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Hear that? It’s your superpower calling

February 24, 2016

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

In their Annual Letter, Bill and Melinda write that time and energy are critical resources—superpowers—that people need to reach their full potential. I would add a superpower that we as philanthropists and policymakers need to make change: the ability to listen.

Many of you know that co-creation, consensus and community-driven solutions are among my fundamental values. They all start with listening.

Let me show you what I mean.

There’s a woman who’s graduating from college, likely with honors, this June. She’s happily married with three children, and serves as the secretary of the PTA. She’s getting a medical assistant certificate and a degree in applied science, and she already has an externship lined up.

Sounds like someone who has it all.

There’s a woman who grew up with an alcoholic father, started running away at 13, left her parents’ house for good when she was 16 and pregnant, and then spent some time in juvenile hall. Her teachers and the court system told her she was a bad kid, and that if she failed it was her own fault.

Sounds like someone who isn’t going to make it.

You’ve probably guessed that it’s the same woman. Her name is Lindsey, she’s from Tukwila and is finishing up at Highline College at the age of 31.

Some readers may be saying to themselves, it’s too bad the Lindsey didn’t have the common sense to listen to what’s right and wrong.  Maybe she could have made better choices and avoided her pain.

Other readers may be saying to themselves, if all of us just listened more closely to Lindsey, perhaps we could have created community and government solutions that worked better.  Maybe Lindsey would not have suffered through the second story at all.

Lindsey’s parents were never involved in school, so she never though it was important. None of her teachers or counselors took an interest, and by the time she was in high school she had completely disengaged. “I had a tough exterior,” she said, “nobody was going to tell me anything and I knew what was best for me.”

When she was 19 she realized that she couldn’t tell her kids to go to school if she hadn’t finished herself. So she got her GED—in just two weeks. “I felt like I wasn’t going to pass because I was such a failure in school,” she said. “I guess I’m smarter than I thought I was.”

Towards the end of her third pregnancy she was unable to work a full 40 hour week. Even though she had been working at the same place for 10 years, they denied her maternity leave. “I’m never working in retail again,” she decided. So she went to college, and with her husband’s support, she made it through while juggling three kids and being active in their schools.

Her oldest son is 13 now, he’s doing well in school and he wants to go to Washington State University.

Lindsey’s superpowers are clear from her story—strength, determination, the willingness to change and to never give up. Resiliency seems to appear in certain people and they find a way to thrive against all odds—somehow pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.  But, if you take the time to listen and learn, there is another story that we can write.

Imagine if the community and government systems were designed to prevent Lindsey from falling through the cracks as she grew up.  Imagine if her personal superpowers were reinforced by family, teachers, counselors, judges and systems all working together to seal the cracks so that people not only don’t fall through but bounce back faster and stronger than ever.

Lindsey herself understands the politics, the systems and the institutionalized barriers, but when asked what advice she has for people like herself, she answers on a personal level. “Find somebody that you can talk to,” she says. “There’s always somebody that’s willing to listen if you can find them.”

That requires a superpower in short supply: deep listening. User-centered design, already a mainstay of tech and gadget makers, can be applied to community and government system design—if we listen carefully. Intentional designers listen and observe and test their inventions with the people that actually use them.  They listen and engage users in understanding the challenge and designing the solution.

We often work at a macro level, on systems, institutions and large-scale advocacy, but the simple truth is that all of these systems are designed by people, so they should be designed for people. Lindsey shouldn’t have to work the system, the system should work for her.

But first we have to listen.

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