On June 14, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the White House’s first-ever United State of Women summit in Washington, D.C. Throughout the day, I thought of all the women, past and present, whose triumphs, struggles, and sisterhood helped pave the way for me to learn, explore my passions, and amplify my voice. As I joined more than 5,000 attendees in progressive sessions and calls to action, I wished I could capture the burst of hopeful inspiration I was feeling so I could savor it later, on lonelier days.
But first: I needed to ground my outgoing-but-introverted self in the experience. I felt besieged by the sheer volume of participants, fear of missing out on the myriad once-in-a-lifetime conversations, and nervousness about speaking alongside Amy Poehler, one of my heroes. In an attempt to ignore my anxiety, I frantically scribbled detailed notes and Instagram’ed photos of remarkable speakers like Vice President Biden and President Obama. Then, the gravity of the moment of silence we collectively observed for the victims of the Orlando massacre led me to find a [semi]-quiet bathroom stall to check in with myself and breathe. As I concentrated on inhaling deeply and practicing a simple loving-kindness meditation, the fear and impostor syndrome that prevented me from immersing myself in the summit fell off like a molting snake’s skin. Once I acknowledged that I was overwhelmed, I was able to turn down the volume on my own self-doubt. Prioritizing time for myself in the midst of such a grandiose event helped me recognize that I, like the other summit attendees, was being called to claim my voice, own my ideas, and acknowledge my worth in a culture that often tells women and girls we’re not enough.
Renewed, I opened the door of my makeshift contemplation room/gender-neutral bathroom stall. My mini-meditation engendered a shift in perception: I felt ready to immerse myself in the alchemy that each attendee was conjuring to improve the lives of women and girls. Instead of focusing my energy on my fear of not “fitting in” with the powerhouses in the room—including First Lady Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Kerry Washington, to name just a few—I challenged myself to practice active listening by “being interested, not interesting.” By embracing curiosity, I was transformed from a spectator to a student. What I got in return for this was a litany of lessons on life, purpose, and leadership that I know will serve me for years to come. These lessons are now referenced in my journal as “The United State of Women (USOW) Rules: Life Class,” an homage to my beloved idol, Oprah.
You might be wondering why I wrote down a list of rules after taking all that time to reflect on being more open and gentle with myself. But old habits are hard to break, and while I don’t love dogma, there’s a list of motivational guidelines that have special meaning of my life: When I was in middle school, my parents were obsessed with General Colin Powell’s “Thirteen Rules of Leadership”. Even though my parents were life-long Democrats, the universality of this respected conservative’s prescription for life excited them. What I affectionately refer to as the “Tao of Powell” inspired my parents so much that they had countless copies of his rules printed, laminated, and framed around our house. (When my father presented my partner with his own personalized copy one Thanksgiving, I knew he was being initiated into our clan.)
In the spirit of my parents’ reverence for “the rules,” I’ve written my own feminist version, informed by the education I received at the United State of Women. Here’s the list of USOW rules I scribbled down and plan to follow moving forward, with credit to the women (and man) who inspired them:
- Don’t try to fit into someone else’s limited notion of who you need to be to be useful or valuable. Invent your own purpose. “Use what you have to make the world a better place in your own way.” —Marley Dias, 11-year-old founder of #1000blackgirlbooks
- Your voice and participation is critical, even if (especially if) some folks are threatened or don’t get it yet. “No country, no civilization can move ahead if it leaves half of its population behind.” —Heather Higginbottom, U.S. Department of State
- Know your worth, and don’t be afraid to say no in a negotiation. It’s your birthright to demand equal pay for equal work. [Or as Beyoncé would say: “Best revenge is your paper.”] “We have to support economic freedom and empowerment for women.” —Kerry Washington, Scandal
- Haters are not a credible source. “Don’t take anything personally. It’s really about the person who said it; it’s not about you.” —Billie Jean King, athlete
- Power must always be taken: It’s never truly given away. Unapologetically make your mark on history. “Our country isn’t just about the Benjamins; it’s about the Tubmans, too!” —President Obama
- Spend less time desiring affirmation from naysayers and haters and more time on those who reflect your love and light back to you. “Surround yourself with people who lift you up. Make room for people who love you.” —Michelle Obama
- Define yourself. Or somebody else will. —Yours truly, at a panel I participated in on revolutionizing gender norms
- Own who you are. Be proud. “This is what a feminist looks like.” —President Obama
- Be accountable to your younger self. Embrace and celebrate the genius of your inner child. “Only a kid would think you could change the world with a lemonade stand.” —Mikaila Ulmer, 11-year-old mogul and founder of Me & the Bees Lemonade
- Be visible. Be counted. See others. Let them know they count. “There’s nothing worse than not being seen.” —Meredith Walker, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls
- [Unapologetically expect dudes to treat you better and:] “Be better.” —Michelle Obama
- Others may threaten your power, but it is never theirs. It is always yours. “I was powerless against the man who attacked me, but I am not powerless in ending rape culture.” —Meghan Yap, #ItsOnUs
- The best thing you can do is make someone not the only one in the room. —Shonda Rhimes, TV executive and writer
Want to experiment with these United State of Women thrive-tips? Try some on, adapt them, and tell us if and how they work for you, too. Do you have some of your own “rules” to live by? Share them with us in the comments. ♦