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July 6, 2011 » 12:07 pm

Advice for (Female) Changemakers

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years reflecting on where I am in my career, how I got here, and where I want to go. I find myself in a funny place. I still feel like I’m just getting started. I’m still hungry to learn and to play, to find fulfilling ways to make a bigger impact on the world.

But I’ve also been around the block a few times. Nine years ago, I had a vision for the world and my role in it, and I scratched and clawed to where I am today. I messed up a lot along the way, but I was very, very stubborn. I created a job description for myself that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I do the kind of work I want to do, the way I want to do it, with the people I want to do it with. Some critical mass of people know who I am and respect what I do, and that keeps me in business. Among that critical mass are changemakers themselves, people and organizations doing amazing things. I love what I do, I feel blessed to be doing it, and I’m hungry for more.

So now I’m in second grade. And naturally, there are folks in the first grade who are curious about how I got here. And since I’m tall for my age, there are folks in the third grade who think I know more than I do, and they’re curious too.

So I want to take a moment and offer some of that hard-earned wisdom. I want to offer this to anyone who wants to be a changemaker, but I especially want to offer it to women.

I have two reasons for this. First, for whatever reason, several women have recently reached out to me for advice, so this is in large part for them. Second, based on my experiences with an admittedly unrepresentative sample, I think that women could use this advice more than men. I’m not going to articulate my reasons for this better than Clay Shirky did last year, so I’m not going to try.

Find Your Voice

First and foremost, find your voice and own it. I can’t tell you how often I meet brilliant, passionate people who have important points of view and who aren’t willing to share them. It’s not because they feel proprietary about their thoughts. It’s because they feel unworthy of them.

There’s a psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It suggests that people who are incompetent tend to overrate their abilities, whereas people who are highly competent tend to underrate their abilities. I find the good kind of Dunning-Kruger rampant among the people I meet and know. It’s not bad on average, because it results in a learning mentality. But it becomes bad when it prevents you from owning your voice. If you’re not voicing your ideas, if you’re not interacting with others, you’re impeding your learning.

If you are humble and authentic, then most people will reward you, not punish you for owning your voice. I know people who are shy about talking about love or compassion or courage in public or even to their peers, because they fear they won’t be taken seriously by others. There may be people who won’t take you seriously, but there are many who will. If you own your voice, you will find those people.

My company has an overtly social mission, but I needed to see others do this successfully before I had the courage to do it myself. And I’ve taken my share of lumps for it. I went to Harvard, and despite the many, many mavericks who graduated (or not) from there, there is still a significant subculture among its alumni that defines success in a stupid way.

A few years after starting Blue Oxen Associates, a college friend said to me, “I’m surprised you’re doing this, Eugene.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I always thought you were more ambitious,” he responded.

I was confused. I had made it my goal to do my part to make the world a better place, and I was not being ambitious? It turned out that my friend had a very specific definition of “ambition,” one that had to do with the single-minded pursuit of money and status. Now that I’ve helped some of the most prestigious organizations in the world, he’s started taking my company seriously. Frankly, he’s still missing the point.

Anyone who claims they don’t care what other people think is a liar. Everyone cares. The question is how much you’ll let other people’s perceptions shape what you do and say. If your answer is “a lot,” the real question is, do you even know what other people think?

Most people don’t. We massively project, and then we listen selectively to feedback, disproportionately latching onto what we expect to hear. (This goes a long way toward explaining the Dunning-Kruger effect.)

I find that women have a bigger problem with this than men do, and I’m not alone in this observation. I have seen many brilliant, accomplished women not speak up in a room or not pursue opportunities that they should be pursuing, because of some self-doubt that no one else has about them. It bothers me every time I see it, because it’s not just a disservice to them, it’s a disservice to the world.

Own your voice. People may or may not take you seriously, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is being authentic, stepping into your power. When you own your voice, you will feel better about yourself, regardless of what others have to say, because you are being true to yourself.

Find Your People

Second, find your people. Owning your voice is the best first step toward doing this, because it helps your people find you. Frankly, if it’s the only step you ever take, you’ll do fine. But there are other great steps you can take as well toward doing this.

Finding your people is not about exchanging your business card with every person who passes your way — the dreaded Drive-By Networking.

It’s not about “friending” a thousand people on Facebook or LinkedIn. Social media can be a powerful tool for finding your people, but it’s not a prerequisite. Some of the best connected people I know have almost no presence on any online social networks.

It’s about being intentional and authentic about whom you reach out to and how. It always start with listening.

When I started Blue Oxen Associates, I had zero experience or reputation in this space, but I had a list of people whom I respected and admired. I had met some of these people personally, but I hadn’t worked with many of them. So I took a risk. I contacted every person on the list, and invited them to coffee.

Every person I invited said yes. I made it a point to listen and learn from them, and if I liked them, I also asked them to join my advisory board. To my surprise, everyone I asked said yes. Moreover, every one of them went out of their way to help me get started, never turning down a request to meet, giving me much needed advice and encouragement. I would not have made it here today had it not been for their support.

At first, I couldn’t understand why they were not only willing to take a chance on me, but were so generous with their time. All of these people were extremely busy, and some of them were big names in their industry. Over time, it dawned on me. They were seeking their people too. It’s not about finding people with big reputations. It’s about finding people who listen, who are constantly learning, and who care passionately about the world, even if they happen to be naive kids in their 20s with no experience.

Putting together this advisory board was the single best decision I made in starting my company. But a few years later, something felt off. My advisors had recently become too supportive. They rarely criticized me, and that didn’t make any sense to me, because I knew that I was making mistakes. I wanted my circle to kick my butt if it needed kicking. I started recruiting more advisors, folks whom I knew weren’t afraid to give me some tough love.

At our next meeting, I presented a new strategy, a shift I had been wanting to make for some time. And my newly expanded advisory board did what I had hoped: They were critical. Very critical. The response was universal: Too soon. I didn’t like what they said, and I ended up sticking with my plan. But the truth was, I listened. They forced me to reexamine my thinking critically, and I developed contingency plans that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

As it turned out, they were right. Knowing that now, I still wouldn’t have done anything any other way. I needed to try it to know for sure. I had hoped I was right, but I was prepared when it turned out I wasn’t, thanks to my advisors.

Sometimes, people are reluctant to ask for advice or help, because they want to be a little more prepared, have a bit more to show. That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. You want to surround yourself with people who will help you as you’re developing your ideas, as you’re trying new things. Don’t wait.

At the same time, make sure you find the right balance between folks who will encourage you and folks who will be honest with you. It’s a very tricky balance. The first few years of my company were very difficult. I didn’t really need anyone else to criticize me; I was doing a great job of that myself. The support I got from my advisors, my colleagues, and my friends meant everything to me and kept me going. Later, when things started going better, and I started gaining more confidence, I needed my people to be more critical of me to keep me honest.

Many of my most successful women friends have women’s circles, which I think are fantastic. Some of them have asked me whether I would ever consider putting together a men’s circle. I usually jokingly respond, “I already have one. It’s called poker night.” The truth is, I’ve thought a lot about it, and I prefer having diversity across multiple axes in my circles, including gender. I think all women would benefit from having a strong women’s circle, but I think that many women would benefit from having strong male mentors as well.

Just Do It

Probably the biggest obstacle I see that prevents people from pursuing their passions is fear, fear of what others will think, and fear of not being ready. Don’t wait until you’re ready. You’ll never be ready. Changing the world is a moving target.

The path to changing the world is to start. Don’t worry about finding the perfect medium or the perfect job. Don’t worry about whether or not people are paying attention. Find every opportunity to try something, to practice, because that’s the only way you’ll ever get good at making change.

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4 Responses to “Advice for (Female) Changemakers”

  1. Thank you for a remarkable essay about experience and judgement and voice-finding. It is funny that you linked to the David Whyte poem as he is one of my favorite (well, okay the only) poet that I read.

  2. Thanks, Eugene. Lisa introduced me to David Whyte. I absolutely love that poem. I read it at the end of my GEO talk as well.

  3. Eugene, this essay is inspiring!

  4. Thanks, Radha!

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