Harnessing Your Power "Be the Storm:” A Look at What Power Means at Every Age The Power Issue
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"Be the Storm": A Look at What Power Means at Every Age

"I used to think it was all about control—it’s actually all about freedom."

Growing up, I believed adulthood would offer this I made it moment. Hollywood had conditioned me to believe these moments—Elle Woods at Harvard graduation and Andy Sachs with a glowing letter of recommendation from Miranda Priestly—were the norm. If you worked hard and believed in yourself, the power would follow. 

Those movies rarely taught us about personal and systemic obstacles, as well as what happens after the credits roll. Likely, you don’t get to sit on top of the mountain feeling powerful for all that long. Instead, the marker is moved a little farther ahead each time—either by society or your own expectations. There’s no such thing as "making it," because power and success means something different for every person, at every stage in their lives.

To better understand power throughout our collective existence, I asked women of all different ages—from 26 to 90—what power means to them, and how that definition has changed over time. And while the specifics of their answers varied depending on their circumstances, one constant remained: Power means freedom. Ahead, read their honest thoughts.

In your 20s...

women at every age

Getty Images/Unsplash/Design by Cristina Cianci

Addison, 28

What does power mean to you?

Power means trusting your contributions and worth. In the past, I struggled massively with confidence and trusting my own knowledge. Now, as I've grown in both my career and personal relationships, I've started to trust myself, realizing the value of my contributions and appreciating my self-worth. I still struggle almost daily with this, but I try to remind myself there are people out there doing the work I want to be doing because they trust they can.

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

Right now. Finally, I feel more confident in myself in all things, whether that's related to my outward or inward self.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Be grateful that some mean-spirited boy told you your pores were huge in eighth grade. It will lead you on a skincare journey that will ultimately become a career that you absolutely love.

Marisa, 26

What does power mean to you?

When I was younger, I looked up to people who appeared to have everything together—particularly in their careers. I thought that was the pinnacle of success and power. The way I view power now, however, is a little different. The ability to take control of your life, and make choices and decisions that ultimately make you happy, is true power.

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

Moving to New York City after college was the most empowering decision I've ever made for myself. I was chose to move to a brand-new place—where I didn't know anyone—to focus on my career. I could have made "safer'" choices, but living in New York made me feel like I had the power to steer my own life.  

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don't make decisions based on what other people think. The beauty in life is all in the journey. There is no right or wrong path to success. Do what truly makes you happy!

Taylor, 27

What does power mean to you?

Power to me [is self-sufficiency]. If a romantic partner, friend, or job is no longer serving me, I am free to leave because I know my skills, my personality, and my worth will be recognized elsewhere. And if nothing else, I recognize it in myself.

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

After I got out of a toxic "situationship" with my ex, I realized I not only felt okay, I felt better. Then, I felt strong enough to stand up for what I needed and wanted at work, and I got it. That started a whole new chapter.

What advice would you give your younger self?

You are worthy of love and you will find people who understand and nurture you, both personally and in your career. You will always make it out on the other side a stronger person, even if the other side takes longer to get to.

In your 30s...

women at every age

Stocksy/Design by Cristina Cianci

Ji, 35

What does power mean to you?

Power is vulnerability—the ability to sit with what can't be controlled. It's remaining truthful about what is. When I was younger, I thought power equated to external control, having the ability to make decisions that would have impact, etc. And while those things still ring true in certain circumstances, I've come to realize that the real power lies in my vulnerability. 

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

In my career when I felt like I truly could influence the output. I started coming into that in my early 30s.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Listen and work on growing your emotional intelligence. That will be far more useful than any course you take or books you read.

Charli, 34

What does power mean to you?

Power means speaking up for yourself and reinforcing your boundaries—even when it's uncomfortable to do so. Prioritizing your mental, physical, and emotional health. These are powers I didn't know were possible growing up in an emotionally abusive household. Now that I'm a mother, I have the power to make different choices for myself and my children. I've never felt more free or in control of my life.

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

The pandemic has made me feel powerful, as I've been able to make choices based on what is best for me and my family. I should prioritize myself [and the needs of my family] even after life returns to "normal."

What advice would you give your younger self?

You are safe, you are loved, and you are not too sensitive. What others think of as your "sensitivity" is your intuition telling you something doesn't feel good and isn't right—listen to it.

Jackie, 36

What does power mean to you?

The word power means having the ability to make my own decisions and guide my own path. While I used to think it was all about control, it’s actually all about freedom.

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

With knowledge comes power. The more experience I gain, the more confident I am. With that confidence comes the ability to lead my life in the way that I want.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Work hard while you’re young. When you have nothing holding you back, take the time to get as far ahead as you can. The long-term benefits will be amazing and you won’t believe what you’ll achieve if you put the work in early.

In your 40s...

women at every age

Getty Images/Design by Cristina Cianci

Amanda, 45

What does power mean to you?

Today, I believe power means staying true to yourself. It’s powerful to speak up for yourself, for others, and for causes you believe in. Confidence is power. I used to believe the strongest, loudest people were the most powerful, or those with the most money. While money and top positions do have power, [it's not everything].

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

I felt invincible in my 20s, weak in my 30s, and today, at 45, I know my worth and that feels powerful. I’m no longer afraid to ask for a raise, ask for help both in my professional and personal life, and I am able to communicate my emotional needs.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Meditate, move, and be thoughtful when speaking up. There is power in staying quiet, observing, and letting the small stuff go.

J, 49

What does power mean to you?

Power to me means financial independence—the ability to shape your life and devote your energy to what you love to do and the issues you care about. For most of my professional life, I was thinking about power from an institutional perspective—titles and career advancement. I know now that type of power is confining in some ways and not liberating.

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

I felt the most powerful earlier in my career, as I had the most options.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Save and invest more, and more importantly, do not panic sell during economic downturns. Compounding is your friend. Buy real estate for investment. Make family planning and maternal health a priority.

In your 50s...

Women at every age

Stocksy/Design by Cristina Cianci

Susan, 56

What does power mean to you?

Power means owning who you are. Accepting who you are. Being open to learning, not as a means to an end, but as a lifelong, ever-changing path—that is power. 

I am and have always been a super sensitive person. When I was younger that felt like a detriment and a weakness. Now, I know sensitivity is really a wonderful attribute. I love that I have strong feelings and appreciate the smallest pleasures, that I cry and get angry and feel. I can be empathetic and relate, in some way, to everyone I meet. I love that I can be touched by someone’s pain and joy. 

I love the fact that sometimes I need to be self-centered and that’s okay, too. It’s cliché, but the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Power is wisdom, and wisdom comes from experience and time. Living through life’s challenges including death, divorce, economic challenges, parenting, and more gives you a feeling of confidence and power. Knowing that you can get through these life challenges and learn from them and help and support others, that is power.

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

When I was pregnant with my first child, my son. I was 31 years-old, and I found out my husband was having an affair that started at the beginning of my pregnancy. It was one of the most devastating and soul-crushing experiences I have ever had. Everything I thought I knew was wrong and I was bewildered and angry. So very angry; the angriest I have ever been. Yet, through all of this devastation I had a true sense of power. I was carrying this child. I was responsible for keeping this baby healthy and safe. I was so grateful that I was able to create and nurture life. It was actually a beautiful time and I bonded so strongly with my unborn son. And I knew there was something to be learned.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Enjoy the ride. Every stage of life has something wonderful to offer. Know that things will always get better, and then worse again, and then it will repeat over and over. Sometimes really bad things will happen and that is okay. You can find an opportunity in every misfortune you have. Practice gratitude daily. There is always something to be grateful for. Focus on others and try not to be so self-centered. Accept and own who you are, because you are beautiful and kind and smart and caring.

In your 60s...

women at every age

Unsplash/Design by Cristina Cianci

Karry, 60

What does power mean to you?

Power's definition has not changed, but how I've exerted it has changed. My favorite definition of power is "the ability to do something or to influence the behavior of self and others.” This definition is about having the ability and influence to make something happen; it doesn’t have judgement nor does it dictate how to wield power. When I was younger, I thought of power as “telling” people what to do and expecting them to do it how I wanted it done. Over the years, I’ve realized that there are subtle and thus more “powerful” ways to wield power. For example, being a role model, listening, empowering others to do it their way, and guiding others to see their own power. The results are so much greater and it brings power back to you. I also see more power in myself and realize that I’m the only one who can change me and you are the only one who can change you.

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

I’m more aware of my power now so I feel more powerful at my current stage in life because I’ve gained experience and wisdom. In particular, I’m more interested and focused in my ability to influence my own thoughts and behavior.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Let power come to you from within versus forcing it or needing external authority. You have it, you just need to see it in yourself and then use it wisely.

In your 70s...

women at every age

Stocksy/Design by Cristina Cianci

Patti, 75

What does power mean to you?

Defining power is like defining love—I can only tell you my recipe, not my definition. It's a magical mixture of fierce determination and seeing obstacles only as surmountable annoyances; it's knowing what you believe in, and being willing to work tirelessly to make it real.  It's choosing the options that make the most sense—not the easy ones. It's having a Plan A, and a Plan B, and sometimes even a Plan C, but also knowing when to throw out the plan and to instead fly by the seat of your pants. It's trusting your own gut and loving independence. It's kindness and compassion in action. It also comes from working to know yourself, to like yourself, and to realize our worst moments and craziest mistakes do not define us. For me, having power means I am in a position to make good things happen—in my own life and in helping to make the world a better place. When I think about the people I think of as powerful, I think of those that work to defeat poverty and racism and suffering. I think of Bill and Melinda Gates, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Warren Buffett, and those who have given their lives and intellect and resources to make the world a better place for everyone.

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

Even though my own power is not something I ever thought about having or not having, I know that I have always felt it. In retrospect, I see that even as a young child, I had the ability to “problem solve.” It’s that “I-can-fix-anything-attitude” that gives you the confidence and strength to accept a challenge and move on through. I have also always been able to see it in others—it’s knowing the difference between a powerful person and a bully. Don’t let the bully fool you. In my career, especially, I learned never to allow someone who is wealthier, more credentialed, or more celebrated to intimidate me—when you are at the table with someone more accomplished, you have to remember your vision, your commitment, and your goal.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Do the work. Do the research. Put in the hours. Sweat, if you have to. Don’t be afraid, unless your gut tells you to be afraid. Plan your life so that you will always be able to take care of yourself. Know how to give and know how to receive—too many of us are only good at one of those two imperatives. My favorite quote:  

They whispered to her, ‘You cannot withstand the storm.” 

She whispered back: “I am the storm.”  

Be the storm.

In your 80s...

women at every age

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Zelda, 83

What does power mean to you?

When I think of power, I equate it to strength and confidence. Those two things, I think, you get with age and experience. I didn't have too much confidence in myself as a young girl, but as I grew older and entered the workforce, chaired committees, and became President of several groups and organizations, I found that feeling powerful and confident became easier. The young girl who was fearful of speaking in front of people was able to do it with ease.

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

If I had to pick a time in my life in which I felt the most powerful or had to dig down to find that extra strength or confidence, it would be in 2005 when I was 67 years old. I had to face major surgery having a hip replacement, followed by a double knee replacement three and a half months later. 

Inside, I was extremely frightened, but I was determined to come through it with strength and confidence. I am proud to say I accomplished that when, two and a half months after surgery, I played 18 holes of golf and won a tournament that week. I also think having a successful, loving marriage of 63 years and counting, and raising three successful children has given me the most joy in my life and greatly added to my ability to feel powerful and confident.

What advice would you give your younger self?

If I had to give advice to my younger self, it would be to worry less. If you always try to make good life choices as you grow up, things will fall into place. They did for me.

In your 90s...

women at every age

Unsplash/Design by Cristina Cianci

Theresa, 90

What stage in your life have you felt most powerful?

Yes, the time I was fresh out of school at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, beginning my 60+ year career in design at a company called Simplicity. I was young and ready to face the world! It's not always easy, but hard work and determination always ends with great rewards.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I don't think I'd give my younger self any other advice or do anything differently. Career wise, I've always wanted to be an artist since childhood and I made it happen for myself.

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