Political junkies know Stacey Abrams as a former Georgia gubernatorial candidate turned voting rights advocate whose work is credited with turning Georgia blue for Joe Biden (and, as of this writing, probably two Democratic senators). But even if politics isn't your thing, Abrams is also notable as an entrepreneur who achieves the incredible.
A Black woman and self-described geek and introvert, Abrams is pretty much the polar opposite of many outdated stereotypes of what a leader looks like. Yet she's managed to found a series of wildly successful nonprofits that brought hundreds of thousands of new voters into the political process.
She has, in short, defied expectations, and in a recent Forbes interview she offered five incredibly powerful words of encouragement for other would-be leaders who worry they don't have the right personality, background, or connections for success.
"Do not edit your desires."
The interview with Marianne Schnall is in support of Abrams's book Lead From the Outside and covers a lot of interesting ground, but one of the most powerful moments comes when Schnall asks Abrams for her best advice for those, particularly women, who have been told not to dream too audaciously.
Abrams's response is just five words long but incredibly powerful: "Do not edit your desires."
Will you reach every bold goal you set for yourself? Maybe not. Will you experience failure and setbacks? If you're human, the answer is certainly yes. But Abrams reminds everyone who worries they're not cut out for success not to limit themselves before they even start. "We are entitled to ambition. We are entitled to success. We are entitled to failure," she insists.
You will face pushback for expressing big dreams. Abrams recalls how, when she told an interviewer that her ultimate goal is to be president, she faced screams of, "How dare I speak aloud such a dramatic ambition?" But "the minute we allow ourselves to be silenced and to be told that what we want is too much, then we are beginning to weaken who we are and what we can be," she says.
The point here isn't that ambition isn't sometimes terrifying, nor that everyone will welcome your self-confidence. You'll face plenty of criticism and difficulty on your journey. Abrams's message is the inevitability of struggle shouldn't cause you to limit your ambition before you even start. Set out boldly and see how far you can make it. Don't limit your horizons in advance so you never bump up against other people's prejudices or your own fear.
Other ambitious women agree.
Abrams isn't the only one reminding those who fear they don't fit the typical leadership mold not to trim their own wings so that someone else won't eventually do it for you. Sheryl Sandberg made a very similar point in her much-debated book Lean In.
High-profile critics like Michelle Obama note that the problem when it comes to women's advancement often isn't women's lack of ambition but an unfair system. That's a fair point, but it doesn't invalidate Sandberg's argument that women often limit themselves in advance to avoid the pain of knocking up against that unfairness.
"Maybe it's the last year of med school when they say, 'I'll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I'm going to want more balance one day,' Maybe it's the fifth year in a law firm when they say, 'I'm not even sure I should go for partner[ship at the firm], because I know I'm going to want kids eventually,'" she has said. "From that moment, they start quietly leaning back [from their careers]. The problem is, often they don't even realize it."
The point of both Abrams and Sandberg can extend to anyone who edits their ambitions before testing how far they can go. Not only will you not be as successful as you could be, you'll also not spare your feelings. Regret generally hurts a lot more than failure (really, science says so). Plus, the world will also never change if we're not brave enough to push back against unfair, talent-cramping expectations.
So don't edit your dreams. Fly until you hit a wall. You're stronger than you think you are -- you'll be fine. The wall, however, just might end up smashed.