Encouraging a Young Social Change Agent

Happy Life MallThrough Twitter I have come to know Abbas Jaffer, a young social change agent who asks deep questions and digs to find answers.  I find I look forward to our conversations, as Abbas always gets me thinking.

Here is some of the conversation Abbas and I shared last week.

Abbas: I think shifting realities of career create a lot of anxiety in Gen Y – myself included.

Me: Can you share more re: “shifting realities of career”?

Abbas: Seth Godin says there’s no map for passion. I think there’s a tyranny of overwhelming choice young idealists face.

Me: So too many opportunities? The world is an oyster with a zillion possible pearls? And then what to do with all that? Am I close?

Abbas: Very warm! What social change narrative to contribute to? Still wondering which hard skills = maximum positive contribution?

Me: I would encourage young people to spend time exploring for the sake of exploring. Try stuff on. See what fits, what doesn’t.  Be patient that you don’t have to know the answer, and not even all the questions. Let the answer find you.  Lastly, I’d suggest that the journey, the exploring, is what matters. Openness & learning will lead you to your potential.

As I’ve thought about this conversation, I added the italics to the last question Abbas posed: Which hard skills will provide the maximum positive contribution?

In college and in life, we are encouraged to focus on professional development, a career path – treating life as if it requires little more than vocational training.

To make a difference in the world, though, requires more than hard skills. It requires leadership. It requires vision. It requires creativity and curiosity.  It requires living and working and being with integrity.

We don’t learn those things from vocational training or skill-building workshops or professional development seminars.

We learn it from experimenting, exploring, reflecting. And that’s because we don’t have a “professional life” and a “personal life” but one life – one brain that leaps from this to that, creating links, creating new thinking, creating the GREAT stuff it takes to figure life out.

So here is some of how I answer social change agents, young and old, who ask how they can be as effective as possible in that role.

Volunteer and experiment. You may love animals; does that mean you will love working in a shelter? Maybe or maybe not, but you won’t know till you try.  How lucky to work in the sector that provides abundant opportunity for learning and exploring by doing!

Find bloggers and “experts” you like. Find bloggers and “experts” you can’t stand.  Learn not only what you agree with, but what you disagree with – and most importantly, why. Find others who are also curious and explore with them – especially those you don’t always agree with.  Contemplate. Argue both sides of an issue. Let your brain try things on!

Read books about things that interest you that have nothing to do with work. Watch TED talks. Watch more TED talks.

Ask questions. Ask for advice, wisdom, thoughts, ideas. Take someone out for coffee just to learn how they do what they do, or what they are experiencing right now, or what makes their work amazing or frustrating.  Hopefully they will ask you questions you can’t answer – the best kind.  (The moment we feel “dumb” is the moment we are ripe for leaping forward.)

Take time to do what you love to do and don’t think you have time to do. Walk. Paint. Sing. Write. Travel. Play. Play some more.

And don’t fall for the misguided thinking that there is a single decision you need to make that will determine the future of your life. Every single thing you do will determine the future of your life.

I chuckle when those seeking answers want to know what I studied to be able to do what I do, as if there is a class they can take and Voila!

The truth is it took me 7 colleges to get my political science / economics degree. Along the way, I picked up a 2-year degree in Retail Buying & Merchandising, with a background in fashion design. Go figure.

I worked at Bloomingdale’s for years. (Loved it.) I worked as the legislative aide to a City Council member. (Hated it.) Built and ran a plant nursery. (Loved it.) Started a program teaching low income families to grow their own produce. (Loved that, too.) Sold and leased commercial real estate. (REALLY hated it.) Did business development / economic development consulting with Native American tribes. (LOVED it.) Raised my amazing daughter as a single mom. (Loved it more than anything I’ve done.)

And I’m just getting warmed up!

The path that led to the “me” that is here now is a path I can only see by looking back over it. Looking forward as the kid who couldn’t sit still long enough to finish college, I never would have dreamed most of it.

And none of it remotely looks like vocational training.

So I guess the last piece is this: Life is a journey we invent as we go along. You don’t need to decide anything as if it is final. It is not. We get do-overs all the time, and NOTHING is final until we’re dead.

So explore. Experiment. Learn. Play. Make mistakes. Start something new. Re-start something old.

Know that at any given moment, you may have no idea what path you are on.  And also know that if your heart and spirit are guiding you, it is absolutely the right path.

2 Responses to Encouraging a Young Social Change Agent

  1. Excellent advice Hildy, for young and old.

    After working with nonprofits and in the “social good” sector for 20 years I am still learning what I can do to make a contribution.

    Like yourself, I’ve a very diverse employment and study history. I’m now just starting to realise everything that I felt led to do, has led me perfectly to where I need to be now – working with a number of amazing people on things like doingsomethinggood.posterous.com

    The trick is to learn to follow your intuition/heart/gut based on your intention (to do good…). Take the advice of those you trust and inspire you. I’ve found many of them on Twitter and had the good fortune to meet them IRL (in real life) and now consider them good friends.

    Also, a few books I’d recommend in line with what you’ve shared are:
    1. ‘The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, C…’ by John Hagel III, John Seely… http://amzn.to/c4PT4A (affiliate link)
    2. ‘Linchpin: Are You Indispensable’ by Seth Godin http://amzn.to/bQHhRH (affiliate link)

    Great stuff! 🙂