Abby Wambach To Barnard Grads: Don't Be Grateful, Be Wolves

Photo: Craig Barritt/Getty Images.
There's nothing inherently wrong about being grateful; it's important to recognize the people and institutions that have helped you get where you are. But when gratefulness meets an "I'm not worthy!" approach to every opportunity you work hard for in life, things get problematic fast — especially for women.
Retired soccer star Abby Wambach shared her journey of learning "to be grateful for what we have while also demanding what we deserve" with Barnard College's graduating class of 2018, imparting an important message about women learning to be "wolves."
Wambach, Kobe Bryant, and Peyton Manning were awarded the Icon Award at the ESPYs in 2016 in recognition of their remarkable impact on their respective sports. At first, Wambach was incredibly proud of herself for having received the honor; she felt "like we women had finally made it." But as she and the men left the stage, she realized a more tangible reward for their sacrifices — "enormous bank accounts" — would lead them to post-athletic futures that looked very different from hers. "Their hustling days were over," Wambach told the Barnard audience. "Mine were just beginning."
In her speech, Wambach dropped a series of data bombs about the gender pay gap that emphasized its long-term cost for women. She emphasized: "When we talk about what the pay gap costs us, let's be clear. It costs us our very lives. I was so grateful to receive any respect at all for myself that I often missed opportunities to demand equality for all of us."
The pay gap is often discussed in a very abstract way but this is a concrete issues, she adds. One that many people in power have the ability to change, as well as one where women can be wolves themselves, rather than being stuck as obedient-until-punished Little Red Riding Hood.
Wambach's first rule: getting comfortable with failure — something athletes are used to, which non-athletes have a tendency to run from. "Non-athletes don't know what to do with the gift of failure. So they hide it, pretend it never happened, reject it outright — and they end up wasting it," she says. But "failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on." Not because you should obsess over what you did wrong, but so you can push yourself to a higher standard the next time.
Wambach's second and third rules are even more about "uniting the pack": leading from the bench and championing others. "Wherever you're put, lead from there," she says. That doesn't mean being passed over for the lead spot or star position with joy every time it happens, but understanding that you really can make a difference wherever you are.
"During that last World Cup, my teammates told me that my presence, my support, my vocal and relentless belief in them from the bench is what gave them the confidence they needed to win us that championship," she says. "If you're not a leader on the bench, don't call yourself a leader on the field." Support others whether you're the "goal scorer" or are making a meaningful assist.
Finally, Wambach says: "Demand the ball." Sometimes leadership is about encouraging, teaching, and guiding others, but it is also about being unafraid to be bold, especially when you know you have what it takes. That might mean calling your shot on the field, requesting the promotion you've earned, going out for a job, asking for equal pay, microphone, or the oval office.
In short, don't settle for being grateful, the retired soccer star urges. Push yourself to be great.
Follow our new Instagram account in partnership with NBC Sports, @OnHerTurf, for the best from women in sports, on and off the field.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series