INSPIRATION VS ICON

October 2020

I’m going to say something that might rustle your feathers. 

We’ve got to be careful about the pedestal we’re placing under Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

I know that sounds sacrilegious but let me tell you what I mean.

I admire RBG. She was a true agent of change, an advocate for women’s rights, and a real fighter who helped move women a step closer towards the equality we deserve. There’s no denying those amazing accomplishments and I’d be the first to agree that women across the nation have all benefited from her activism and action. 

But I worry about elevating people we admire from human to divine. For many of us who can make human-scale change, our efforts will likely feel small and potentially irrelevant when compared with someone who holds a near-godly stature. 

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Hero-worship can motivate, but it also can also cause paralyzing detachment

Remembering that Justice Ginsburg was human and thus imperfect is crucial. While she was an advocate for female equality, she only had one black clerk during her entire tenure on the Supreme Court. I call this out, not to disparage the crucial work she did, but because understanding her humanity gives all of us who are our own toughest critics permission to try to make the change we wish to see, and to know that we can make progress even if we do it imperfectly.

I’ve made the mistake of placing people on pedestals before, and when I did so, I lost my own voice in the process. I remember going to an event where Stacey Abrams was the speaker to a very small group of us. If I’d seen her as another strong woman rather than as someone I idolized, I might have been able to connect with her through a real conversation. But when I got close to her, I literally froze. My brain shut down, my heart sped up and I missed the opportunity to learn and to share my mission and advocacy. My inner voice was saying, “she is so smart, so brave, and so relentless, anything I’ll say will seem light and uninformed.” I blushed, shook her hand and fled the event.

I was so disappointed in myself, feeling like I missed a chance, and I was embarrassed that I felt I didn’t have anything meaningful to say. I’ve replayed that missed moment over and over in my head to try to figure out what I’d say if I got a second chance.  

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Instead of idolizing each other, let’s humanize each other.

At a recent Parlay from Away event,Kim Newton, a transformational leader took us through her process of transitioning her huge corporate career into the next chapter as an artist and entrepreneur. Kim’s strategy for figuring out the next steps in her own journey began with compiling a list of the people she admired and reaching out to them to hear their advice and wisdom. One of those people was Carla Harris, Vice Chairman at Morgan Stanley and arguably one of the most successful women in finance. 

Kim had the courage to reach out to this accomplished stranger because she viewed her not as an idol, but as someone she could learn from. And while Carla didn’t know Kim, she responded immediately to Kim’s email inquiry, and the 30 minutes they spent together had a profound impact on Kim’s future trajectory. That discussion would never have happened if Kim had placed Carla on an untouchable pedestal that blocked their ability to relate on a human level. 

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From “What can I get from you?” to “What can I learn from you?”.

When I replay that Stacey Abrams moment in my head, I’ve decided that if I feel I have nothing meaningful to say, I’m going to follow Kim’s advice and use that moment as a time to learn. Asking a question is another way to begin a dialogue between humans, and the truth is that we can all learn from each other. Since we each have things to teach and each have things to learn, it doesn’t matter who starts by speaking and who starts by listening as long as we exchange with each other on a human level.

When I look back on the incredible legacy of RBG, I honor her. Not as an icon, but as a fellow traveler whose path blazed the way for many of us to follow, and whose example opened the possibility that each of us has the ability to leave our own gorgeous footprints for the next generation. 

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Have you learned from someone unexpected?

Share it Small: If you benefited directly or indirectly from someone else’s wisdom, regardless of their “status,” drop them a note and let them know! If there is someone you admire greatly, instead of placing them on a pedestal, drop them a note. Who knows what kind of human-scale exchange may get sparked? 

Share it Big: Let’s start a movement to reduce the emphasis on fame and our expectations of perfection. It’s when seeing each other in our humanity that we can truly break down barriers. How about taking a few minutes each day to be open to those around you about your aspirations (they may be able to give you a boost) and your imperfections (it’ll make you much more approachable and give others a way to relate to your humanity).  Start to write down or journal a list of people you admire so you can remember to find a way to connect to them and share your perspective.

Share it with Me: We all learn from each other. If you have had a revelation, a break-through, an insight, or a triumph, we can learn from you so please tell me about it here! I’m collecting stories of these cascades of good for ongoing community building and to track The Parlay Effectin action. I would love nothing better than to hear how you lifted, were lifted, or observed something in others that made you feel good and recognize your own power.