03/28/2008 02:47 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Own Your Impact

A few weeks back, I found myself in Orlando, Florida, helping to lead a panel on using technology for social change at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference.

We spent the afternoon in small breakout sessions. I had the pleasure of talking to a handful of women from all over the world--all of whom were bursting with enthusiasm about making a difference.

Mind you, these were incredibly bright women. They were engineers and scientists--some were professors, others professionals. But as I asked them to share their projects and ideas with me, they inevitably began their sentences with disclaimers.

"It's nothing as big as what you've done, but..."

"Well, it's kind of small, but..."

What were their projects, you ask? Oh, you know, simple things. Like, um,... running mentoring programs from scratch at their universities. Ideas for starting up innovative companies. Beginning groundbreaking technological research programs. Endeavors for which they should not have been apologizing, nor pretending as if they were small contributions.

Shocked as I was by their modesty, I knew exactly how these women felt. I had been invited to the conference to receive the Anita Borg Social Impact Award for work on the Imagining Ourselves project with the International Museum of Women. It was an extraordinary honor to receive this recognition, but it had been a long, hard road to get there (a journey you can read about in this previous blog).

I had been in these women's shoes. I had gone to endless conferences where I'd been inspired by a speaker, and wanted to talk to him or her about my ideas, but shied away from doing so. I knew exactly what it felt like to think one's own endeavors weren't big or important enough, because I'd spent years doing exactly that.

Now, suddenly, the roles were reversed. As I sat across the table, staring at these brilliant women, I'm ashamed to admit that there was some part of me that wanted to do exactly what they were doing--to downplay the importance of my own work, and the millions of women that we had reached through the Imagining Ourselves project. Even though I was at the conference to receive an award, I had to silence the instinct that wanted to say, "Well, it's really not such a big deal what we've accomplished. It was good, but there's so much more to do."

It's insidious, this tendency of ours to discount the ways in which we make a difference.

Women are particularly guilty of this sin, but it's an issue that affects everyone.

As a society, we haven't developed a language to talk about how social change happens--and how we, as ordinary people, make a contribution to that change.

Al Gore recently won the Nobel Prize for his work on increasing awareness about climate change (and deservedly so, I think). But films like An Inconvenient Truth would have amounted to nothing had it not been for decades of grassroots environmental activism by people from all walks of life-- from community members to scientists to non-profit professionals. These ordinary people, most of whom we'll never hear about nor celebrate, set the stage for an immense shift in our thinking and actions about the environment.

For every popular social hero-- for every Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Mandela-- there are hundreds of thousands of community changemakers who never receive a shred of fame for their hard-fought victories. And for every unsung community changemaker, there are millions of individuals who make a difference just by making simple acts of conscience in their everyday lives.

Imagine if all of the people who supported the civil rights movement in the 1960s had decided not to get involved--believing that their actions were not really of any import. Where would our country be right now? What would have happened to South Africa if all of the people who supported the anti-apartheid movement had decided instead to stay at home and mind their own business... because they hadn't received titles and awards to validate the importance of doing otherwise?

The point is simple. We have far more power to make a difference than we believe we do. Small positive actions have huge impact, often in ways that aren't even visible to us when we take these actions.

There is nothing wrong with awards, or with admiring people like Gandhi or Mandela. Heaven knows we could use more positive role models in our culture. But there is something wrong with this admiration if it makes it seem as if making a difference is an unattainable goal, only achieved by a select few.

We think when we're being modest that we're avoiding coming off as egotistical. We wouldn't want to show off, wouldn't want people to think we have an overblown sense of our own importance in the world. But this kind of modesty is often just egotism in perverse form.

How do I know this? I know this because as I sat at the table in Orlando that day, I overcame my modesty only when I stopped thinking about myself.

At the end of the day, I had to own the recognition given at the conference, because it wasn't really about me at all. There were tens of thousands of volunteers and team members from all over the world who had helped with Imagining Ourselves. If I'd downplayed the importance of our work, it was an insult to all of them, and to the many hours of work that they'd put into the project.

Indeed, looking around the table at the bright, enthusiastic women participating in the conference, I realized what a travesty it would be if I'd been unduly modest about my work. If I couldn't own the impact that I'd made in the world, how could I ever inspire others to make a difference in ways that were meaningful to them?

Well, I'm learning. It's a slow process.

The other day a friend of mine set me up on a date with cute young guy. We met for coffee and he asked me what I did for a living. After hearing about my work, he commented, "So you're out there making the world a better place, basically."

"Well, I'd like to think so," I began.

And then I stopped myself. "Actually," I said, correcting my previous statement, "I shouldn't dodge this one. Yes. Yes, I am."

I wasn't sure how he'd react. Wasn't sure if I'd just crossed some invisible line into braggartdom. But he didn't even take a beat to process.

Instead, he smiled broadly. "Good," he said. "Good, we need people like you. I'm glad you're not modest about that."

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