Big Ideas

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

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

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.