I recently had the opportunity to give my first TEDxYouth talk. I hope that it wasn’t my last. I want a do-over. No, I wasn’t totally terrible. However, I tripped over my words enough that I totally felt like I was terrible. And, considering my company’s empowering mission statement and our Superpower messaging, my misguided feelings of failure are somewhat ironic. However, that is only the beginning; the tip of the irony iceberg. For, irony, as it turns out, was the theme of the day.
The Invitation Irony
It is kind of ironic that the first school to invite me to talk about powerful female action figures was...a school for boys. However, the invitation was actually only tinged with irony. For, while I would love to be invited to speak at schools for girls - and coed schools, too, for that matter! - I am the mom of two boys, and I have been a parent at the school for a very long time. Furthermore, I am happy to report that the absence of girls does not mean that there is an absence of an appreciation for, and understanding of gender equality in all its forms. These boys know what’s what. And, some of them, know what I do for a living. As a result, since this year’s theme was “Play to Inspire,” the TEDxYouth team invited me to speak about the power of play.
The boys did a beautiful job organizing the event. And I am grateful to the group for the invitation, their positive response to my story, and my request that they pick a power and pose with our IAmElemental shields.
The Inspiration Irony
The real irony is that, unbeknownst to the TEDxYouth team when they extended the invitation, one of the main ingredients that went into the stew that became IAmElemental female action figures was actually stirred into the pot in the same school gym. Back in October of 2012, I sat listening to the school’s guest speaker Jo Ann Deak lecture on brain development and boys. She told us that “boys and girls are as different from the neck up as they are from the neck down…it’s a scientific fact,” and I fell asleep that night wondering what I would have to do to a Superhero to make her appeal to the “female brain.” I woke the next morning with the answer: “It’s not Superheroes. It’s Superpowers.” Twenty-four hours later, I had a fully-formed company mission and the start of a very big idea.
So...ironically...a lecture about brain development and boys - a lecture that I attended at an all boys school - led to the creation of a company whose purpose is to celebrate the power of girls.
The Customer Response Irony
However, while Jo Ann Deak’s description of a gender-specific female brain may have led to the birth of IAmElemental, my IAmElemental experience has, ironically, made me question my belief in the certainty of her assertion.
Whenever I go to events to promote my business, I bring life-size IAmElemental shields with me, and I ask everyone - girl, boy, man, woman - to pick their power. Over time, I realized that something unexpected was happening. In large numbers, women were choosing the active, “strong” Superpowers like Bravery and Energy, while the men kept picking the “softer” Superpowers like Honesty and Persistence; despite the fact that studies show that words like Bravery and Energy are considered masculine words, while Honesty and Persistence are feminine words.
The difference, however, is that we are not asking people to tell us whether women are Brave or men are Honest. We are asking them to think about their own powers. Free from the limitations created by gender stereotypes, people are able to choose exactly who they want to be. And, really, despite what advertising and media - and toy companies - want people to believe, words like Bravery and Honesty don’t have a gender. So why not stop disseminating the message that they do?
This is at the heart of what my company is trying to change. And, thankfully, we aren’t alone. For example, a year after our launch, Mattel partnered with DC Entertainment and introduced their own line of female action figures for girls. Suddenly, we were at the forefront of a cultural zeitgeist. For them, it was smart business. For us, it was real progress. Or so we thought.
The Toy Industry Irony
Ironically, despite all the girl power/gender equality talk, many in the toy industry are still playing catch up with society’s shifting ideas about play and gender. One of the most powerful executives in the toy industry looked at my products and told me, “You have to dumb it down; girls aren’t going to be able to understand these concepts.” And, “You should really spend some time watching how girls play.“
Lots of girls love to play with dolls and princesses. However, just because a girl loves to play with dolls and princesses doesn’t mean that she wouldn’t also enjoy playing with action figures.
Play is powerful. The toys that girls play with impact the stories that they tell. The storyline that’s implied when a girl plays with dolls dressed as princesses is very different from the story that naturally unfolds when you have two figures that are dressed like knights, for example.
Same with boys.
After I gave some Courage figures to two brothers, their mother told me it was a revelation to hear them playing with female action figures. It hadn’t occurred to her until they started incorporating the IAmElemental figures into their typical play patterns that she had never before heard them say, “She’s coming to save you.” “Here she comes to save the day.”It’s a subtle but important distinction. It doesn’t change their play, but it does have the power to change their thinking.
Ironically, my disappointment with my TEDxYouth talk performance is a perfect example of just how much power our early childhood experiences have to influence the adults we become.
The Ultimate Irony
When I pick my own power, I never pick Bravery. I don’t consider it one of my Superpowers. I also never pick Fear. For, despite the fact that I have spent the past four years arguing in favor of Fear as a Superpower - constantly explaining the important role that Fear plays in warning us of danger - I have never quite mastered the Superpower, myself. And, that struggle was on full display the day of the TEDxYouth talk. I was scared. Really scared. As a result, I wasn’t as confident and error-free as I would have liked. I was not perfect.
In the IAmElemental universe, we’ve replaced “Practice Makes Perfect” with “Practice Makes Progress.” And we preach strongly against the practice of perfection. But, after my mother’s death to breast cancer when I was eight years old, I became a poster-child control freak. I was afraid of making mistakes. I was afraid of failure. And I was afraid of being pitied for being motherless. As a result, I fell victim to what behavior experts call the “perfection problem”; that elusive struggle between being one’s authentic self, while also trying to always appear...perfect.
Well, the joke’s on me, because my life has now become one big, imperfect mess. Thanks to the magic of entrepreneurship, I make mistakes and fail at something pretty much every day. I feel Fear more acutely than I ever have before. And, whenever I don’t perform perfectly - like at a TEDxYouth talk - I beat myself up about it...while I pretend that I’m not.
Unfortunately, I am not alone. We live in a world where private lives have become public spectacle. As a result, many of us have adopted the old-fashioned Superhero trope of creating false alter egos. But, unlike Clark Kent or Diana Prince, we don’t do it to hide the fact that we are Superheroes. Quite the opposite; we do it to mask our insecurities. The problem, is that these false faces also block access to our Superpowers.
One of the nuances of IAmElemental’s Superpower message; the secret sauce that differentiates us from traditional Superhero mythology, is the fact that The Elements of Power aren’t bestowed upon us from an outside force like a spider bite, or a poison, or a Greek god for a father. Rather, strength and power is attainable because it resides within.
I constantly tell my children, “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” Because, while I don't always like some of the choices I've made in my life, I like that I have never made choices based on what anyone else was doing, or what anyone else thought I should do. Every decision, right or wrong, has been mine. I have created my own life.
I want every child to feel that power - the power to use their internal resources - to create their own origin story; to succeed (and fail) on their own terms. However, after bearing witness to my post-TEDxYouth talk self-flagellation, I have come to understand that what I really should be telling my kids, telling myself, and telling every person in the IAmElemental universe is this: Don’t create an outside that doesn’t match your inside.One of our taglines is, “real heroes walk among us.” Ironically, it took a TEDxYouth talk and the Superpower Fear to stop me in my tracks and teach me that the most important word in that sentence isn’t hero...it’s real. For, it is only by truly accepting and embracing our authentic selves - flaws and all - that we can access our best selves, and be our own Superhero.