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Before I Could Change the World, I Had to Change Myself

I only think about power when I don’t have it.

The first time I gave it any thought I was in my midteens, around 14 or 15, and living in rural Arizona. Until a couple of years before, I had been home-schooled by my mother. But when she returned to the work force, I was unable to attend public school and had to find a job of my own.

Poor, uneducated and frustrated, I daydreamed about what I would do if I had power, if the world could be bent and shaped at my command.

In most of my daydreams, I imagined that I was just like other kids my age. I wanted to go to school and do homework and learn new things. I wanted to have nice, stylish clothes. I wanted to meet new people and have a boyfriend.

When I dreamed of the future, I dreamed of getting an education. In my wildest fantasies, I was a student at Yale or Harvard or Oxford. I dreamed that I no longer lived in poverty and didn’t have to work as a nanny. Instead I spent my days inventing and designing miraculous things, things that the world had never seen before.

My reveries never involved controlling anyone else. Power for me was always power over myself — the ability to pursue my passions wherever they led, to control my life and its direction. As my teenage years progressed without a high school education, I learned that this power was something I was going to have to fight for.

When I decided to apply to college, I had to fight hard for people to take me seriously. I knew I looked silly with my “Susan Fowler’s Home School” transcript, in which I listed all the things I had read and learned on my own. But I didn’t care. And eventually people did take me seriously: I was accepted at Arizona State University and enrolled there as a philosophy student at age 18.

Once at Arizona State, I grew interested in the sciences. But, because I lacked a normal high school science background, I wasn’t allowed to take introductory math and physics courses. So I transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. Even there my interest in physics ran up against some fierce resistance, and I had to take my fight all the way to Penn’s president before I was allowed to study what I wanted. A few years later, I graduated with a degree in physics.

Still, my fight for personal power wasn’t over.

Several years later, while working as a software engineer at Uber, I was bullied, harassed and discriminated against (an experience that I would soon document in a blog post, “Reflecting On One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber”), and I watched as my co-workers experienced similar mistreatment.

I was furious about this, and that frustration began to seep into other areas of my life. I was so used to being verbally attacked at work that I became defensive when talking to my friends and family. I was so used to being told that what was happening to me wasn’t real that I became deeply afraid that nobody would believe anything I said. My job, my career and my sense of self-worth seemed tied to the whims of a handful of middle managers and company executives who didn’t understand the gravity of their actions.

Every morning when I looked in the mirror, I saw a bitter young woman: angry, defensive and afraid. I noticed myself exhibiting some of the worst traits of my abusers. Somehow, in accepting their power over me, I started to create a new version of myself — one created in their image.

Desperately grasping for some semblance of control over my life, I did what I’d learned to do over the years: I turned inward and poured what I found out onto the page. Inspired by Benjamin Franklin, who methodically tracked his own development of 13 virtues (including sincerity, justice and humility), I sat down every day and asked myself if I had been good, if I had been truthful, if I had been kind, if I had been compassionate. I fell short almost every time.

But something remarkable happened during those moments of self-reflection. Each time I held myself accountable for being compassionate, or slow to anger, or more generous, I managed to take a small part of myself out of the hands of others and put it back under my control.

I learned then that even when I felt powerless to control my job or education — or anything else that seemed out of my hands — I always had control over my own mind and how I treated others. Even when I had nothing else, I could still be kind, just, generous, honest, loving and compassionate.

Since then, I’ve found this to be the truest power. I know that the freedom and autonomy I have today is the result of years of very careful, deliberate work: work on myself, on the deepest parts of who I am; work on my character.

Every day, I spend a few minutes at my desk thinking about who I am and how I want to improve. I think about the mistakes I’ve made and try hard to learn from them. I think of the things I’ve done well and try to find ways to do them even better. I think of the person I want to be — a good writer, a good mother, a good wife, a better friend — and how I can work hard to become that person.

Every standard that I hold myself to is a standard of my own making, one that is fully under my control. My self-worth doesn’t depend on anyone else. Even if the world were to fall apart today, my sense of who I am and my place in this world wouldn’t be destroyed.

These days, power rarely crosses my mind.

Susan Fowler is an editor in the Op-Ed section of The New York Times and the author of the forthcoming memoir Whistleblower.

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