Lessons From the Miracle Workers

“A strenuous effort must be made to train people to think for themselves and take independent charge of their lives.”  –Anne Sullivan

March 1980

I looked up at the clock….only fifteen more minutes until it was time to leave the Urbana Public Library.  Every Sunday afternoon after lunch, my dad took my two brothers and me to spend time reading at the town library.  The bribe to get us there each week was first a visit to McDonalds.  Although I readily accepted the quarter-pounder with fries, I didn’t actually need convincing to go to the library.  By age eleven I just loved books.  I was particularly drawn to strong female figures.  And so, on library Sundays I would read biographies about female historical role models, like Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart.  They were always the topics of my book reports. 

While I admired Roosevelt, and Earhart captivated me early on, with her fearless determination to become the first woman and second person to fly solo across the Atlantic, the woman I felt the closest affinity with was Helen Keller.  Unlike me, Helen Keller was not born with her physical challenges.  At 19 months old she contracted an illness that was later believed to be a form of scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness did not last long, but it left Helen deaf and blind.  When I began to read about her, I was simply in awe.  Despite her significant physical limitations, Helen Keller’s accomplishments were almost impossible to comprehend.  But Helen’s story would not be as amazing without her equally remarkable mentor, Anne Sullivan.  Not only did Sullivan help Keller figure out how to read and write, she transformed her from being the “hopeless wild child” to the strong woman that would ultimately become a successful author, political activist and lecturer.  Most importantly, Sullivan’s teachings went beyond helping Keller overcome her disabilities–she helped Helen Keller to realize that her mind and her beliefs were her most powerful asset. No one could take those away from her, unless she let them.

Later as an adult, Helen described Sullivan in this way: “By nature she was a conceiver, a trail-blazer, a pilgrim of life’s wholeness. So day by day, month after month, year in and year out, she labored to provide me with a diction and a voice.”

“Meg, Dad’s here, let’s get going.”  It was my older brother Peter, jolting me back to reality.  “I just want to check this one out—meet you all outside.”  As I stood on line waiting for my turn, I opened my book on Helen Keller, and read a quote from her.  I may have been too young to fully appreciate its meaning and personal relevance, but it stuck with me:  “I am only one, but still I am one.  I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
As I have been thinking more about the Kids Flaunt essays all due early next month, and last week’s notion that many kids without a blatant difference might be struggling to identify that which makes them unique, I couldn’t help but to think that even if I was born with all my fingers and toes intact, I would still walk this earth with another kind of challenge – the cultural “disability” of being a woman.

Lately there have been a lot of strong and powerful females making the headlines, one way or the other.  Of course there was Marissa Mayer, and her recent decision to not allow employees in her company (Yahoo) to work remotely.  Her announcement set off a wave of criticism with people fervently airing their opinions on both side of the debate.  There was also Danica Patrick, the pre-eminent female driver in IndyCar and a NASCAR Sprint Cup Pole winner.  Then there’s the power duo of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler who rocked the Golden Globes earlier this year and who, like Ellen DeGeneres, unwittingly serve as role models simply by making us laugh.

But the woman who has impacted me the most of late, is Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.  In Sandberg’s book, “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” she offered stories about what is holding women back in their careers and lives, and ways to address them.  I mostly was taken with her sharing her greatest career advice from former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt: “Sheryl, your biggest problem is that you are trying to please everyone all the time…..you don’t make change in the world; you don’t have impact in the world unless you are willing to say things that not everyone will like.”

With that advice to Sandberg in mind, I remembered a recent experience when I spoke on a panel at a professional webinar.  Later that evening after the telephone presentation, I received the results of a participant survey about my performance.  While the feedback was mainly positive, I got hung up on one person’s comment that (anonymously) read, “Meg tends to stammer and ramble a bit…and I disagreed with one of her comments….”  I was crushed, especially since I had heard positive feedback from the organizers right after the presentation.  How was it possible that I could have been perceived like this?  Wasn’t everyone pleased with my performance?   I couldn’t get past it.  I concluded that I had let the organizers down and actually sent an apology to them and the other people on the panel.  I just felt embarrassed.  In fact, from this one negative comment, I went from feeling confident in my abilities to feeling at least temporarily depressed.  In response to my apology, one of the senior organizers (a male), responded, “Meg: You didn’t stutter or ramble.  It was very good.  I find that some folks just like to be critical and even make things up. …”  He continued, “I was once even told on a conference evaluation that my hair was too long!”   That evening on my way home, I was thinking how much I wish I could be like the organizer – not allowing the opinions of others to so swiftly penetrate.

The irony is that I have spent years learning to “flaunt” and embrace my physical imperfections, and I make tremendous efforts to teach my children the same. Yet, somehow, as strong and proud as I have become on that front, it seems I haven’t transferred my flaunting technique beyond the physical, at least not consistently.  Instead, I find  that in my professional life I sometimes succumb too quickly to how I think other’s might view me.  It is no wonder that Sandberg was getting such great media coverage for her advice—it resonates deeply for so many of us.  In fact, if women truly listen and absorb her advice in their daily lives, Sheryl Sandberg could become our modern Sullivan, and this time impacting millions instead of only one.

But carrying out advice like Sandberg’s doesn’t happen overnight. And somehow, it feels familiar that Helen Keller’s initial reaction to life-altering tutelage was to kick and scream, rather than swiftly adjust.  But just as Helen Keller eventually learned to master her body, her language and the ability to speak her mind, so too women can and must get a grip on those fears and insecurities that hold us back and surmount them.  When we stop worrying what others will think of us, our success as women becomes not a miracle, but simply inevitable.


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