Giving advice can be tricky even when you have useful advice to give. As the old joke goes, “Socrates was a wise Greek philosopher who walked around giving people advice. They poisoned him.”
A few days ago I had the pleasure of delivering the commencement address at Rice University. You can see a video of the speech here. It’s an honor to speak to such an impressive group of people and share such an important moment in their lives. To prepare, I tried to put myself in their shoes. I asked myself, “If I were a new graduate, what would I hope someone would share with me?” You can call the result advice if you want. Keeping in mind what happened to Socrates, I prefer to frame it as experiences and perspective I wish someone shared with me when I was 22.
Follow Your Passion
Great breakthroughs don’t come happen when you’re half-hearted. They require people who are emotionally and intellectually invested in what they’re doing. Find your passion and hang on to it. Never forget what motivated you to get to where you are today.
As a teenager in the mid-60s, I was greatly influenced by the social activism of the times: the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, liberation struggles in Africa. I saw the power of collective action to create change and grew up wanting to be part of something bigger than myself. I chose medicine, and ultimately public health, because they equipped me in a practical way to make a difference.
Whatever your entry point — the academic, business, government or non-profit sector — hang on to what you are passionate about, believe in it, work hard for it and use that passion to make a difference for your family, community, nation and our world.
A Harvard Business Review study interviewed 125 leaders of all ages who were known for their effectiveness and asked what they thought was the most important capability for leaders to develop. The one essential trait they agreed on wasn’t decisiveness, assertiveness, great communications skills or team building. It was self-awareness and being true to who you are.
Being true to yourself begins with knowing yourself. It can start by just asking some simple questions. Who has the greatest impact on your life? What do you value and what are your values? What motivates you? What is your true passion?
It also means accepting yourself as you are and being OK with not being perfect.
Be open to the unexpected
My own career is an example of the fact that you never know where you are going to end up, and why it’s important to embrace the unpredictable. I was greatly influenced by the social activism of the 1960s. When I was younger, I did a lot of protesting. In fact, it was easy to think that activism was all about being against things. Racism. Sexism. War. Apartheid. Adults. Panty hose. You name it, I was against it, particularly when “it” was the government.
So consider the irony that I later spent 20 years at the Centers for Disease Control, working for the very same government I got so good at protesting. Joining the CDC was one of the best decisions I ever made. It gave me more power to contribute to the social change that mattered to me more than just being against everything.
Believe in the possible
I am asked all the time if I think CARE’s mission to end poverty is even possible and if I believe it can happen in our lifetime. My answer to both questions is yes.
My belief comes from people like Biti Rose. She’s a mother of seven in Malawi who, less than a decade ago, was trapped in severe poverty. Biti Rose worked tirelessly as a farm hand, but toiled she and her children often went hungry. Two of her children died without ever seeing a doctor. “Life was pathetic,” she says. “I worked in the fields just to survive.”
In 2005 Biti Rose joined one of CARE’s Village Savings and Loans groups. She and 19 other members met weekly and each deposited the equivalent of about 10 cents in the group’s savings box. CARE coached them on how to start small businesses. With a loan of $2 from the group, Biti Rose started making and selling doughnuts. They were a hit. Inspired by her example, her husband began growing tomatoes and selling them. Pretty soon a family that could barely feed itself was buying chickens and goats and leasing extra land to grow food. Today Biti Rose is able to send her three school-aged daughters to school. She even moved out of her mud hut and into her dream home—with brick walls and a metal roof.
Biti Rose isn’t an anomaly. Between 1990 and 2010 nearly 1 billion people around the world were lifted out of extreme poverty. The people who said and continue to say working to end extreme poverty is a waste of time are just plain wrong. Sometimes the dreamers are also the realists.
The world lost an incredible leader when Nelson Mandela died last year. I count myself very lucky to have met him.
In 1964, when Nelson Mandela stood before the South African Supreme Court on trial for sabotage, he described his vision for a democratic and free society in which all people live together in harmony with equal opportunity. He clung to that vision for 27 years in prison — years that would have caused many others to abandon hope — and he led a movement from behind bars. He negotiated the dismantling of the apartheid state, and then the reconciliation of his country’s people, and ultimately the building of the society he envisioned. In doing so, he inspired and changed the world.
Most of us will never achieve what Nelson Mandela did, but I imagine these words from his inaugural address as South Africa’s new President will resonate many people who have ambitions to make a difference in the world:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
During his long years of incarceration, Mandela never stopped working to change the world. That very same spirit of perseverance that powered Mandela was found across the townships of Soweto in South Africa, among poor women who struggled against so many forms of adversity. They sang a song over and over that sustained them and gave them hope: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” reminding themselves that they, too, had an important role to play in the future of their society.
As you pursue your dreams, there will be obstacles, there will be setbacks and, at times, you may be your own worst enemy. Don’t give up on yourself. You are powerful beyond measure and you are the ones you’ve been waiting for.
Photo credit: Tommy LaVergne, Rice University
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