappings of success that society craves. But it does so in a way that is fundamentally different, flipping one’s locus of influence, elevating the importance of ideas, and the skills and competencies needed to steward them.
How do we cultivate this re-imagined notion of power? By providing students of all ages with opportunities to delve within, exploring their own gifts, talents, and passions while developing a sensitivity and responsiveness to the people and world around them.
Central to this vision is the role of teachers, professors, and adults of all kinds. For while the delivery of information and knowledge remains important, the new frontier calls for the creation of opportunities for students to connect with new situations, contexts, and challenges- stretching their understanding and skills, building their sense of power and agency. And above all it calls for mentors- powerful people who can harness their own strengths, connections, and experience to support the cultivation of students, putting them at the center, helping them prepare for their place in the world.
As (higher) education contemplates the next phase of its evolution, working to remain relevant and responsive within a quickly changing landscape, student outcomes and competencies will continue to guide us. But until we are able to elevate our notions of power and success, we will continue to miss the mark in helping students navigate and prepare for academic and career pathways.
Clearly, helping students to find their impact stands as a noble and important goal toward which we should strive. By preparing strong and powerful graduates we will support not only their own success, but ultimately a better and more enlightened world for all of us to experience and enjoy.
-For Andrew Tabashneck