We are living in stressful times. Whether you’re concerned about the fates of Syrian refugees, undocumented immigrants, transgender people, the gender wage gap, people of color, or the environment, there are lots of things that need our support. As these issues become more present to us I believe that more people are asking themselves how they can help. More of us are wondering whether the careers that we have chosen will enable us to affect change in this world. I believe that our greatest accomplishments are those that help to solve our world’s greatest challenges. Your deepest satisfaction will come from the meaningful contributions you make to the common good.
I adapted this post from a graduation speech that I gave and I hope it will help those of you wanting to live a meaningful life and working to determine how to use your gifts and passions to make a positive impact on the world.
What problem do you want to solve?
I encourage you to start by figuring out what problems you want to solve. It can be overwhelming to think about all of the problems of this world so it’s important to figure out what piece of the work you would like to do. We don’t have to do everything, we just have to do our part. Take the time to consider what problems are most compelling to you. Which issues move you to tears? Maybe you want to improve our public education system or perhaps you want to address individual contributions to climate change. You might be pulled to interrupt cycles of poverty or pervasive health concerns in certain communities. There are a multitude of problems to choose from and I encourage you to choose 1-2 to focus on at a time. If you start with a big problem, such as poverty, I encourage you to begin narrowing your focus on the specific aspect of the problem that you would like to begin working on.
Identify Your Passions
Once you’ve identified the problems you want to solve, it is necessary to look within to discover and affirm how your unique gifts and passions can address these problems and shape the world. In order to discover your passion, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings when you are engaged in various activities. Notice when you feel excited, curious, energized, empowered, frustrated or sad. Pay attention to the things you want to read and the work you want to do when no one is watching. In this age of social media, it’s also important to consider the things we want to do even if we can’t share them in a cute Instagram post or tweet. Notice when you get so caught up in doing something that you lose time. These reactions will serve as signposts on your journey to determining what you are most passionate about.
Let me share with you what this journey was like for me. The summer before my senior year of college I was unsure of what I wanted to do after graduating. I knew I wanted to help people but I didn’t know how I wanted to help. I had done a few summer internships, a lot of volunteering, and studied abroad but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to focus my time and energy after college. Thankfully, my dad helped me to pay attention to what my experience was telling me. I reflected on the hope I felt while tutoring youth in a low-income neighborhood, the empathy I felt and connections I made with homeless youth through conducting art workshops, and the energy I felt when writing papers on how to promote resilience among African American youth. When I put these experiences together, what emerged was my passion for social justice and desire to connect with and help people on an individual level. Reflecting on these experiences as well as my desire to figure out how to make things better for youth guided me to get a PhD in clinical community psychology.
There were more glamorous careers that I could have chosen; business, law, finance, medicine, and consulting could have been great choices but none of these careers would have been the right choice for me. I am thankful that I wasn’t swayed by the potential money and glamour of other careers and was instead able to do what I am most passionate about. When I applied to grad school I didn’t have the most research experience or the best GRE scores but what I did have was a sense that becoming a clinical psychologist was going to enable me to use my gifts to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Now, as I work as a clinical psychologist supporting college and graduate students, I am very happy I’ve chosen this path. As you consider the contribution you want to make, take the time to really find what energizes you. As you explore yourself and the world you will pick up clues about what you enjoy and feel passionate about. These clues will point you in the direction of the difference you can make by drawing upon your unique skills and gifts.
Connect Your Passions to Problems
Once you identify your passions, figure out how they intersect with the problems you want to solve. Maybe your passions for the environment and working with youth intersect with your concern for climate change and lead you to develop urban gardening programs for youth that teach them about the environment and sustainability. It may take some time to figure out what these intersections are for you and I encourage you to seek out the support and advice of mentors and to be patient and thoughtful during this process.
Collaborate with Others
The process of fulfilling your passion and changing the world is not a solo journey. Without collaboration and support, many of the things we seek to do would fall flat. I encourage you to seek out and take advantage of supportive environments and communities that you are part of. Partnering with people around you to make a contribution will not only ensure that you will achieve your goals, it will help you to thrive in the process.
Enjoy the Journey
Finally, I urge you to enjoy the journey. It’s not just the results that matter or the relief that comes from reaching your goal, enjoying the journey is important. If we take pleasure in our passions, our gifts will shine. There will be distractions along the way (overscheduling, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram) and disappointments too (lost jobs, broken friendships, rejections) But don’t let these experiences deter you or steal the fun of the journey. The process of contributing to the world should be exciting, energizing, and enjoyable. The journey to meaningfully contribute is not a race to do as much as you can as quickly as possible. It is a lifelong calling to thoughtfully use your time and energy to make a difference.