Lighting Our Way at 14 Years Old

I don’t know if one can cultivate a fire in the belly. What I do know is I can spot one a mile away and I am compelled to engage. My coaching client list is dotted with people who are lit from within and it is my job to help them see that and honor it.

Until a treasured college professor made mention of it when I sat in his office for some guidance, I never really identified that I had a fire in the belly burning brightly.

“I don’t see this often,” he said. “This kind of determination to do what you need to do at any cost.”

So eye opening for me in my early 20s.

Maybe there was something in his words that helped drive me even more. He was specifically referring to my decision to return to college after quitting a few years before and to work simultaneously so I could pay my way through and emerge a well-trained, educated journalist. This was in spite of coming from a large Italian-American family that didn’t necessarily see this as the best option for girls.

I am proud of what I’ve accomplished. I have always been driven in a way that I thought was the norm and for years was continually mystified when I came across people who weren’t. But as time went on and I lived a little more, I saw something on the other side of that -- the ability to spot my kind. It’s like I have a special radar and I am instantly drawn to that beautiful brand of energy that cannot be squashed.

Naturally I especially feel a kinship with girls who yearn to be educated despite what anyone else thinks. Whether it’s someone in poverty right here in America who clings to her library card, one of the many bright and spirited girls from other lands featured in Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book and PBS documentary Half the Sky, or Oprah Winfrey’s radiant students in her school in South Africa, their drive makes me feel humble and breathless.

They are all here to teach us something. I believe this to my core.

I’m not a big fan of the approach where we tell people to compare themselves to those less fortunate for “perspective” if all it’s going to do is make us feel guilty for being troubled or is somehow supposed to snap us out of our plight. Should someone feel better that even though they can’t pay their bills the guy down the street has double the debt? That can toy with our emotional health.

However, the last couple of weeks the aforementioned stories have been building and showing me how very fortunate I was that following the fire in my belly didn’t require me to risk my life.

Which brings me to Malala Yousufzai. I cannot let go of images of her lying in a hospital bed on the other side of the world because she wasn’t about to have her right to learn trampled upon. She is in my thoughts every day. I know I’m not alone here. This Pakistani teen has captivated people all around the world with her bravery in standing up to the Taliban for her right to be educated. I am floored.

While she is in a hospital critically injured (recently airlifted to the United Kingdom), many of our citizens are using comments sections on articles about her to point fingers, pose outrageous solutions, decide who isn’t angry enough, declare who should be denouncing this and using it to support their own views of her culture and their politics. As much as I respect their right to express, I feel Malala’s story is meant to teach us something deeper.

Others talk. She stands in her truth. She acts.

Simple as that.

Not simple to do, mind you. No, that would be like saying all Rosa Parks did was sit in a seat. The fire in the belly, when it flares up, it’s unstoppable.

As I sit here typing in my nicely heated apartment in New Jersey, mulling this bravery Malala has exhibited, she is fighting for her life, a life that has already been threatened should this attack not get the job done. While others ponder what kind of people do this to another human being for wanting to learn, I am almost obsessively focused on what kind of person has the power within them to stand up and be heard like this at age 11.

What gives one the courage to speak up while others wither and stand in lockstep?

I believe some were born with a fire in the belly and nothing can extinguish it. Not naysayers or hardship or actual danger. The yearning to learn is so strong and persistent that it becomes ‘my way or the highway,’ move over, give me my books and let me do what I was put here to do. I am going to live my life my way or die trying.

I don’t want to put my experience in the same breath as Malala’s. It is more like I am trying to understand my own heightened reaction to this girl who stood up for herself and her right to an education in such dire, life-threatening circumstances.

Yes, it would be great if we could sit down every student in the nation and show them her story and remind them how lucky they are to live here. It might even get through to some of the more sensitive ones. But it isn’t really in the realm of their reality and so it might not sit with them for long.

Then again, maybe that’s good. Because Malala is fighting for that very right, isn’t she? The one where she can actually take for granted getting up in the morning, having some breakfast, picking out an outfit, getting her books together and sitting in a classroom. She doesn’t want the rest of the girls in the world not to be in that experience; she’s trying to get there. In a big way.

Maybe that’s the role of the folks with that thrumming, persistent fire in the belly. To make something possible for those without it.

Pretty cool.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to