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Why last year was my year of "shine"

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Melinda Gates meets with health extension workers from the Adolescent 360 "Smart Start" family planning program during a visit to the Alem Ber Zuria health post in Ethiopia.
Melinda Gates meets with health extension workers from the Adolescent 360 "Smart Start" family planning program during a visit to the Alem Ber Zuria health post in Ethiopia.
Photo by Hilina Abebe

E ach year, instead of setting a resolution, I choose a single word that encapsulates my aspirations for the next twelve months. In recent years, I’ve chosen gentle, spacious, and grace—words that have guided me to resist the pull of perfectionism, make room for the things that matter, and seek moments of transcendence.

2019 was the year of shine.

Usually, I know immediately when I’ve found the right word. With shine, it was different. In fact, it was a word I initially resisted. It seemed like the wrong fit for a time when the headlines both at home and around the world seemed so unusually dark.

What’s more, it didn’t feel true to my goals for myself. The words I choose each year are intended to make me a better person—not, well, a shinier one. The idea of spending the year focused on shining felt too selfish, too small.

In retrospect, it’s no mystery why that word kept coming back to me though. At the time, I was preparing for my book The Moment of Lift to be released. After so many months of quietly writing and editing, I was about to shift gears entirely and begin a book tour that would take me all over the country (and a few places outside of it).

Even though I was excited for the chance to have so many conversations about gender equality with so many different people, I was also a little nervous about being at the center of all that attention. As always, I wondered whether I was up to the task. I even asked myself: why am I doing this?

That got me thinking about the reason I wrote this book in the first place.

When Bill and I started our foundation twenty years ago, I planned to let him be the public face of it and limit my own role to being behind the scenes. I cared a lot about the work we were doing, but I didn’t think I wanted or needed to be a spokesperson for it.

Then I started traveling to the world’s poorest places and spending time with the women who live there. That changed everything for me.

The women I met told me what it’s like to see the potential of everyone you know crushed under the burdens of poverty and disease. They told me about watching their children die preventable deaths and knowing that even their families’ basic needs were more than they could ever possibly provide. They told me about repressive laws and customs that keep their daughters from being seen as equal to their sons. But they also told me about the transformation that happens in their communities when women are empowered to thrive.
If we can all let our lights shine, we will change the world for the better
What they told me, I wanted to tell others.

I asked myself: What was the point of their opening their hearts and telling me about their lives if I wasn’t going to help them when I had the chance? After that, I decided I had a responsibility to find my voice as a public advocate and use it to amplify theirs.


I wrote my book, in part, to share the story of how I became an advocate for women and girls. But, more importantly, I wrote it to share the stories of these women themselves. By sharing their stories with me, they inspired me and called me to action. I hoped to call others to action, too.

Reflecting on all of that helped me think differently about the word shine.

You may have heard the beautiful line from Thomas Jefferson describing what happens when you light one candle with another. The first flame creates a second without diminishing anything of itself. The triumph of the candle is not that it sheds light but that it spreads it.

That’s what shine now means to me. It’s a reminder that every time I’m given the opportunity to shine, it comes with a responsibility to help others shine, too. I ask myself: how am I using my voice? How am I using my time? Am I serving myself or something bigger? Am I searching for the light in others and helping it burn more brightly?

I truly believe that if we can all let our lights shine, we will change the world for the better. As the world becomes more equal for women and girls, millions and millions more lights will turn on—and the whole world will be illuminated.

Posted: January 14, 2020
Edition: Beginnings

Weigh In

Join the conversation using the discussion guide below. Remember to post with kindness.

Tell me. What’s your word of the year for 2020?

Barbara Geraghty
Light Bearer. I felt the same resistance and for similar reasons--this word really revealed where I lack power and even self-esteem. I decided to look at it as aspirational and it has already increased my mindfulness in everyday interactions.
Barbara Geraghty
Light Bearer. I felt the same resistance and for similar reasons--this word really revealed where I lack power and even self-esteem. I decided to look at it as aspirational and it has already increased my mindfulness in everyday interactions.
Victoria Reinheimer
My word is thrive. The year started badly--between a fight to replace a refrigerator, being sick, and a break in that's led to felony charges--but I'm trying to take more time to be intentional and thrive where I am, even if that's an ever changing place.
Edith Andersen
Serve
Tammy Lewis
My word for 2020 is "Today". Today is the day to stand up and do something for another person. Today is the day to call a lonely lady. Today is the day to pray. Today is the day to give. Today is the day to take a hand and help someone else. Forget yesterday, it is over. Tomorrow's ground is too uncertain for plans. Today is the day. I want to be kind, gentle, graceful, helpful, loving, patient, strong, and more...TODAY!
Tammy Lewis
My word for 2020 is "Today". Today is the day to stand up and do something for another person. Today is the day to call a lonely lady. Today is the day to pray. Today is the day to give. Today is the day to take a hand and help someone else. Forget yesterday, it is over. Tomorrow's ground is too uncertain for plans. Today is the day. I want to be kind, gentle, graceful, helpful, loving, patient, strong, and more...TODAY!
Tammy Lewis
My word for 2020 is "Today". Today is the day to stand up and do something for another person. Today is the day to call a lonely lady. Today is the day to pray. Today is the day to give. Today is the day to take a hand and help someone else. Forget yesterday, it is over. Tomorrow's ground is too uncertain for plans. Today is the day. I want to be kind, gentle, graceful, helpful, loving, patient, strong, and more...TODAY!
Faith Fullness
I will share my life experiences. My single word is "patience".
Faith Fullness
I will share my life experiences. My single word is "patience".
Hrafnkell Tryggvason
Your idea is very good to put your thoughts and feelings into one word as SHINE. It is a good way to summerise them into one goal and the mission will be clear for you. I'm thinking a lot about poverty and how to educate them out of it. My word has been for the past years that one. But the new one is "Super-optimistic." There is no plan B in plan A.
Hrafnkell Tryggvason
Your idea is very good to put your thoughts and feelings into one word as SHINE. It is a good way to summerise them into one goal and the mission will be clear for you. I'm thinking a lot about poverty and how to educate them out of it. My word has been for the past years that one. But the new one is "Super-optimistic." There is no plan B in plan A.
Doris Snipp
May all women one day step out into their town streets, stretch out their arms as a symbol of all joining hands together to lift one another up. My word this year is aware. I want to look around and be aware of the lonely, those needing a hand, doing something for someone less able to do the task. Put my neighbors trash can to the curb and bring it back. Over tip a tired women. Smile at every woman. Volunteer on several of my off days.
Doris Snipp
God put you in a position to make the world a better place. He doesn’t want you hiding your light under a bushel. You have the power and compassion to make lives better. To empower women and lift them up you need to step out in empowerment. Your story sheds light to us of what other people endure. It encourages us to see people in a different light. Everytime a woman becomes empowered she will empower others. You can set the stage for all women
Doris Snipp
God put you in a position to make the world a better place. He doesn’t want you hiding your light under a bushel. You have the power and compassion to make lives better. To empower women and lift them up you need to step out in empowerment. Your story sheds light to us of what other people endure. It encourages us to see people in a different light. Everytime a woman becomes empowered she will empower others. You can set the stage for all women
Lourdes Mena-Szeimberg
Courage - I chose that word because I want to do things everyday that otherwise I fear for the sake of what others will think. Fear of the unknown and being comfortable has kept my life in a safe place and in order for me to move forward - I need to lead with courage.
Lourdes Mena-Szeimberg
Courage - I chose that word because I want to do things everyday that otherwise I fear for the sake of what others will think. Fear of the unknown and being comfortable has kept my life in a safe place and in order for me to move forward - I need to lead with courage.
Romanie Gunness
Authenticity...representing my passion and purpose clearly, honestly and proudly and pursuing service with Rotary International in a deep and meaningful way.
Romanie Gunness
Authenticity...representing my passion and purpose clearly, honestly and proudly and pursuing service with Rotary International in a deep and meaningful way.
Patricia Newswander
Forward is my word for 2020. ’A candle loses nothing by lightning another candle’ was what I kept on my desk through my years of teaching in public education.
Patricia Newswander
Forward is my word for 2020. ’A candle loses nothing by lightning another candle’ was what I kept on my desk through my years of teaching in public education.
Ernesto Izquierdo
- Possibility - I'm leaving my current job at the ICRC to take a year off and travel in Asia and Latin America. I'm a long time volunteer with Gapminder, and a 100% possibilist. Last night I had a dream: to connect leaders and their advisers through experiential sessions. Just finished reading Factfulness, and today 'the Moment of Lift' > Possibility is in the air. I'll find a way to multiply our efforts with our join networks. Un abrazo!
Denise Pottinger
My word of the year is "Self". Taking care of oneself, not being selfish to others. As a Caribbean American woman my family is my first priority, and that is a cultural tradition that is ingrained. So we tend to give our all at the expense of ourselves. So starting on September first of last year I've adopted the motto of "Selfish Denise. Exercising, dieting and meditating.