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Every story has lessons within – sometimes even more than the lessons the storyteller thinks she is sharing.

This weekend I had the opportunity to listen to many people tell their stories at a conference on women’s empowerment held at Bowie State University in Maryland. My wife had been invited to participate as a panelist on the conference’s “Careers” panel, and I flew home for the first time in six weeks to watch and support her. All of the speakers were women – as were nearly all of the members of the audience – and to me it was revealing to hear them speak candidly about what was empowering or potentially disempowering to them.

One speaker, Rynthia Rost, told about how she had become a successful attorney and corporate executive. She explained that, in the early 1980s, she was usually the only African-American woman working amongst a group of generally older white men. She was sure of her own gifts and made certain that the people around her knew what she had to offer. She also talked about the importance of developing a network and a set of mentors. By the time she was done, she had presented an image of someone who had built upon her own personal power by cultivating her social and professional power – a strong role model for the young women in attendance.

In contrast was another panelist, a woman in her early thirties who had apparently been invited because of the mentoring website she had recently created, but who spent almost all of her time talking about how she had followed her passion for fashion modeling after graduating from college, with a good deal of success. That part of her story had elements of inspiration – her drive, her certainty, and the professional rewards she reaped from her hard work – but they were clouded by a kind of nostalgic self-deprecation. This woman was as fit and lovely as anyone else, but she kept referring to her modeling days as the time when she was “young and thin”, as if the foundations of her success had evaporated over time. She spoke so little about her mentoring website that I thought she must not yet have developed the same sense of empowerment in that realm that she so clearly possessed as a model. She might turn out to be a real doer in the next few years, someone worth emulating, but the message she was sending that morning to that roomful of young women seemed to me to be, “When you’re young and pretty, you can do anything!”

Oddly, the weakest speaker of the morning was the keynote speaker, a journalist and radio personality with a national presence and a strong local following. Her bio makes clear that she is an accomplished person in broadcast media, education, and community service. But nothing of what gave her the power to succeed in those fields was apparent that morning. She arrived to open the conference nearly an hour late, and it was instantly clear that she had not prepared any remarks and was speaking extemporaneously. She did so rather smoothly, as you might expect from a radio personality, but said very little of substance – certainly little to do with empowerment. In fact, most of her speech focused on distress (a recent divorce, an impending move to another state) and self-comfort, and the impression I got was of someone terribly overwhelmed by circumstances. Still, she managed to make it to the conference, and she managed to put on a brave public face. That certainly takes a certain kind of strength, and, although I would not equate that with power, there may well have been people in the audience who took their own strength from that woman’s story.

My favorite speaker was, of course, my wife, Deborah Pratt, who had spent considerable time preparing appropriate remarks. These prepared remarks all fell by the wayside when the panel moderator unexpectedly asked the panelist just to talk about something in their lives relevant to empowerment. Deborah recalled her childhood in the projects in London, where as a poor kid she was seen as not very bright and where her own highest ambition was to become a hairdresser. She then explained how, through miracles of encounter and remarriage, her family came over to America when she was 14 years old. Even though her Southeast London accent put her near the bottom of the social scale in the U.K., American kids – and American teachers – couldn’t tell the difference, and assumed that her British lilt meant she was posh and well-educated. They treated her accordingly. In addition, her new American step-dad and his extended family all told her, with no doubts whatsoever, that she could achieve whatever professional goal she desired. The stupid kid who would have been lucky to cut hair for a living ended up going to college and graduate school and helping thousands of people make their way in their own careers. The point, Deborah said, was that, if you want to develop your own empowerment, you should surround yourself with people who want you to succeed.

What I think all these women conveyed was that, with empowerment – as with fulfillment – belief is the most crucial component of possession. If you believe you are not empowered, than you won’t be; conversely, belief that you can achieve empowerment is the first step towards doing so. In addition, complete empowerment is unrealistic (again, as with fulfillment). No one is at all times absolutely powerful. Even the most successful people sometimes suffer failure and dissatisfaction. The key to empowerment is not continual flawless achievement, but steady confidence in your ability to achieve.