A friend* went to a workshop that the OpEd project runs, whose objective was to teach how to claim and state their opinions so clearly, that they shape the opinions of others. Regular members of this Yes & Know community might remember that I wrote about them in an Harvard Business Review piece on fixing bias, a few years back.

The leader of the workshop had taken my friend aside during the 2nd day of the workshop, as the group was walking between buildings where my friend was told, very kindly, that she ‘lacked the necessary credentials to write about the topic she was working on’.

My friend was emotionally devastated by this feedback. At first, she wanted to argue that since the topic was, basically, a brand new idea, it was impossible to be a credentialed expert on it. She also thought it was unfair to be discouraged in a setting where the stated objective was to encourage fresh voices. And, of course, she felt foolish and punished for being vulnerable as she struggled to learn a new skill.

I was thinking of her experience, when I watched Professor Adam Galinsky’s recent talk on how to speak up for yourself:

Galinksy is a management professor at Columbia, who, besides being a prolific researcher in leadership and the like, was recognized in 2015 by Thinkers50 as one of best thinkers in the topic of talent.

He offers three key facts that I wish my friend knew, during the workshop moment.

  1. First, until you are powerful in your own eyes, no one else will see you as powerful.
  2. Power affects how your ideas are received. People who low power (young people, women, people of color) have a narrow range of what is considered, in his words, “acceptable behavior” and their ideas are screened accordingly.
  3. If you have high power (you’re a credentialed professor for example), you naturally have high (er) credibility for your ideas. The opposite, is also, unfortunately true. If you have low power, you also have low credibility for your ideas. This means (though he didn’t say it) that you will pay a tax – having a higher burden of work to provide sufficient evidence — if your bold idea is housed inside a non-powerful body (young, person of color, lesser educated) etc.


His research reminds us the relationship of power to ideas. Ideas are either limited or liberated based entirely on who has them, not on how good those ideas are.

But his research also provides us clues to find a way through.

First, don’t share nascent ideas with unsafe people. New ideas are never perfect outright; they need to be birthed in a safe space. Ideas are a function of different processes, which includes the need to be articulated, discussed, debated, shaped, and grown. Create for yourself a network of people who can be there for you to bear witness, so your ideas  have a shot.

See people as they are, not how you want them to be. The people who give advice like this are not assholes. They may even be perfectly smart, wanting to disrupt the status quo, and even trying to be a perfect friend by helping you. They likely have no bad intent, at all. What they are telling you is how the world works, today. This doesn’t mean the world will always be this way. Or that they want the world to be this way. If there is a “flaw”, it amounts to this: regardless of how excited they are to disrupt the status quo, they don’t understand how their own behavior actually perpetuates the status quo.

Accept this, and move on, because …

You have work to do. Get prepared, dig in, be ready to back up things with evidence, cause you’re going to have to PROVE the point in a way those with higher power don’t have to. But if you are willing to do the work, you will make it happen. Do this, because the idea matters to you.

My friend*? I was that person at the workshop. But that ‘friend’ is also a lot of us.

A great many of us are told that our ideas are too weird, or too wild or simply… wrong. But that doesn’t make it true. Whenever anyone is told his ideas don’t have a chance, it would be easy to rail against the person or the “unfairness” of it all. And while that might even feel good, that’s now how you and your ideas are heard.

If you accept their version of reality as valid, you make yourself smaller.
If you decide (and act) to create a new reality, that’s what will happen.

And this matters. Some people consider talking about power impolite. But, remember, if we’re to push our own interests, express an opinion, or be able to advocate for new ideas that can pull us into the future, then we’ve gotta understand the dynamics at play.

So your ideas can be liberated, and maybe, in the process, free us all.

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