Education of an Idealist: Musings

Education of an Idealist is a memoir written by Samantha Power (who is most famous for winning the Pulitzer prize for her first book and for being the United States Ambassador to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017). I thoroughly enjoyed the book and a number of things struck me that relate to my psychological research on heroes, leaders, social influence and social groups.

Early life: Strong models of resilience & conviction

Power provides numerous examples of key figures in her life who modeled resilience and conviction during her childhood.  Her Mum endured numerous hurdles in her pursuit to become a doctor, cared deeply for her patients, was forthright, left a troubled relationship, and was furiously competitive on the squash court. When confronted with early encounters with racism at high school, Power describes how both her Mum and Eddie expressed their own rejection of the racist views held by others and encouraged Power and her brother to speak out against the injustices they came across. These early influences strengthened Power’s own determination to seek out equality and fairness for all, as well as having the strength to deal with major setbacks in her own life.

Be an upstander, not a bystander

Power describes how, years later, she came to use the term upstander— a term which she is credited with coining and which now appears in all major dictionaries. An upstander is someone who chooses to take positive action in the face of injustice in society or in situations where individuals need assistance. The opposite of a bystander, is an upstander.  We can choose to be a bystander or an upstander. Power states honestly that it was much easier to coin the term upstander than to actually be an upstander in one’s own life. Some of what she talks about in this section of the book reminds me of Brené Brown‘s call for us to engage in brave work and tough conversations. It is often easier to look away.  Incidentally, Matt Langdon of the Hero Construction Company has often stated that the opposite to a bystander is a hero. It seems to me that heroes are often upstanders, and upstanders are often heroic. 

Leaders as vehicles

Power details her encounters with Barack Obama in the early days of their professional relationship while he was a member of US Senate.  She remembers his response in relation to questioning about how he was coping with the intense media pressure and growing popularity:

“It has never really felt it was about me as such.  I’ve become a vehicle, people hunger for something they aren’t getting: authenticity, a willingness to speak one’s convictions, aspirations that transcend party affiliation. I guess I’m filling some kind of void.” 

This description oozes humility, however, there is likely some truth in the sentiment. Sometimes we project our needs on to other people — including our leaders and heroes — and we allow those individuals to step up and fill the void.

Finding a Tribe

Power describes, in detail, the difficulties she encountered while working long hours as part of the Obama administration, becoming a mother, questioning her own decisions around allocation of time to work and family, and encountering many professional and personal setbacks. She describes how the single thing that dramatically improved her work environment was acquiring a new set of friends. On Wednesdays, Power and her friends (a group of fellow female directors) met for wine and cheese, and discussed the challenges they were facing. Spending time with these women provided Power with new insights into their struggles and insecurities. These regular meeting provided her with, in her own words, the feeling of being “part of a sisterhood, like these women would support me no matter what”. This sense of group and belonging conferred many benefits to Power, which is consistent with a large body of psychological research often referred to as the ‘social cure‘.

Personally, I really enjoyed Power’s storytelling not only of her good days but also her bad days and mistakes made.  Heroes trust their gut and act of course, they don’t always get it right but their intention is to do good.  Power’s loyalty to vulnerable others and her quest to keep edging towards solutions to global issues is inspiring.

Written by Dr. Elaine Kinsella


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