THE BLOG
01/08/2015 11:35 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

The Crippling Concern of Amazing Women

hadynyah via Getty Images

I've noticed a slight, but significant, difference in the way men and women working in social innovation and social justice describe their work. Both are motivated by passion, have a driving purpose, and speak intelligently about the problems they face and solutions they've implemented. But women, I've found, are much more likely to lament: "I'm afraid I'm not doing enough."

I've been haunted by this phrase since I first heard it this fall. I was standing on a street corner in New York City with my business partner, waiting for a light to change. He glanced at the woman standing next to us and I saw a glimmer of recognition as he said, "Oh, hello." I turned around and was standing face-to-face with one of my personal heroes, a global humanitarian and powerhouse in the world of women's rights. He happened to know her through family connections.

We walked together, the three of us, for several blocks, chatting amicably. I felt star-struck to be walking alongside her and recognized the blessing of getting this personal update on her projects. She glowed as she talked about the progress her organization has made, the opening of new offices, a possible television program. As we arrived at her destination and she brought her update to a close, she became quiet. Micah asked her, "And you? How are you doing?"

She looked down and then said gravely, "Me? My life is wonderful, but the situation in my country (Iraq) is terrible, worse than ever," she shrugged and looked at us directly, "I wonder all the time if I'm doing enough."

I was stunned. Here was a woman who by all measures, has made a measurable and significant difference in the world, and she's worried about not doing enough? If she's not doing enough, I fretted, who is?

I heard it several times after that from other high-achieving, compassionate women. At breakfast with a Ph.D. who has dedicated her life to helping communities at risk -- vets, refugees, patients -- I heard it. I heard it from one of the best mothers I know in relation to the sacrifices she makes for her children. After a panel at the Ford Foundation, I was approached with the same concern by a woman who fights for equality in the workplace. Then one day, while dining with a mentor, I heard myself say it.

What I noticed when I said it, was how it took the wind out of my sails, undercutting all of the good news and progress I'd been describing to her. I also noticed how it stressed me out. The idea of not doing enough drained me of energy, rather than filling me up. That's when I came to understand that this sentiment, which sounds noble and is probably meant to be motivating, can be crippling.

"I'm afraid I'm not doing enough," and all its variations, has the opposite of its intended effect. It's a longing for more time, more hands, more capacity, which as heartfelt as it may be, is also an admission of defeat when uttered by an individual. It's a statement grounded in a sense of scarcity, rather than abundance. It threatens a woman's sense of accomplishment, which is directly tied to a feeling of fulfillment. It's a statement that is admirable in its modesty, but maybe not very useful. What is "enough" anyway when the tasks these women are facing are monumental; tasks that will likely take multiple people multiple lifetimes to accomplish.

As caretakers and empaths, collaborators and nurturers, women tend to bear a greater sense of responsibility not just for the outcomes of culture-changing, paradigm-shifting work (measurable results), but also for the wellbeing of the communities impacted (immeasurable results). This is beautiful, but it can also be a heavy load to bear in the broken, battered, and threatened communities some of our bravest women are working to heal.

Maybe the sentiment these women are expressing is actually, "I'm afraid we're not doing enough." Because frankly, collectively, we're not. The doers, the change makers, the engaged and motivated... they are shouldering the burden of a whole system that has failed us. They are working to correct the ills and wrongs of the many...and in that exasperated phrase, they're not looking for sympathy or mercy, but for help.

The next time you hear a great woman utter that crippling phrase, look deep within yourself and then deep into her eyes, and ask her, "What can I do to help?" She's right, alone she isn't doing enough. But together, we have unlimited capacity and that's what it's going to take to move us all to a place where we are genuinely grounded in a satisfying sense of "enough-ness."