To make great progress,
Find goals bigger than yourself
When I first met Gayle Williams-Byers in the early ‘90s I was impressed by her determination. At the time, she had begun a coveted internship in the White House. She was supposed to be writing a paper about her learning experience as an intern, for 12 hours of academic credit from Case Western Reserve University, where she was a junior.
Gayle’s problem was that the only work she was given at the White House was making photocopies. She needed those credit hours, but didn’t feel she would be able to claim them because she wasn’t learning anything.
Gayle found her way to my Washington office through an acquaintance. She requested a few minutes of my time, then pretty much announced that she’d be transferring her internship to my team. She said that she’d do anything, that she’d make it worth my while to take her on, but that she needed a challenge and she absolutely had to learn something.
Today both of Gayle’s parents have PhDs, but when she was growing up no one in her family had attended college. And as one of her family’s three first-generation college students, Gayle was anxious to learn as much as possible. She regarded the semester in Washington as the opportunity of a lifetime, important not just to her but to her family and community as well. She wanted a full experience, even if it meant walking away from the White House and inventing something new.
Gayle returned to my office after graduation and kept working for the company while completing a joint JD/MBA program. Then, during her last years in DC, she was counsel to a Senate Committee. Along the way she encountered many challenges, from racism to breast cancer, but I never doubted her ultimate success. I knew she just wouldn’t quit hustling to develop her potential because it meant so much to her supporters.
During a 2011 Kwanzaa celebration, a community group in the Cleveland suburb of South Euclid gave Gayle a “Kujichagulia” award to honor her self-determination. That was just one of the celebrations that followed her election, at age 37, as South Euclid’s first African American municipal court judge.
I agree with Gayle’s neighbors that she is a model of self-determination, and I’m so proud of her. She has always kept pushing toward her goals, even when life seems to have stacked the odds against her. A low point came two years ago, when she was going door-to-door, talking about her plan to bring change to the South Euclid Municipal Court system.
At the first house on a long street, an angry man refused to listen to her pitch. He jabbed her with his finger saying, “We don’t want to hear it. We’ve already made up our minds. You got no chance kid.”
Gayle was tired. She looked down the row of about 30 houses and thought, “I don’t think I can do this again.”
Her race was a long shot and she almost gave up. I asked her why she didn’t. She said, “that’s what self-determination is. You dig really deep when you don’t want to, and you decide to take one more step.”
Gayle shares her parents’ belief that, no matter how humble your beginning, you can become just about anything you want. She says, “If you can imagine it, you can do it.” The most important thing to know is that “it’s easier to keep going when you have a goal that’s bigger than yourself.”
For her judicial race, Gayle developed a comprehensive plan for the court, and when she felt discouraged she tried to stay focused on what the change could mean for her community. I’ve often seen the same thing with my clients. Having a vision about something important makes you feel powerful and energetic, while personal ambition alone might just make you anxious.
Here are more tips on building self-determination:
- Define big goals. Look for ways that you can make a contribution or create change for the broader group, and not just you. Identify a mission – for your team, family or community — that will get your juices flowing. If you feel like you’re too busy to worry about a bigger mission, ask yourself why it matters. Are you working for your family? Because you believe in what you’re doing? You’re more likely to persevere when you realize that more than your own ego is at stake.
- Control what you can control and work to accept the rest. When Gayle had cancer during law school, she faced challenges that she couldn’t change. But she focused her energy on studying hard and taking care of herself. She says she couldn’t control the fact of having cancer, but she could control how she spent her time.
- Find mentors and role models. Gayle deeply respects her parents and continues to learn from them. And she also hasn’t been shy about recruiting other mentors. It is easier to keep going in the tough times if you’ve built yourself a cheering squad. And if you know how to ask for help.
- Build discipline. Identify steps you’d take toward your goal if you did in fact have the necessary discipline. To get to the meeting in plenty of time on the morning of the big pitch would you turn off the TV and go to bed earlier? Once you have a vivid picture of what you’d do if only you had discipline, start acting like that. Each time you decide to act like that you’ll be exercising and building your self-control muscles.
- Laugh at yourself. There’s a danger that self-determination can morph into arrogance or self-righteousness. A good way to avoid that is to keep your sense of humor, including when it comes to your own failures and mistakes.
- Build your confidence. An element of self-determination is confidence. One way to get there is by defining and achieving a series of small goals. Each time you reach one little target you’ll feel a bit stronger.
Municipal Judge Gayle Williams-Byers (right) having breakfast at Buckeye Farm with her sister and campaign coordinator, Shawn Williams Jones.