03/07/2007 01:26 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On Leaving the Dormouse Behind

Can we agree that International Women's Day doesn't seem to get the attention it deserves? There are three and half billion plus women on the planet, and you'd think if it did, the noise would be deafening. But yet somehow it comes and goes like a whisper. At least in this country.

Well, for those who didn't know, March 8 is International Women's Day. It happens every year, and believe it or not, it's a pretty big deal in most countries. If you and I were living in Vietnam or Spain, for example, it would not be unreasonable to suspect that a dozen red roses might be waiting for us--with card attached of course--perhaps from male co-workers or brothers. And let's face it, a big bunch of roses on your desk or delivered to your door makes anyone's day go better.

But the real meaning of this holiday is not about flowers. And it's not about greeting cards gushing about how great we are or about the sacrifices we make. It's not even about donating money to women's causes, although that's nice.

Nope, what this holiday is about is ... you, me and all the women we know. As part of the billions of women on this planet. It's about our lives, our potential, our ability to be happy in our families, our work, and our relationships. It's about the difference we make by simply being the people we want to be in the world.

The older I get, the more I'm convinced that the key to all positive change on this planet is each of us deciding that a better world is possible, and doing something in some tiny, personal way to make that a reality. Take me for example. Five years ago, I had no idea that International Women's Day even existed. I was 26, overeducated, underemployed, and living in San Francisco trying to figure out what to do with my life.

September 11th had just occurred, the dotcom bubble had just burst, and it seemed (as it sometimes still seems) like the whole world was going to hell. I just wanted to find one tiny corner of it where I could make a difference. But where to start? I spent entire months slumped over the computer screen, staring at uninspiring job ads on the internet, only taking breaks to further depress myself by smoking cigarettes I didn't even enjoy. Not exactly setting the world on fire, that's for sure.

One morning I hauled myself out to a casual breakfast with a friend. I don't remember quite how it happened, but suddenly we found ourselves brainstorming about all the young women in the world who were doing inspiring things with their lives. If they could do thing like create their own organizations to take action on specific issues, or simply make exciting decisions in their personal lives and relationships, why couldn't we?

I'll skip the gory details of what came next, but it involved lots of cold calls to celebrities and agents, and lots of embarrassing pitches to funders and supporters as I wracked my brain about how to articulate my vision in a way that actually made sense. We won't even mention begging folks to give their time and expertise. For free.

Fast forward five years, and here I am at The International Museum of Women with a number of tangible results that have made a difference in people's lives: a book called Imagining Ourselves that sold out its first printing; a series of online exhibits at the highlighting the experiences and dreams of today's younger generations of women, and most importantly, literally hundreds of thousands of young women from over 200 countries whose lives have been positively affected by participating in the project. Nearly every week we get a letter from one of them, telling us how they've been inspired to pursue their dreams.

And it all started at breakfast.

I am constantly humbled by the women whose stories are part of the Imagining Ourselves project. I think of people like Mayerly Sanchez, from Colombia, who started her own children's movement for peace after losing her best friend in her country's civil war-- and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize at the tender age of 16. I think of Jessica Loseby, from England, who is disabled and in a wheelchair and was told she shouldn't have children, but decided to anyway--and has a beautiful, happy family of four.

What is clear to me from conversations with these hundreds of thousands of young women is that real change happens in baby steps. It's not about winning big awards, or staging big protests. It may seem like a cliché, but the way we actually get to live in a better world is by each of us deciding, individually, to take the smallest, most humble leaps of faith and courage. And then taking them.

Five years ago, when I first approached the board of the International Museum of Women and asked them to partner with me on my project, I felt about as confident as a dormouse. I remember standing outside their board meeting, applying makeup, nervously adjusting my suit (one of the very first I owned), and trying to convince myself I was for real.
Who was I to ask people to give of their money, their time, their expertise, for something I didn't even know I could pull off? Who was I to be so audacious as to think I might be able to make a small difference in the lives of some of my peers?

If you've ever been riddled with questions of self-doubt, you know that the questions themselves contain the seeds of the answers. Who are you to think you can do something you fear? Well, you are the person who is big enough to overcome your fear. Who are you to imagine creating a project that's bigger than something you've ever done before? Well, again, you're the person capable of figuring out how to pull it off beautifully.

This International Women's Day, ask yourself, are you living the life you want to lead? Is there one small thing you can do--something that probably scares you, something you've been holding off on--that would make a difference in your community, or in your family, or even just for you?

If so, do it. This, if you ask me, is the true meaning of the holiday.