Hello and welcome back to Amy Writes Words. It’s been a minute; I’m working on not making excuses for myself and I have been recently bingeing Adele’s new album, so I’ll just say “I don’t have to explain myself to you/I’m a grown woman and I do what I want to do.” I think she was talking about a torrid romance and actually I’m talking about a sick cat, but whatevs.
Today I want to talk about impact.
I've written before about the challenges of measuring our impact in the world:
I trust that when I send words into the world they will move the world. I can’t measure that movement. I see maybe a tiny piece of it, a sliver of analytics. Sometimes years later something I wrote will come back to me and I will catch a glimpse of the part of the iceberg that is submerged, everything that can’t be measured not only because it is hidden but because it is made out of things that are immeasurable. Love. Doubt. Trust. Change. Hope. Solidarity.
Today I want to tell you about three different times in my life when I caught a glimpse of the ways in which my words have moved the world. Three times I did a thing and it went out into the world and then, by coincidence or luck or fate I found out later about some part of the impact that it had.
I will start first with the most recent and least mysterious of these: I gave a talk in April of 2019, at a small 1-day tech conference called GetConf, which took place in Omaha, Nebraska. I spoke about my experience with bipolar disorder and what I’d learned through that experience about the value of being able to show up authentically to work.1 I also spoke about one of the systems of oppression that militate against our truly being able to show up authentically to work -- about patriarchy.2
At that time, in April 2019, to stand up at a tech conference and say the word patriarchy was actually scarier than talking about my mental illness. I had been talking about my mental illness for a while already, but in part because of that, I didn’t talk much about anything else that might be perceived as Difficult. I spent much of my career making an uneasy peace with the sexism that I experienced as a software engineer — ignoring it or dismissing it or diminishing it or complaining privately about it. But I didn’t feel I had enough power or security, as a mentally ill woman, to mouth off about patriarchy, or basically anything else. I did my best to hire and support other women engineers, but I didn’t do a lot of speaking truth to power.
What changed for me in 2018 that enabled me to give this talk in 2019 is that I quit a job and then I went out and got a new job. I had stayed at that previous job for a long time; too long, really, because I believed myself to be damaged goods. Some of the worst years in my life were while I was at that job, and it was then that I began to be open with my coworkers about my mental illness, mostly because it became impossible to hide. But because of that, I believed I might never get another job in tech after that one, and that belief caused me to hang on to the job longer than I should have, and to be careful not to pile “Nasty Woman” on top of “Crazy Lady”.
So this talk was a real watershed moment for me. I was genuinely afraid.
Still, it was a small 20 minute talk that I gave at a small conference in Omaha, a place I had not realized had anything of a tech industry presence at all, which is a whole other essay topic.
In retrospect, GetConf 2019 turned out to be one of the most important conferences I’ve attended. It remains one of the most well-run and inclusive conferences I’ve ever been to, and there were a number of interesting talks, including by Camille Eddy and Stefanie Monge, and meeting such an incredible and diverse group of women in tech, and then following them on Twitter, and then following people they followed — this set me on a path toward greater engagement with the politics of the tech industry, including more engagement not just about patriarchy but white supremacy and colonialism and other significant issues around harm.
For example, at that conference I saw Eva Penzey-Moog give a talk about designing for safety, particularly for the safety of folks who are experiencing intimate partner abuse. And that had a massive impact on the way I thought about our responsibilities as engineers in the world, to consider the harm that our work may cause, and to consider it from the position of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. She has a whole book now about this topic and you should definitely check it out.
That whole conference was an iceberg of impact with effects that continue to reverberate. And my own little talk was an iceberg too. Several people reached out to me immediately afterward to tell me how it had affected them. But also, all the talks that day were recorded and went up on YouTube after the conference. Several hundred people have watched it since it went up on YouTube, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but at least a few of those people have taken the time to tell me how important it was for them and if there’s one thing I know about icebergs it’s that they are all melting very fast — wait, wrong topic — if there’s one thing I know about putting words out into the world it’s that if you get any signal at all back from even one or two people that your words were useful to them, there’s at least a few more people who felt that way also but didn’t take the extra step to tell you.
On to the second iceberg. The further back in time I go the weirder this shit gets, so get ready.
In 2003 I took a mindfulness course at Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at UMass-Worcester. This was back before mindfulness was A Thing, and the class was mostly full of terminally ill people. (I talk about this experience in an issue of Woe if you’d like to hear more. Also why not subscribe to Woe?)
Anyway, there’s a Rumi poem that is commonly offered to new meditators, called “The Guest House”. I want to briefly call out here that when I say a “Rumi poem” what I mean is a poem that is based on something Rumi wrote but mediated through the man who popularized Rumi here in the US, Coleman Barks, who, it turned out, had, in his renderings of Rumi’s work (not even translations, mind you, because Coleman Barks could not actually translate), drained the Islam out. Rumi was a Sufi mystic, and very, very much grounded in Islam. So it’s important to acknowledge that context, which I didn’t know at the time I was handed a copy of “The Guest House” back in 2003. (I learned about it from a 2017 New Yorker article).
Anyway, this poem, “The Guest House”, in its Coleman Barks form, is handed out so frequently to new meditators because whatever its flaws as an accurate representation of Rumi, it is a very nice metaphor for allowing your thoughts and feelings to come hang out without getting too attached to them, this beautiful idea that in mindfulness you sit down and befriend your most upsetting emotions, invite them to your home and serve them tea.
I had a lot of upsetting emotions back then (and still do), and I absolutely hated the advice that I should befriend them. So I wrote a poem, which was a response to “The Guest House” and I was like, sure, fine, I will have a guest house, but I'm not gonna make it comfortable. So, you know, my shitty emotions can come in, but it's like, I’m gonna design this house the way inhumane cities design their subway stations, so that homeless people can’t rest in them.
I wanted to do something to my brain so that my shitty emotions didn't have a place to rest. So I wrote a poem about that, which you can go read or listen to over at Amy Writes Poems, and I brought the poem to class and I read it out loud there. And then my teacher asked if she could have a copy. So I gave a hard copy to her and she said, well, can I share it with my other meditation groups? And I said sure, okay, fine.
Anyway, 12 years later, in 2015, I received an email from a woman who worked at the National Health Service in Scotland requesting that I grant NHS-Scotland the right to use that poem in a meditation app that they were making.
And I was shocked. I hadn’t even remembered that I’d written that poem, and I no longer had a copy myself. I asked her, “Where did you even find this thing?” And she said, “Well, it’s all over the internet.” And lo and behold, somehow this poem had traveled far and wide and was up on all kinds of meditation centers’ websites, sometimes attributed to me, sometimes not, sometimes shortened or altered in some way. It was just everywhere and I was absolutely shocked.
And I was so grateful that this one woman had actually thought to request permission to use it and had tracked me down, which wasn’t easy because there are a lot of Amy Newells in the world and I myself hadn’t published the poem anywhere — she found one of my Twitter handles where the biography said I was a poet and she figured maybe I was the right Amy Newell. If she hadn’t, I might never have known about this particular iceberg of impact. I told you this was going to get weird. Clearly this poem had touched many people over many years and had spread without my knowledge and it was a real internet miracle that I happened to find out about it from this one very dedicated employee at the NHS Scotland.
This third thing is even weirder. It's so, so weird.
I've been reading a collection of Rebecca Solnit's essays from the years that Trump was in office. And one of the things that she talks about in one of the essays is how, when Trump came into office, there was so much despair, but also so many people who had previously been not so politically engaged, suddenly leapt into action and so, so many more women jumped into running for office in the wake of Trump's election.
And that was true in 2018, and it was true in 2020. And one of the women who was running for office in 2020 was a woman named Angela Mayfield. She was running for state rep in Georgia and she went viral because this local reporter thought that she ought to repudiate some of her tweets in which she had used '“foul language”. You know, she said fuck, she said pussy, she’s a grown woman who can do what she wants to do, and she speaks her truth on Twitter, as so many of us do. But this reporter really wanted to make an issue of that instead of asking her about anything substantive, and of course this conflict made her go viral, and women like me were very eager to follow and donate and support this foul-mouthed, sassy3, badass woman going up against some Republican Georgia state rep in a year everyone was paying a lot of attention to Georgia.
So I started following her.
One day she tweeted something about Sassy Magazine, which was basically the most amazing mass-distribution magazine for teen girls that ever existed. Everything Teen Vogue does now Sassy was doing 30 years ago. Sassy Magazine’s iceberg of impact is the size of Antarctica.
Anyways, when Angela mentioned Sassy Magazine I answered her back because Sassy fanatics are crazy and I have a mint-condition nearly-complete set of Sassy Magazines in a box in my basement, and I will never ever get rid of them.4
At this point, I dunno, some kind of out-of-body experience occurred. I said the thing about the magazines and Angela asked “Amy, are you from Florida?” And I say “I sure am” and then this unbelievable tweet thread ensues in which it turns out that Angela and I grew up in the same county in Florida, Brevard County, and when I was a senior in high school and Angela was in eighth grade, she read some writing of mine in our countywide school sponsored literary magazine. And the thing she read was so compelling to her that she credits it with having convinced her that instead of staying home and going to Brevard Community College and becoming a secretary at the Space Center, she should apply to school up north and see what else there was in the world and so I indirectly was part of shaping a path for her that eventually resulted in her running for political office.
And she could, 30 years later, quote lines from that piece. Verbatim.
So it is so unusual to find something out like this, right? It’s an internet miracle. But the lesson to be drawn from this is not that I’m especially important, or that the universe itself was somehow making sure that I met Angela and heard that feedback from her about how much impact I had had, but that the things that you put out into the world, your actions have an impact that you will never be able to completely see and that therefore you can never completely measure.
Or, as I put it at the time:
For every internet miracle where I actually learn from someone about how I’ve affected them, there is so much more that I will never ever learn about.
And so it is a measure of faith when you make something, say something, do something that that thing will have an impact. And you never know how large it will be or when it will happen or whether you'll ever hear about it, the way I ended up hearing about it from Angela.
So there you go: 3 icebergs, 2 internet miracles, and one mint-condition set of Sassy Magazines.
We are taught these days that if it can't be measured, it doesn't exist. We are taught that we must maximize our impact (and who wouldn’t want that, really?) but that we must do so in ways that can be measured. Because what does it mean to say that you've maximized your impact if you don’t have an accurate measure of that impact?
But, as I hope I’ve made clear by now, we cannot possibly have an accurate measure of our true impact because the world is a very complicated place.
Back to Rebecca Solnit. This is something she talks about A LOT, in that book of essays I just finished reading and in Hope in the Dark and basically all the rest of her work — many of the things I say about hope are inspired by Solnit’s words, so that this newsletter is itself, in part, made of a few beautiful crystals of Solnit’s own iceberg of impact. If you’re feeling hopeless or want to see some more examples of how all this stuff works out in real life I recommend you check her work out. For example, in her essay “Protest and Persist: Why Giving Up Hope is Not An Option,” from 2017, she writes: “Actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective, and remembering this is a reason to live by principle and act in the hope that what you do matters, even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious.” She also writes that “to be hopeful, we need not only to embrace uncertainty but also to be willing to know that the consequences may be immeasurable, may still be unfolding…”
It’s important to realize that Solnit doesn’t preach hope merely from, well, hope. She preaches it because she spends a lot of time tracing the history of social movements to build a better world or stop a worse one from occurring — and she makes visible some pieces of the icebergs of influence and impact that various movements have had. One example she gives is an antinuclear group called the Clamshell Alliance, which did not itself accomplish the goal which it was formed to accomplish (to stop a nuclear reactor) but that inspired a similar group elsewhere called the Abalone Alliance, and that group inspired a number of other anti-nuclear activists and all of those groups together, besides all the other ways they had impact that Solnit describes, also served as the inspiration for the undergraduate thesis I wrote in 1997 on the importance of not getting sucked into apocalyptic storylines even when everything feels very apocalyptic, a topic which is obviously still quite relevant today.5
It’s true that all the real icebergs are melting, folks, and that this is an existential threat to humanity. But we are not powerless to respond to this and to all the other threats that face us today. We do have impact. It is larger than we know and more mysterious than we can measure. We can measure some things that matter. We cannot and will never be able to measure them all.
When we make time to do the things we feel called to do, regardless of whether we can see or measure their impact, and whether or not we can even say what impact we think they might have or why, whether or not we even do them out of hope that they will have a positive impact — we change the world.
One last quote, this one from Joanna Macy:
When you make peace with uncertainty, you find a kind of liberation. You are freed from bracing yourself against every piece of bad news and from constantly having to work up a sense of hopefulness in order to act. There is a certain equanimity and moral economy that comes when you are not constantly computing your chance of success. The enterprise is so vast that there is no way to judge the effects of this or that individual effort, or the extent to which it makes any difference at all. Once we acknowledge this, we can enjoy the challenge and the adventure.6
I didn’t know that GetConf would be such a generative experience for me or that the talk I gave there would live on in the way it has or that the people I met there would open my mind in the ways they did.
I didn’t know that a poem I wrote out of frustration with the process of learning to meditate would somehow travel around the world from a single hard copy I handed to my teacher.
And I sure as hell wasn’t thinking, at the age of 17, that some little thing I wrote would have any impact whatsoever on anyone — that anyone would even read it, let alone alter the trajectory of their life because of it.
That’s impact, folks, and every single one of us is making a lot of it every single day.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little essay on impact. If you like it then why not put a ring on it and subscribe now? If you like it an awful lot, you could get yourself a paying subscription, which doesn’t give you much extra yet except the knowledge that you are directly impacting my sense that these words matter and I should keep producing them.
In other news, while I am still taking on a small number of coaching clients, I am also about to start a new job as VP of Engineering at ConvertKit. There’s a whole newsletter in me about why this role at this time, but it is not baked yet. Stay tuned.
Finally, don’t forget to smash that reply button and tell me what you think of this essay! Maybe forward it or share it with a friend or on twitter? Why not? Live dangerously! Who knows what impact that share might have on the world?
Patriarchy is not the only such system, but it was the only one I thought to mention at the time. I’ve done a lot of growing since then, and I’m sure there’s lots more growing ahead too.
Including the issue where my best friend from high school (go commission some jewelry from her, why don’t you) was featured as one of the six sassiest girls in America.
And yes, you can email me for a pdf of this thesis, because I finally scanned the damn thing.