the art of the deep yes (my TedxOlympicBlvdWomen talk)

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(On Dec 5, I spoke at one of the 220 independent TEDXWomen events that were organized around the world. I plan to blog about the day — it was an amazing day! — but in the meantime, here is the transcript of my talk.)

I have a confession to make.

When I was a little girl I would write obnoxious things in my diary.

Things like: “Life is so exciting when you’re someone like me, good at school and writing and sports!!!!”

Or: “When I grow up I’m going to be a world-famous novelist.”

Or: “One day I’ll rule the world.”

Actually I never wrote down that I wanted to “rule the world.”

But I thought it. I was that kind of kid.

I wanted to be great.

(Or a career as a soap opera actress. But I would settle for greatness.)

Then, a few years later – when I was maybe 12 – I came across that same diary when I was cleaning out the drawers beneath my waterbed. (This was the era of waterbeds.) I saw those scrawled words of my younger self, and felt…

…mortified.

I couldn’t believe how egocentric and deluded I had been. I felt the need to destroy the evidence. I tossed the diary into a big black garbage bag with the rest of my junk, and never saw it again.

Recently I came across a quote by singer Edith Piaf:

I had a very high opinion of myself. Perhaps with good reason.

That kind of blew me away. For a woman to not just think and believe such a thing, but to say it out loud? That takes ovum!

Modesty, after all, is a feminine virtue.

One thing I’ve noticed in my conversations about women, reading books and magazines about women, listening to other people talk about women, is that the culture seems to take it as a given that women as a group have low self-esteem.

A lot of this is attributed to the fact that, bombarded as we are by an insane beauty standard, most of us don’t look like supermodels. But Edith Piaf didn’t consider herself beautiful either. She said:

I’m ugly. I’m not Venus. I’ve got sagging breasts, a low-slung ass, and little drooping buttocks….But I can still get men.

I love that remark, because it demonstrates what I have come to think of as “the deep yes.”

The deep yes is the right to dream your dreams and live an authentic life as the hero of your own unfolding epic. It’s a yes to all your imperfections and the knowledge that you’re fabulous anyway.

Somewhere between the ages of 8 and 13, I misplaced mine.

Somewhere along the line, my Yes got drowned out by other voices, external voices, that told me I was too much. I thought too much. I read too much. I used too many big words.

Boys told me I was too competitive – when I didn’t even know that we were in a competition. Or what we were competing for.

Now I know that when people tell you you’re ‘too much’ of anything, it can serve as a sign of your strengths. In my case, I was a budding young thinker and writer who hungered for the world. I was rewarded for this in some ways.

But I also learned to hold myself back and play myself down.

Modesty is a feminine virtue.

I once told my therapist, proudly, that I had never been the type of girl to ‘play dumb” in order to make herself more appealing. I will never forget her response. She said, Playing yourself down — undercutting your own abilities — is a form of playing dumb.

And we have a way of becoming what we think we’re only pretending to be.

We have a way of rising or sinking to the level of expectation the culture holds for us. We like to claim that we’re not influenced by the world around us, but truth is we’re hardwired to adapt to the herd. As a girlchild in a small town in the early-to-mid 1980s, I wasn’t expected to like math. So I stopped liking math.

I wanted to be the star of my own epic life. But even as some people told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, I grew up absorbing a different kind of message.

Women are not the heroes of Big Stories. We are, instead, the mothers and lovers and wives and mistresses, the muses and personal assistants, the femme fatales and fantasies and manic pixie dream girls, in someone else’s Big Story. This someone else is usually a dude. Even the smart, feisty, bookish girl (if she’s not careful) gets cast as the Hermione to someone else’s Harry Potter.

There’s that saying: You have to see it to be it. So if you look into the culture, and you don’t see how you’re entitled to your own Big Story, you might just wake up one day, and smile, and say:

That’s all right. You go ahead. I’ll stay here and organize the snack committee. After all, somebody has to.

But to define yourself as a supporting player, to live your life in the shadow of someone else, is a precarious position.

Divorce happens. So does widowhood. Kids grow up. Odds are good that any woman will spend a significant period of her life alone. Ask twentysomething women about the possibility of being single at 40, or 50, and chances are they’ll gasp in horror. But if we don’t see single life as a real alternative, we are just as ruled by marriage as any generation that came before us.

And if you can’t say No to something, you can’t truly say Yes to it either.

I was married to a man who became extremely successful. And as I watched him rise, I noticed two things: he worked very hard – much harder than the average bear – and he said No a lot. He said No to people who wanted his time, his energy, his attention. He said No in a way that protected his very limited resources so that he could channel them toward his own goals.

I realized that behind every No is a deeper Yes to whatever it is that you do want. No is a bright line that, when used properly, marks off where you end and others begin.

We learn this young. I have kids, and when they want to assert their own power and individuality, they say: No! But when you lose the deep Yes, you also lose your bright No. How can you say No to protect what you want if you don’t know what you want?

I started wondering if maybe the reason I had trouble saying No to people was because I didn’t think I was worth a Yes to protect.

This could have cost me my life.

When I was in my mid-thirties, I was in a car accident. I managed to total an obscenely expensive car while going 8 miles an hour. I made a right turn at the wrong time and got hit by a car that knocked my car into another car. But the real problem was my exhaustion. I was meeting a friend when I should not have been driving at all.

(I should have said No.)

There was something else. After the sickening crunch of impact, when I realized that – bam – I had just been in an accident, my first thought wasn’t: Thank God I’m alive.

It wasn’t: Thank God nobody’s hurt.

It was: My husband is going to kill me because I wrecked the car.

Sitting on the curb, trembling, drinking bottled water that a police officer gave me, I started to realize that this was more than an accident. It was a wake-up call.

How had I gotten to this point, more concerned about my husband’s disapproval than the fact that I could have killed myself or someone else?

In the days that followed, I remembered that moment when I found my childhood diary. And I realized something. The day I threw it out was the day I made a bad decision. I decided not to trust the voice that filled those pages: the unfiltered voice of my deep Yes, my own high opinion of myself.

Instead, I put my trust in other voices, external voices, that let me know in a dozen subtle ways that I should remember my place.

Because modesty is a feminine virtue.

I learned to look outside myself for the kind of validation and authority that can only be found deep within.

I am calling it the Deep Yes, but other people call it self-worth.

In the novel THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker, a character writes letters to a friend named God, but she is also writing to the strength within herself. I’ve heard it referred to as your inner GPS. In my blog I sometimes describe it as the voice of your soul.

You might think of it as your Higher Self.

It is a creative force that is constantly driving us toward wholeness. We ignore it – or allow other voices to override it — at our peril. To deny it is to deny your true nature, and also to alienate yourself from the love of self that enables you to receive love from others.

The deep Yes is an innately creative act. I believe that the way to reconnect with it, and to free your inner voice, is through creative expression. There is a saying: Show me who you love, and I’ll show you who you are. But I also believe: We are what we make.

In my case, it was my writing and blogging that led me back to myself. My writing reminds me who I am – and who I want to be.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for Marie Claire magazine. I told a story – my story – in which I was no longer the Hermione to someone else’s Harry Potter.

Before the piece came out, I was terrified. I sent my editor an email at 3 am asking her if I could take it back. (She said no.)

But when the issue came out, I learned something else: when you move into your own deep yes, you inspire other people to move into theirs.

The emails, comments and responses I got were telling. What they told me was this: women want to play a bigger game. Women want permission to pursue dreams and goals and greatness of our own. And when I say permission I mean a story that supports us, a story that manifests in the kind of social, economic and political structures that make female greatness possible. You shouldn’t have to feel like you might sacrifice some or all of your womanhood. You shouldn’t have to feel like you’ll get massacred for admitting, out loud, that you have some greatness in you. You just need the time and space and energy to bring it out (– and someone else can get the snacks).

Women want, I think, a grand and inspiring call to adventure that points the way to a bigger, deeper life, even if it’s still unclear – in the year 2013! – what that kind of badass womanly life is supposed to look like.

But the call to action is there. It is waiting. We only have to get very quiet – on a day to day basis — and listen to the voice that lives within. We have to trust it enough to act on it. This is, of course, much easier said than done. But it can be done.

The last thing I would like to leave you with is this:

When we have only ourselves to find the way, make the way or lead the way —

We need to trust the deep Yes, so that we can trust ourselves.

We need to trust the deep Yes, so that we can trust each other.

Thank you.

Dec 6, 2013
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31 comments · Add Yours

That was AWESOME!!! I LOVED it in so many ways. You are AMAZING – DEEP YES TO YOU and all of your present and future accomplishments! Can’t wait to see the video. Thank you for sharing this.

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Wow. I am stunned and little broken open, in a good way. Thank you so much, Justine, for being so vulnerable and so strong.

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Dear Justine,
This was your best telling yet of those stories. It’s much sharper, stronger, much more emotionally moving, and deeply inspiring. I’m really glad this was the message that you chose to present to your impressive audience. I’m greatly looking forward to watching it on video when it’s ready.

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I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner last week, and while I was doing it, I fixed something for my Dad that he was having trouble with. He asked me how I did it, and I told him, you forget that I’m awesome. And my sister said, people who are awesome don’t need to say it. I disagree. I think that’s the conditioning we have from our environment, but the truth is, we need to say it. We need to say it a lot. I am awesome!

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Thanks for sharing this Justine, it touched me deeply.

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Pretty,cool, woman! This was quite inspirational!

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Dear Justine,
I cannot wait to see your talk. Thank you for this warrior post. Living in France and Usa I love to read about Edith Piaf , we can dig for roots of beauty here in France , we can fight for beauty and value in the Usa . The art of Yes is the new “Art of War” for a world women co -co – create. We rise. I love your fierce´courageousness.

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Wow, a very inspiring piece. It really made me think about a lot of things in my own life and how I should be thinking about them differently. You are always thought provoking and I thank you for that.

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I love you. And thank you for this.

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“But when you lose the deep Yes, you also lose your bright No.” Your writing resonates strongly as usual. Thank you

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Thank you for your deep, raw, and personal thoughts. I can relate in so many ways.

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Awesome post. It is hard for women to admit to how truly fabulous they are. Unfortunately we all tend to rain on the parade of anyone who stand up and says “I am fabulous” and we miss out on so much by doing so. Thank you for this brilliant blog. Keep being awesome.

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Well recognized and well spoken. i think you show How vital it is to take steps however small, on one’s own behalf, because only then will the world start coming to you….. You have taken many brave steps, and it shows.

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Yes. We’re all awesome. And it’s okay to tell other people that. Thanks for posting this – something we all need to hear.

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Thank you :)

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I love this so much – crying at the coffee shop. Fuck yes.

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Deep YES to you, your vulnerability and awesome ovum!

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This touch me though I am a man I feel the the things that hold woman back and make them feel low! I must says life always seem to be put tough in the head of woman by other especially men! But strong woman like you can change many other woman even man! Life is a gift no one should waste it. You can be loved and you can loved it a matter of time before your heart deep no turn to yes! Am impress though I struggle too as a man I see I am alone connected to a lot of inspiring woman in things that past happen to me. Be bless woman no one is more important than the woman who protect her honor and dreams

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Justine – Thank you for honestly and boldly reminding us to get quiet and listen… and choosing to live our truth. Great timing. Recalibrating our inner GPS is vital and important if we want to make an impact with our lives and time, however big or small.

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I love this! Thank you Justine for writing it and sharing your deep true feelings. I too remember writing in my diary as a young girl and going back to read them later only to just cringe.How could I write those words how silly and stupid and egotistical so I stopped writing. I grew up in the times where one just should not write or talk of ones greatness, it’s too “full of yourselfness”. But in reality one loses themselves by not acknowledging their greatness for who they really deeply are.Your words speak of deep loving beauty for yourself , your true deep beauty!! Thank you for inspiring me to find my deep true beauty!

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YES. OUI. JA. SI. AMEN. HALLELUJAH. WHOOPWHOOP. HUZZAH.
HAPPY BUM WIGGLES.

BUZZING with the ZING of RESONANCE.

I LOVE YOU.

THANK YOU.

The CAPS are on PURPOSE

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In sixth grade, when I started to write a story which flowed out of me so freely, it scared me so much that I put my pencil down, crumpled up my paper and tossed it in the garbage can. Thinking that it must be the devil that was making all those words come out so easily.

My hand knew that I was a writer, but my mind (and my conditioning) told me otherwise.

Then in high school, I accidentally signed up for Advanced English, so I thought, but when I told the teacher I had made a mistake and was supposed to be in the regular English class she told me to stay. And, she pushed me to make my writing-which could be really good or really crappy-better overall.

When I was a stay-at-home mom and wrote and submitted stories to magazines hoping to be able to work-at-home, I just got rejection letters and also got depressed and discouraged.

It took me a long time after that to start a blog. Now, even though I still get scared, it’s more of an excitement mixed with fear and even though my writing feels really crappy sometimes, there are moments that it feels really good, too. So, I just keep going.

I like that Andy Warhol quote…”Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make ever more art.”

Thanks for making some good art, Justine.

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Wonderful article ! It made me recall a documentary — Miss Representation, where they said at age 7, girls and boys equally think they can become president of the United States…and by age 15 there becomes a massive gap in what girls think they can do. There is something about shining your light into the world and somewhere along the line you get the message to hold back so you don’t freak people out. What is up with that?

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So well-written and your message resonates with me (and many other women) in a powerful way. You may have once been married to a powerful man, but he was married to a very powerful woman.

Thanks, Justine.

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Powerful and true and timely. One issue, though – very wealthy doesn’t necessarily mean extremely successful. He lost you. Epic fail.

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I can relate on so many levels – that car crash… I’ve been there. Not the exact same situation but worrying about something else when I clearly should be concerned about myself. And I’m certain there are many, many more women living like this. This is a story + message that needs to get out.

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Hi Justine, your strength and clarity blow me away and remind me to be myself – it is enough.
Your posts seem to come with perfect timing for me, i.e. the badass voice that says “you have things to say – so speak up!”

Congratulations on the TED Talk – giving voice to the ‘snack bringers’ who want to drive for a change.

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justine i want to write a novel. ive been writing short stories since i was a child.

i’ve been writing work related short stories for the past 2 years..its for work..though..

i have had no formal writing education. can i still write or is it best i get lessons?

thanks.

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The most important thing is that you read, read, read, and write, write, write — and then find constructive feedback and revise, revise, revise.

A really good writing workshop or fiction-writing course can help you learn and grow faster (and offer a supportive writing community).

There are also some really good books out there that can help…I really like Donald Maass’s 21st CENTURY FICTION. Also James Bonnet’s STEALING FIRE FROM THE GODS.

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Word for word I could’ve written this. I had the same diary. I found myself sobbing in the arms of my oldest friend recently when she told me I had not changed a bit since the age of 11 as I “wanted to be Prime Minister then too”. Your car crash was my “1 in 70,000 complication” following the birth of my son. As I was rushed to surgery, I was pleading with everyone to make sure my husband was ok. Older, wiser, caring not a f**k what other’s think, I am slowly starting to answer the call of my deep yes. It’s a bumpy road, but I shudder at the thought of the alternative and feel sick to the pit of my stomach at the thought of my daughter ever doing anything BUT hollering out loud her own YES. It’s not going to be easy, but she’s got a much better chance of doing it if she has her Mum as a role model, and hope to God she won’t wait til she’s 42 to bring her magic to the world, just as she’s brought it to mine – heaven knows the world needs a bit more magic. Thanks Justine.

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