February 2019

“When you are afraid to follow your dreams, help others”

Eyrún Osk Jonsdottir, Hafnarfjordur, Iceland

This is part of the Young Women's Stories—Fostering Leadership project.

  • Gender equality & women's empowerment

The best advice I ever received was from my mother, who told me, “When you are afraid to follow your dreams, help others. That will give you the energy and courage to accomplish anything.” I’ve tried to make this a motto in my life, and it’s been a constant reminder to never give up on my life-long dream of becoming a writer. But there were times in my life when that dream still seemed unattainable to me, even despite outside encouragement.

For many years, Iceland, my home country, has been at the forefront of equal rights issues, particularly gender equality. As a kid, I always had strong female role models, such as Ms. Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the first female president in the world. All around me, I saw strong women like Ms. Finnbogadottir who were balancing working in great careers, influencing society, and raising children all at the same time. They were a source of great inspiration for me as a young woman.

Unfortunately, this didn’t change the fact that I had been insecure about myself for as long as I could remember. My insecurities developed into anxiety and self-doubt when I was a teenager. But, at the same time, I always had strong feelings about issues such as human rights, the environment, and social justice. When I was only 16, I spoke out about these issues and wrote articles for the local paper about them. My schoolmates found it strange and often told me that it wasn’t cool.

Though I did not let their criticism stop me, it did take its toll on my self-esteem and anxiety. It also caused a lot of inner turmoil — a conflict between the urge to speak out about important issues and the fear of what people would think of me for doing so. Ultimately, I realized the former was much more important.

As a way to contribute to society in a meaningful way, I continued writing articles about things I wanted to change in my local community and about peace issues. Because of these articles, some like-minded people encouraged me to run for office in my town’s elections in 2014. I was really nervous about putting myself out there. Sometimes politics can be needlessly and abnormally cruel, and it scared me to put myself in a position where I might experience that cruelty. If it wasn’t for friends’ encouragement, I’m not sure I would have gone through with it. But one of them told me, “It is not about you. It is about doing some good.” That was an important perspective that helped me forget about my own self-doubt enough to go for it. Thankfully, the elections were very positive and civil, and the opponents showed respect for each other. And to my surprise, I was elected a vice-council member.

Too often people worry about letting others know when they do not understand because they fear judgment, but the best ideas are born out of dialogue and looking at issues from different angles.

Eyrún Osk Jonsdottir

My four-year term was really hard work. While holding my political post, I still had to balance being a single mom, writing, working a full-time job, and volunteering for the Buddhist group in which I’m involved. I made it work, but it took a lot more than just good organizational skills; it had more to do with self-empowerment and actively challenging my fears — failure, attention, not being good enough, and making mistakes.

I stayed motivated by continuously asking myself what kind of difference I wanted to make. I sought advice from more experienced council members. I focused on making small, step-by-step changes on important issues. Sometimes when I felt overwhelmed, I looked for the issues I had more experience in or more passion for. This gave me the confidence to then take on matters I was less familiar with.

When I didn't understand something or found an issue to be too complicated, I found the best solution was just to be honest about it and ask others for help. Too often people worry about letting others know when they do not understand because they fear judgment, but the best ideas are born out of dialogue and looking at issues from different angles. Openly admitting when I needed assistance helped me become a better politician.

Eyrún with her son celebrating her newest book release

In my spare time, I continued to work toward my dream of being a writer. At times, writing and searching for a publisher were daunting tasks. Around me, I saw fellow artists struggling. Remembering my mother’s advice, I decided to assist them in any way I could. I helped a painter, an illustrator, and a photographer organize exhibitions of their works. I also helped a fellow poet publish her book and a theatre group apply for funding, in addition to complimenting and promoting interesting artwork by other young people through social media.

In 2016, I finally managed to find a publisher for my own book of poems and won one of the most prestigious poetry awards in Iceland called Bókmenntaverðlaun Tómasar Guðmundssonar. I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. Since then, I’ve published more books, and I’ve also received great reviews and honouree funding from the Writers’ Union of Iceland.

I truly feel that my success is the result of challenging myself for the sake of others. I found ways to face my fears and lack of self-worth, and this, in turn, enabled me to follow my own dreams and reap such wonderful benefits. For this, I am very grateful. But what makes me happiest is that through it all I have been able to show my 6-year-old son that it is possible to follow your dreams and challenge your weaknesses, and that helping others and doing something for society is an invaluable part of life. I can honestly tell him that I am happy and that I have won.