My name is Ashley Gaudiano and I’m so excited to be here with you. What you all are doing is so powerful. I wish that we had this type of program when I was in middle school. Before I get started, I just want us to give a round of applause to LiveGirl for bringing us together and for doing such important work.
I was charged with coming here this evening to talk about how we can spread kindness in the world. For me, kindness, compassion, doing good — these are values I was raised with, and they have been central to who I am and what I strive to do in my professional life. Just by being here, I know that living with kindness is important to you.
We can’t give kindness to the world, without first giving kindness to ourselves — to our hearts, minds and bodies. And so tonight, I want to tell you a little bit of a different story. And that’s my story. It’s a story of how I’m learning to be kind to myself—to my heart and to my mind—so that I can better give the kindness that I so desperately want to spread in the world.
I grew up in Virginia with my parents and brother. When I was 6, my parents got divorced and a large part of my adolescence was spent striving to make both parents happy and proud. From a young age and well into my teens, I was a competitive gymnast; and I succeeded academically thanks to some good genes and a lot of hard work. I was raised to be kind. To love everyone. And to do good in the world. Those values have stayed with me, but along the way, I erected roadblocks to spreading those values with the world.
When I was ten or eleven years old, I ran for student government president. I don’t remember much about the experience, other than the outcome. I lost. Who here has tried something hard — student government, a sport, performing arts — and lost? It was the first moment I can remember of truly public ‘failure.’ Instead of writing it off as a good experience with a bad outcome, that moment defined me.
For the next 20 years, I lived life paralyzed with fear. Fear of letting people down. Fear of being anything but ‘perfect.’ Fear of not succeeding. It meant that I played it safe with sports and extracurriculars. I was hesitant to make new friends. It meant that I didn’t push myself when applying to colleges or law school. I didn’t reach outside my comfort zone when searching for jobs.
I carried that fear of failure with me every day, in every decision, and it consumed me. It meant that my deep desire to spread kindness and do good was squashed, because fear was in the way.
When we do that—when we live with fear instead of bravery—we miss out on so much. We rob ourselves of countless opportunities to grow; to experience; to do. It’s not just a losing proposition for us, our communities and the world miss out on all that we have to offer; they miss out on kindness we could be spreading.
For me, my fear of failure stemmed from two things.
First, I didn’t want to let people down. I believed that failing would be seen as negative in other’s eyes. I thought failing meant the people I loved wouldn’t think as highly of me. That I wouldn’t live up to their expectations. That I would disappoint them. If I didn’t every try, then I couldn't ever let people down.
Second I didn’t know my own value. I didn’t believe in my own worth. In my mind, Failing would validate that belief—that I wasn’t smart enough, talented enough, athletic enough to succeed. So I simply chose not to try, because at the time, it felt like not trying was a less painful alternative than being unsuccessful.
When we moved to Connecticut, life changed. I bought a home. I had a good job. I had my kids. I surrounded myself with people who loved me deeply and didn’t care whether I tried and succeeded, or tried and failed. I rooted myself in a community. I began to grow comfortable in my own skin. And I woke up to a reality that I should have known all along: that failure is inevitable but it does not define you. It simply shapes you.
In 2015, I brought my daughter home from the hospital, got the nerve to quit my job, and decided to take the Connecticut bar exam. It was the first moment in a really long time where I chose to open a door of opportunity simply because I dared to fail.
I passed the bar exam and today, I use my license to do pro bono work. I take cases for free in Bridgeport to help people who otherwise can’t afford a lawyer. It’s one of the things I can do to lead with kindness and to give back. Each case I take is hard for me because it’s outside of my comfort zone, but more importantly, because I don’t want to fail my client. And I can’t quite overcome that fear of letting others down when the stakes are just too high. So I do this on the side. Because doing it full time is too scary and big for me.
It’s been easier for me to tackle the mental hurdle of letting people down. I still fear it. It still causes me anxiety, but I know it’s just me. The people I surround myself with will never be disappointed in me because I tried and failed. Especially when the things I’m trying to do are rooted in compassion and the chance to do good.
The area I struggle with is the second piece, and that it is learning to see my value and know my worth. If we hold a mirror up to ourselves, do we see an incredible person? Do we see a kind person? Do we see the same beautiful, empowering, and intelligent person our parents see? Our peers see? Our communities see? For me, the answer has always been no. I haven’t held that mirror up enough.
Teaching that starts at birth, especially for girls. It’s why the #LoveYourSelfie theme that was on the LiveGirl Instagram feed the other day is so important. It’s why surrounding yourself with a group of people that will love you and empower you to be good, and kind, and strong is so necessary. If we don’t see our worth; If we don’t know our value, then we won’t ever believe in ourselves enough to do the things that allow us to make an impact on the world.
Who here knows what they want to be when they grow up? [shout them out… we’ve got some smart young women in this room!] Let me tell you a little secret, I’m 31 years old and I’m not sure what I want to be when I grow up. All of these things I’ve talked about are linked together -- fear of failing. Knowing your value. Believing in your self worth. Daring to try. It’s no wonder I don’t know what I want to be…I’ve never seen myself for all that I could be.
But as we begin to believe in ourselves, we also begin to dream and dare and see a world of opportunity—of things we can do and things we can be.
In 2016, after the election, I landed in a world I had never considered: politics. In politics and advocacy, I saw an opportunity for service. A chance to convey the values that drive me—equity, justice, fairness, compassion. I saw a space where my voice was needed. Where it resonated. A space where kindness was so needed. The world of politics allowed my values, skills, and passions to collide. This world set me free. I began to believe in myself and the power that my voice has to do good. TO make change. I quelled my fear of failing, and in 2017, I took a very public chance at failure and ran for Trumbull’s Town Council. Thanks to a lot of hard work, I won.
There are some amazing things you can do as a local elected official. Some are mundane — we appoint people to positions, we approve the transfer of money from one part of the budget to the other, we deal with storm drains and snow removal. But others are impactful and can transform the trajectory of a community. We can touch issues that impact climate change, social justice, sustainable development. We have the chance to infuse local politics with kindness and decency, and to transform an often heated arena into one that people trust and respect. I can’t overstate how critical local boards, commissions, and legislative bodies are, and how necessary it is to have all types of voices represented.
At the end of 2017, I was approached about running for a State Representative seat. I said failure be damned, and threw myself into the race, even with the knowledge that losing was more probable than winning. The seat hasn’t been held by a member of my party in over ten years. I had an uphill climb, but it was important to me that members of my community knew they had an ally and a voice. As an aside, I involved high school students in my campaign, and some of my favorite moments were the ones spent with youth. I’m awestruck by the power that young people have to make a difference. It gives me hope for what our future can be.
Unfortunately, the outcome of the election wasn’t what I hoped for. I lost by just shy of 500 votes. But for the first time in my life, ‘failing’ doesn’t have me down for the count. It doesn’t have me running scared. Not being fearful of failing is different than not feeling pain from failing. It burns, almost every day. It burns because I feel like I let others down — those in the community who opened their doors to me and who were counting on me winning to advance issues that mattered to them. It also burns because I saw the value that I could offer to our community. I knew that I would be a kind leader, that I would do work fueled by a desire for equity and justice, and that I would be a strong, passionate, and vocal advocate.
My fears haven’t gone away, but I’m able to quiet them. I can overcome the idea of failing because I know that I won’t actually disappoint people. Not the people that matter. I can overcome the idea of failing because I’m beginning to believe in myself. And these campaigns and my business have begun to show me my value and my worth. And at the end of the day, I know that I can’t do good in the world if my fear is all encompassing.
When I look at our world today, I see a giant need for a new type of leader. For our clubs and girl scout troops. For our sports teams and student governments. For our businesses. For our town, state, and country. We need more leaders who are not perfect, but who try really hard. People who see their worth, know their value, who don’t want to let others down. Who are okay with trying and failing anyways. People who are kind and compassionate. Those are the characteristics that make up amazing leaders. I think it’s what people see in me, and it most certainly is what I see in all of you.
One of my favorite poets, Cleo Wade, wrote, “When we overcome our fear of failing, we have the power to step into the magnificence of our resilience. Do the things you are afraid to do. Do the things that feel big. Do the things that show you what you are made of.”
As I look at out at this room of amazing young women, I want to ask you all to to first and foremost give yourself kindness. To see your worth and know your value. To surround yourself with people who love you deeply. To step into your magnificence and be resilient.
Because then, and only then, can you spread kindness that will shake the world.