When the Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai defied the Taliban, a death threat was issued against her. As the world watched her miraculous recovery from the gunshot wound that almost killed her, the 14-year-old shared this message of defiance:
"The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died.
Strength, power and courage were born."
Malala's courage won her the Nobel Peace Prize and the respect of the free world. With rare bravery Malala expresses her essential power - the power that drives positive change. We see this power manifest in so many ways. In Malala's case, as an advocate for girls' education; for Mahatma Gandhi, as a defender of self-determination for all; and through David Bowie, the embodiment of non-conformity, the courage to be different.
We marvel at people who question the status quo, when to do so involves serious personal risk. We are awed by their audacity and stunned by their defiance. Is our inaction simply a fear of the consequences? Or are we threatened by our own power and prefer to believe in our powerlessness? Whatever the reason, many of us live smaller lives than we need to.
Capable people who doubt themselves often avoid self-promotion while their more confident peers become their managers. Rather than voicing an opinion in a meeting, some might keep quiet for fear of sounding foolish. A crushing moment later, a junior colleague is lauded for expressing the very same opinion. The "I'm not good enough" script almost certainly limited my advancement in an advertising career, which is why I now encourage my coaching clients to fuel their ambition with self-belief.
One of the most common self-assessments of high achievers is that despite all the evidence to the contrary, they believe themselves to be imposters. Meryl Streep once asked an interviewer, "Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don't know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?" Even one of our most respected actors diminishes her achievements and disowns her power.
Every person I meet reminds me that each of us is extraordinary, and nobody puts it better than Marianne Williamson whose words Nelson Mandela immortalised in his inaugural speech:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you NOT to be? You are a child of the universe. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It's not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
Many of us are thwarted by our inner voices, our anxieties and a fundamental lack of belief in ourselves. Our inner critic tells us that we are less accomplished or capable than others. We dismiss our achievements and confine ourselves to a false belief in our mediocrity. But somewhere inside, we know that our disappearing act no longer serves the world.
We withdraw to the safety of our comfort zone, aware of our potential but suppressing the urge to act on it. It's why I walk past my piano many times a day without sitting down to play. Resonant with meaning, the piano is a symbol of my mother's dream of my becoming a concert pianist. Its silent keys represent a fraught adolescence and unfulfilled dream. Similarly, a close friend explains how she would rather pore over her admin for hours rather than submit her PhD. This way, she can avoid facing the limitlessness of her own potential.
Powerlessness and silence go hand in hand. How often have you thought, "Don't rock the boat, keep calm and carry on, better the devil you know...?" If something feels wrong, it probably is. You only have to read another news report of sexual abuse to understand that you have a right, even a duty, to speak up.
Malala taught us to trust our intuition, take ownership of our power and liberate ourselves from fear. To those of us who 'play small', perhaps it is time to put our courage to the test.
The poet Mary Oliver asks, "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" I plan to throw back my head and play the piano like there's no tomorrow!
I leave you with these sublime words by Hafiz:
"I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness,
the astonishing light of your own being."