The Power of Negative Thinking

First of all, apologies to anyone who is an RSS feed subscriber and got a long, very personal rumination on depression the other day. It was not meant for this blog.

But now that the cat’s out of the bag, let’s stare it down in its hissing face.

This morning, I had the honor of hearing the incomparable Donna Brazile speak at the Women’s Funding Alliance Amplify breakfast. A veteran political strategist, humorous public speaker, and savvy commentator, Brazile was inspiring – exactly the kind of woman that younger women like me can look up to. You may have seen her on CNN or ABC, where her commentary is courteous but direct, in-your-face but more of a firm caress than a slap. As a friend said of her Louisiana accent, “It’s like she opens her mouth and a whole culture comes out.”

Brazile didn’t dwell on the reasons she should not have succeeded or belabor her story with complaints about growing up poor, Black, and female. She just told her story confidently, without compromise. She made me think about how often I and the women I know have faced moments where we were pressured to compromise, and the anxiety that still brings. We know we have it in us to do a job, but somebody tells us we’re too young, too inexperienced, too feminine, not feminine enough, not wealthy enough, not educated enough, not connected enough, and for a split second, we wonder: Is it true?

How we answer that question determines everything.

In one camp, we have the pragmatists, who warn women not to be naive. I can’t help thinking of a quote from the NYT article published on September 7, “Harvard Business School Case Study: Gender Equity“:

At an extracurricular presentation the year before, a female student asked William Boyce, a co-founder of Highland Capital Partners, a venture capital firm, for advice for women who wanted to go into his field. “Don’t,” he laughed, according to several students present.  Male partners did not want them there, he continued, and he was doing them a favor by warning them.

It’s fair to say that pragmatism alone never leads to change.

In the second camp, we have the optimists, who tell women that they can do anything they set their minds to. Here I place projects like the documentary Girl Rising. I believe deeply in girls’ education, but at the scene of a group of Nepalese girls singing their friend out of bonded labor, I nearly walked out of the auditorium. “Change is like a song,” they said, and my mind retorted, No, change requires more than singing. It requires organization, analysis, and action. Not every person can sing her way out of slavery. And, as I learned as a grants manager, meaning well does not equal doing good. The path to hell – or, to be less melodramatic, to lost jobs, undermined causes, and ineffective program management – is paved with good intentions.

It’s fair to say that optimism alone never leads to change.

In the third camp, we have the realists. They tell us that women will sometimes be punished for speaking up. Many women who raise their hands for jobs or boards or political office will never be selected. Straight women who call themselves feminists may find that there aren’t enough enlightened men around to meet their demand. Young women who apply for jobs that demand more experience than they have may well be unqualified to perform them. Women will continue to judge other women for what they wear.

This is reality. And it’s fair to say that reality can be changed.

When the HBS deans radically revised their program to facilitate women’s success, they were very realistic. They did more than tell girls to try harder or to “lean in.” They changed the way students and teachers were evaluated. They enforced gender-sensitivity across all aspects of campus life. They even tackled deeper, thornier issues like socioeconomic inequality that were keeping HBS students from living up to their full potential. They had some successes, they learned some lessons, and – most inspiringly – they changed some lives.

They did it by being optimistic in their vision and pragmatic in its execution. They held on to their vision, but they did not let it blind them to the obstacles before them. They chased unrealistic dreams not in their imaginations, but in reality, using their influence to nudge the world in the right direction.

I worry sometimes about the message we are sending young women when we tell them to “lean in” and then, when they ask how, shrug our shoulders. I worry about women like me, who are told our whole lives that we’re amazing and can do anything, who then discover that the tools of self-promotion we were taught to use make us more enemies than friends. I worry that, rather than giving girls a solid foundation to stand on when they encounter obstacles, we are putting them in balloons and then closing our ears when, at some less adorable age, they pop. Positive thinking alone won’t save the world. But without it, no worthy effort will get off the ground. That’s the power of negative thinking.

I’m thankful to Donna Brazile, Jamie-Rose Edwards of Young Women Empowered, and of course the many people who make up the Women’s Funding Alliance for this welcome reminder that, when it comes to making real change, it is best to err on the side of optimism.

Third, some changes are coming. It’s almost time to pivot. I’m looking forward to retiring this blog and reviving it as something different, based on the balance of optimism and pragmatism I’m seeking to promote. Thanks, in the meantime, for all your support this past year.