22 Lessons From Stacey Abrams on Fear, Ambition, and Getting It Done
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You know her from her historic work and string of trailblazing firsts in politics. Stacey Abrams became the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia state legislature, the first Black leader in the state’s House of Representatives, and the first Black woman nominated for governor by a major party in any state in a campaign that catapulted her to national recognition.
After a narrow loss to her Republican opponent in the 2018 race for governor—though Abrams would look you in the eye and tell you that, actually, “progress is victory”—she was widely credited with helping Joe Biden clinch Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in 2020, flipping the state blue in a presidential election for the first time since 1992. Now, she’s ready to try for the governor’s seat again. Winning this time, she says, would be even sweeter.
We’re in awe of her tenacity. We also love that she hasn’t been afraid to put her immense talents to use wherever she sees fit. Careers contain multitudes and she’s proof: She’s a Yale-educated tax attorney and an entrepreneur, yes, but also a romance novelist under the nom de plume Selena Montgomery (go ahead and add titles like Hidden Sins and Secrets and Lies to your cart) and an author under how own name (maybe throw in the legal thriller While Justice Sleeps or the best seller Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change while you’re at it?).
And oh boy does she know how to wield the power of words. Whenever she speaks…well, you’d best get ready to take notes because damn, it’s good. Check out some of her finest gems below. Hell, bookmark them now because you know there are days when you really need to hear that it’s OK to be afraid, but also that you are capable of whatever you can imagine.
1. “Be bold in your ambitions.”
“You may have noticed I’ve gotten in trouble in the last few years for being too forthright about my intentions. When people ask me questions about what I want, I don’t coyly duck my head or cover my mouth and giggle. If you ask me if I want to be vice president, I say yes. If you want to know if I want to be president, the answer is yes. If I want to be governor, the answer is yes. There are those who hear in that an arrogance, they hear in that an audacity that should be shameful and should be repulsed. But I was taught at Spelman College to be bold in my ambitions. To believe that I am capable of whatever I can imagine.” —Spelman College commencement speech 2022
2. “Do not edit your desires.”
“Do not edit your desires. We are entitled to ambition. We are entitled to success. We are entitled to failure. And any moment of compromise on those three things starts to weaken who we are… The minute we allow ourselves to be silenced and to be told that what we want is too much, then we are beginning to weaken who we are and what we can be. And I especially want young women to understand we are capable of everything.” —Forbes
3. “Acknowledge your fear.”
“For so many years, we have been told to be fearless. That is the dumbest advice I have ever heard. Fear is real. And it’s usually a warning. It’s a caution to us not to not act but to understand what we’re facing. I believe in embracing my fear. I take it out to lunch. If we are afraid of sexism, if we are afraid of racism, if we are afraid of success, if we are afraid of the limits of access, that’s OK. We need to know our fears, name our fears, number our fears, and then conquer our fears. Never let anyone tell you it’s wrong to be afraid. Fear is healthy. It is caving into fear that’s dangerous… I want you to hold onto your fear, get to know it, give it a name, give it a nickname—but never give it control.” —Spelman College commencement speech 2022
4. Don’t let others’ doubts stop you.
“I live my life with an assumption that I have the right to do the things I think I should do, and that my gender and my race should not be limitations.” —The New Yorker
“I have to remind myself that I’m more than this person’s low expectations of me.” —Forbes
“My being a Black woman is not a deficit. It is a strength. Because I could not be where I am had I not overcome so many other barriers. Which means you know I’m relentless, you know I’m persistent, and you know I’m smart.” —Cosmopolitan
5. Think about how you’ll get there.
“No matter what I do, I ask myself three questions: What do I want? Why do I want it? And how do I get it?” —TED Talk
“Lots of people can say ‘I can fly.’ But when you claim you’re going to fly, does that mean you’re planning to jump? Or that you’re going to build a plane?” —The Cut
“That’s just always the way my mind has worked, is taking something that seems impossible, or too big, and then breaking it down into these pieces so that I know how to get there.” —Cosmopolitan
6. Remember you can’t do it alone.
“Not a single one of you sits here alone. None of you made it here alone, none of you made it through alone, and none of you will make it any further alone. Humility says, ‘I can do it, I just can do it with others.’ Humility says, ‘I can do it well, I’m just not the only one who can.’” —Spelman College commencement speech 2022
7. Realize sometimes confidence comes from resilience.
“Some people are born with confidence. Some people are imbued with it based on their circumstance. But for a lot of us, confidence is borne of tragedy and disappointment, and the realization that we can still do more; it’s borne of resilience.” —Forbes
8. Understand what leadership is really about.
“Leadership is about answering that question: How can I help?” —The Washington Post Magazine
“I think my mom is the reason I started reading the encyclopedia and the dictionary, because I would ask questions and she was like, ‘Go look it up.’ Finally I figured if I wanted to know everything, I just needed to read everything.” —The Washington Post Magazine
10. “Learn your lessons, not your losses.”
“There are those who think that when you don’t win the things you try for, that your failure defines you. It is not failure that defines you, it is your response to failure that tells you who you are… Failure is inevitable, but it is not permanent.” —Spelman College commencement speech 2022
11. Try again.
“Not getting everything you want doesn’t mean you got nothing from it. I learned my lesson that it was enough to try if I was willing to try again and try again and try again.” —Spelman College commencement speech 2022
12. Move forward.
“I’m going to do what I’ve always done. I’m going to move forward, because going backwards isn’t an option and standing still is not enough.” —TED Talk
13. Seek to do the work, not just get the title.
“I stood for governor not because I wanted a title but because I said I wanted to do the work. And when I didn’t get the title, I still had the work to do. I wasn’t exempted because I didn’t get the platform.” —Spelman College commencement speech 2022
14. Know it’s rarely all your fault.
“There are rarely times when we fail because it was all our fault. And part of learning your lessons is making sure you understand your side of the ledger—and the other side. Because in our life and in our society, sometimes all the burden is all on us. But the lesson I have learned is that it’s not all on me. Success or failure, victory or failure, moving forward or moving backward. I have to look at what I can do, but I have to do my part to understand what other people should do.” —Spelman College commencement speech 2022
15. Don’t ignore what’s broken.
“In our family, your job is to fix it. Now, I don’t think they intended for me to fix the electoral system of Georgia. But my DNA tells me that if something is wrong, you cannot make it right if you pretend it doesn’t exist.” —The Cut
16. Speak up.
“Stoicism is a luxury and silence is a weapon for those who would quiet the voices of the people.” —2018 “non-concession” speech
“You can’t overcome something you don’t talk about.” —TED Talk
17. “Progress is victory.”
“It causes people an itch. It makes them angry. Because how dare I claim I won. You see I’ve been Black a long time. I’ve been a woman my whole life. I’ve been a Black woman in the South for as long as I can remember and I know that sometimes, success is just progress. That is a victory. And I am going to claim the victory every time I can. Because when you claim those victories, you make space for the next victories to come.” —Spelman College commencement speech 2022
18. Set your own standard.
“When we hold ourselves accountable to a standard without also setting our own, then we are living someone else’s life and playing someone else’s game.” —Spelman College commencement speech 2022
19. It’s OK that you don’t know everything. Be ready to learn and adapt.
“I would say that anyone who believes that they know everything on Day One is likely incorrect. Part of any job is being capable of learning all of the facets but coming with enough knowledge and enough curiosity and enough capacity to adapt quickly either to the challenges you face or to the realities you confront.” —The Washington Post Magazine
20. “Know what you believe.”
“As you make more and more important decisions, as you rise in this world as I know you will, you have to know what you believe because sometimes belief alone is what keeps you aloft… When you know what you believe, you are willing to question yourself and make certain that the person you are is the person you want to be. It is easy to say, ‘I believe,’ but it is hard to live those beliefs if they are not true and deep.” —Spelman College commencement speech 2022
21. “Create space for other people’s beliefs.”
“We’ve got to create space for other people’s beliefs… I know I am a better leader because I’ve worked with people I don’t agree with. I know I am a better friend because I’ve listened to beliefs and ideas that I don’t hold. I know I’m a better human because I’m willing to investigate truths that are not my own. I’m a better ally because I know there is more to the world than me. When you know what you believe and you don’t believe too much, you create space for growth and progress. You create space for transformation. You create space for tomorrow.” —Spelman College commencement speech 2022
22. Have hope—and fight.
“Hope is hard. It is painful. It requires patience and it is erratic in its delivery, but it is the most sustainable source of change and improvement possible. And so I hold to two ideas: the first is hope and the second is fight. Both have to be real and true, but it needs help, and that means we have to fight for what we want. And I think with those twin obligations—the painful power of hope and the remarkable, sustainable nature of fighting—we can get things done.” —Forbes