Stop Staying Small

  • February 8 2018

How to avoid the asshole trap and become the visionary you were meant to be

This post is part of the series on Lessons Learned in Achieving Your Vision

We can learn a lot from Neville

Remember Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter? He went from shy and nerdy to avenging hero: demolishing a bridge full of death eaters, retrieving the sword of Godric Gryffindor and destroying the horcrux snake Nagini. But most importantly, he built Dumbledore’s Army.

True power, the kind that moves people, is about building relationships. I cannot stress this enough. When you share your personal story and inspire action in another person, you are building a relationship with them.

Philanthropy can be a hustle. In our current time, a lot of non-profits focus on scavenging dollars. But working toward social good is most effective when our desire to do good shines through, we recognize the value in others, and invite them to join our team.

The process is simple, but never easy

There is a formula, and here is how it works: You have a vision. Write it all down and get as clear as possible as to what that looks like. Here are some tips on holding the space for your vision.

You aspire to success, which is the realization of your vision. Your talents are the vehicle, your vision is the destination. Other people are your path.

It helps to stand behind an issue. When I was speaking in front of thousands of people about my experience as a gay veteran, I felt very exposed. But I could stand behind the broader movement for gay rights, and know that I would be helping young service members like myself gain acceptance and be judged on their merits.

Sharing your personal story is incredibly effective. It activates the empathy of your audience, and is inherently authentic. Being vulnerable enough to let your true self be seen will resonate with them because people care less about what you think and more about how you feel.

Cultivate a high emotional intelligence. This involves putting yourself in the shoes of others. Ask yourself, Who am I speaking to? Why should they help me? Sure, you have a compelling story and we all want more truth and justice in the world, but what are you offering them? Catharsis? Transformation? Meaning? An opportunity to make their lives better?

Once you figure out what motivates the people you interact with, you will become infinitely more effective.

This requires getting curious!

Relationship-building is a challenging, yet additive process

When you change someone from a passive observer to a fierce advocate, the real magic happens. Because your voice is amplified. The only thing people in power respond to is power. And power is having dozens, hundreds, thousands, and millions of people who support you. That’s all it is.

This process is a long haul, however. Congressman Rick Larsen represents the 2nd district in Washington state. When I was involved in the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal effort, he was my representative and he sat on the powerful House Armed Services Committee. When I first contacted his office, he wouldn’t commit to taking a stand in support of repeal. I wanted him to become a cosponsor of the legislation that had recently been introduced into the House of Representatives.

What did I do? I knew I needed to become relentless. I organized letter writing campaigns to his office. I wrote letters to the editor of the local paper calling him out. I showed up to his town halls and campaign events and spoke up. I organized an in-district meeting with him and a retired Admiral, Colonel, and other activists involved in the movement. I had to get strategic.

And you know what? Within months I was on a first name basis with his staff. They offered me a job campaigning for Rick (I declined, wanting to focus on the issue and remain impartial). Within a year his office called me personally to tell me that he was signing on as a cosponsor of the repeal legislation.

He advocated for us in Congress. He was in a powerful position, and magnified our voices.

In 2011 Congress repealed the law, and I was invited to watch President Obama sign the repeal bill. I was milling around the floor and suddenly I saw Rick. He surprised me with a big hug and took a picture with me and Colonel Grethe Cammemeyer, who had helped me get Representative Larsen to “yes”.

We convinced him to fight with us and for us by sharing our stories and holding him accountable. The process brought us closer through shared purpose.

Avoid the asshole trap!

Unlike being driven entirely by a meaningful vision, the asshole is driven by ego. I’ve seen this happen in activism many times. While you still have the potential to realize success and promote your personal brand, so long as your ego is driving, it’s working against you.

It’s even possible to ultimately achieve your vision, but the path is littered with people you used and alienated along the way. This is to say nothing of the enemies you’ve made, who will stand against you and try and thwart your efforts.

Once you need help, doors will close. People who were attracted by your success, fame or money will abandon you once these run out. If they were only putting up with you to begin with, what do you have to offer them now?

Even in the world of social justice, I’ve seen the damage done by ego. I participated in one project where some members of the team created drama, oozed toxic attitudes, and exhibited contempt for others who were working toward the same goal.

Such behavior demeans your allies and compromises your mission. Tell your ego to take a hike.

Staying small

The recording in your head will try to convince you that you are not enough. Don’t listen. Do something. Every single time that voice speaks up, counter the negativity by taking action, any action. Sometimes an ego boost is necessary. Talk to one of your mentors, collaborators or fans. Sometimes you need self-care. Address your own needs or you will be useless in serving the needs of others

Don’t be afraid to ask for help! We all need it, especially navigating the new and wondrous world of online activism.

Be fierce with your vision! You must develop resilience around the people who will try to discourage you or tear you down. Keep your allies, and those who nourish you, close.

Whatever you do, don’t give up! We really are counting on you to be big, be bold, and bring your vision to life. We will all be better for it.

Check out more Lessons Learned in Achieving Your Vision:

Holding the Space for your Vision

Talking to People

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