“You could always just eat cheese all day. You’re good at that.”
I had been out of college for six months, and I’d arranged dozens of informational interviews with nonprofit professionals and drafted hundreds of unanswered cover letters to women-focused organizations before I really hit the low point of my unemployment. It’s not that I lack respect for the fine cheese connoisseurs of the culinary world, but I am not a chef or a foodie, and my friend’s suggestion that my most marketable quality was my ability to consume Cracker Barrel cheddar by the block just about pulled the last Jenga piece out of my increasingly shaky sense of self-confidence.
Because truthfully, I had started to suspect that I was somewhat lacking in the professional skills department. I had some clearly defined strengths, sure: I could communicate effectively, I could think analytically, and I was (and am) unwaveringly passionate about issues of gender, sexuality, and social justice. But, as a recent college graduate, I had little work experience and few of the technical skills that are so in demand for entry-level positions. And even during my college years, my school’s open curriculum model –– coupled with my strong aversion to looking like I don’t know what I’m doing –– resulted in my taking classes almost exclusively within a cozy academic comfort zone.
I didn’t know how to craft a project plan, organize an e-newsletter, or do any work involved in maintaining a website, and when applying for positions with multi-page lists of experiential requirements, those knowledge gaps felt cavernous and impassable. I thought a lot in those months about Kermit the Frog’s 1970s ballad, “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green.” Logically, I knew Kermit was lamenting his coloring and not his rèsumè –– but sometimes it felt like he was singing just for me.
All of this is to say that when my luck finally changed and I landed a communications internship with Girls Leadership Institute, I spent the first few weeks of work moving shiftily around the office like a kid walking on stilts while dressed in her father’s suit –– pretending to be grown-up, waiting to be found out. But what I encountered instead was an organization that embraced my potential, that offered me every opportunity to gain new experiences, and that never once treated me like anything less than a welcome student and a valuable colleague. GLI forced me outside of my comfort zone with such patience, joy, and confidence that I barely felt the push.
During my four months with GLI, I developed professional skills –– project planning, newsletter distribution, website maintenance –– that had felt unattainable only months before. I embraced the opportunity to work with infinitely generous individuals in every division of GLI, from development to operations to marketing to an unforgettable week-long stint at Spring Break Day Camp. I gave presentations. I communicated with parents, vendors, and partner organizations. I whooshed. And thanks to the skills and confidence I developed at GLI, I landed that coveted nonprofit job.
I learned an incredible amount through my internship, and I’m grateful for every new experience. But I think the lesson I will hold closest is this: true leadership means being unafraid of the new and celebrating newness in oneself and in others. It means remembering that experience is not the same as talent, and that neither are the same as worth. And it means wielding “I don’t know” not as an admission of failure but as a powerful password, an “open sesame” that allows a person –– any person, experienced or otherwise –– to ask questions, take risks, make mistakes, and grow.
Of course, not everything has changed since my time with GLI. I still have a lot to learn, both about my work and about myself. I still eat a lot of cheese. And I still sometimes get that feeling of a kid in grown-up clothes when I’m tackling a new procedure or grant proposal or website program without very much experience. But even if I don’t yet know how to code or where I’ll be in five years, I know now that I can sit comfortably with that uncertainty and let the not-knowing point me forward towards all of the lessons I will learn.
Because I am the face of leadership, and the face of leadership is green. -Katie Davis