What Stops Us From Changing The World?

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” – Anne Frank

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Originally published on Student Voice.

A few weeks ago, I sat on an airplane with my newest Amazon purchase open on my lap: Adam Braun’s Promise of a Pencil. Braun’s story was, without a doubt, incredible. He had traveled for a semester at sea and founded the global education organization “Pencils for Promise” at the tender age of 24, eventually leaving his job at Bain and Company in an epic saga of social entrepreneurial struggle. As I finished the last page, I was propelled into a bit of an epiphany. Here I was, close to Adam’s age. I was still young, had all the resources Adam had when he started his journey, and had a similar desire to change the world. So what was stopping me? In fact, what stops most of us from changing the world at such a young age?

I thought back to early college when I was in a phase where all I wanted to do was start a business. I remember relegating all my other career options in favor of this daring and random pursuit of entrepreneurship. The more I lamented on how to achieve results, the more I realized that I was stockpiling on one toxic resource: the “excuse”. I’m not old enough. I don’t have enough time right now. This homework isn’t doing itself. I’m not qualified enough. I don’t have enough money right now. My idea isn’t new enough. Sunday football is on. I don’t know anything about technology. I don’t know nearly enough people. I’ll just work for a few years, save up money, re-evaluate life, and then become an entrepreneur. It’s too much to learn. The list went on and on.

Our mind will believe anything we tell it. Most of the time, the excuses and reasons for procrastination alone will preclude us from doing something we feel strongly about. Ignoring the problem seems to be easier than encountering the consequences or worst case scenarios. But how do we overcome these barriers we place on ourselves? How do some people make it while others don’t?

This is where I arrived after some pondering. Part of it is perspective. “Changing the world” can sound so daunting. The idea of starting a venture and putting your entire livelihood around it can sound daunting as well. We have to start with our own personal definition of “changing the world”. We don’t always need to quit our day job. People who volunteer change the world. People who put together book drives and food recovery programs change the world. People who donate money online to causes change the world. Of course, people who start multi-national non-profits change the world too. What kind of impact do we want to make in the long-run? We don’t have to make it all at once. While thinking big is encouraged, when we think too big that we ignore pragmatism and drive ourselves into an unreachable dream, that’s when most of us tend to quit.

Second, we have to find a reason to fix everything holding us back. Money. The internet has enabled new and wild ways to fundraise. Adam Braun only started out with $25 when starting his social venture. Too much competition. Find an area that drives you and work with other collaborators in that area. We spend too much time on competition and finding that “unique idea that nobody has ever thought of in the history of ever”. Not unique enough. Changing the world doesn’t have to start with a ground-breaking idea or re-inventing the wheel. There are plenty of non-profits out there who do the same exact thing. Qualifications. The only qualification we really need is passion. It costs a lot less than a graduate degree and a thousand certifications. We have to start ignoring the guy that tells us that we need to be old and rich to be a philanthropist. If you have a passion now, don’t risk letting it rot.

Finally, we have to start connecting. Read blogs from successful young entrepreneurs. Read autobiographies from the founders of inspiring organizations we respect. Meet young people in person. Follow them on twitter. Keep learning. I follow many people my age and younger and I can always count of them for some of the most refreshing professional perspectives I get on a daily basis. It can only benefit us to use these stories as a template that age is nothing when it comes to world change.

This all puts us in a position for the hardest part: to start executing. Zak Malamed, Student Voice Founder, once wrote, “The most disrespectful thing you can say to young people is, “you are the leaders of tomorrow.” This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where young people are stigmatized to believe that there is a minimum age for being capable of changing the world.” Let’s stop succumbing to the stigma and change the paradigm for youth and real, tangible change. We don’t have to find the next “Pencils for Promise” but just create something that’s a reflection of a real, raw dedication towards a cause. Why not us?

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The Art of “Not Knowing”

Uncertainty. This is a topic I’ve discussed on the blog before but I found a post on Facebook this morning from a speaker I met at a conference three years ago, Dhru Purohit. Dhru is the CEO of the Clean Program, a highly endorsed and acclaimed detox program. He wrote on the art of “not knowing”:

Not knowing the answer to a question doesn’t mean you are confused. It just means you don’t know.

Confusion is: not knowing, but needing to know. The “needing” changes everything. The needing is where the anxiety and stress comes from.

When I hear people say “I’m so confused, I don’t know what I want,” I feel like I’m hearing one of two things:

[1] “I don’t know what I want, but I feel I should know.”

or…

[2] “I do know what I want, but I’m afraid of the consequences of my decision.”

If you don’t know what you want here is my suggestion: breathe and slow down. The answer always comes if you are willing to be silent enough to hear it. Allow things to unfold. The pressure of needing to know is going to drive you freaking nuts. A lot of growth happens when we become comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s worked that way for you in the past and it will happen again.

If you do know what you want, but are afraid of the consequences of your decision, here is my suggestion: address the fear. It always comes back to fear. Write your fears down on paper. Be clear about them, don’t hide from them. Give a name and a face to the boogie monster that is holding you back. Monsters are never as scary as they seem when we can see what they really look like.

If I had to put my money on it, I’d say that most people who say they are confused actually do know what they want. But for some reason they are scared. Scared of making the wrong choice, scared of losing love, scared of failing. Being scared is a great thing, it shows you that you care. But when we stop because we’re scared, we don’t learn the lesson that we were meant to learn.

Best honest with yourself. Question your fears. Go for what you want.

Ray Rice: What did the Video Change?

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Like many others, I was appalled when I first heard about Ray Rice dragging his wife out of an elevator unconscious. Like many others, I was confused upon his initial punishment when contact football violations and minor drug use seemed to yield tougher suspensions. Like many others, I felt that even an isolated issue of domestic violence should’ve been treated with proper care in the stead of the negligence the NFL had displayed. Like many others, I was perplexed when Rice’s character was revered in the wake of the incident instead of attention being brought to his actions. Time passed, Goodell responded to criticism with a change in domestic violence policies, and the media attention seemed to ebb. He was integrated almost immediately back into the fabric of the league, reserving a late round pick in fantasy leagues and to the general pleasure of Baltimore fans, practicing with the Ravens.

Then, Monday came. That notorious video dropped into our laps and the world turned their backs on Ray Rice. Fantasy owners dropped him, the media disparaged him and the Ravens along with the NFL cut ties. Conversation about domestic violence and abuse was ubiquitous and many called for Rice’s ban from the league. Ravens fans who had idolized Rice and praised his character now called him a “disgusting human being” and “piece of garbage.” Harbaugh, who was once vocally adamant about Ray Rice being a great guy, responded “The video is something we saw for the first time today. It changed things.”

But, what did the video change? What were people expecting to see in the video? Ray Rice baking his wife cupcakes in the elevator? Giving her a nice little shoulder massage? Everyone, from the Ravens to the NFL to the law enforcement officials, said Rice was complicit in admitting his role and described the incident with full detail. He did not sugarcoat it. If he described what we all saw, he should’ve been condemned and vilified months ago. He should’ve been given an indefinite suspension from the start. Whether or not the actual video got into the hands of the organization is not important. What’s notable is that these organizations were clearly giving this guy the benefit of the doubt. They didn’t want to believe he did what he did. He told them what he did. They knew this. They knew he smacked her. That should’ve been ENOUGH. When they couldn’t unsee it, they took action. When we called for action, they took action.

It is indeed better late than never. But the chaos has brought the NFL and media big lessons: We shouldn’t wait for videos. We shouldn’t give athletes privileges because of their prestige or idolatry. We shouldn’t give men gender privileges. Mistakes are mistakes no matter how hard you have worked. Unfortunately as a public figure, Rice had a responsibility he may not have wanted. In my mind, I do think that Rice will get a second chance. Donte Stallworth did after vehicular manslaughter and Mike Vick did after serving a prison sentence. Will he ever get his respect back, especially from female fans? That remains to be seen. But next time, we shouldn’t need a video to affirm this.

The Power of Empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch

Empathy. The ability to understand the feelings of another.

I’ve long been an advocate of empathetic qualities in organizational leaders but for the longest time had trouble discerning the meaning of empathy. Was it just being nice to people? Asking them questions? In truth, it is far more abstract than that. I found this RSA Short a while ago that I think does a beautiful job of showing how empathy works in a dark situation. It’s less than 3 minutes long, check it out!

The ALS Challenge: Don’t Be A Lazy Critic

“Be An encourager – the world has plenty of critics already.” – Dave Willis

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If you’re like me or anyone else who has been drowned in this proverbial media sea of Ice Bucket Challenges, you know that this isn’t just a small social fad anymore. This is a big deal. As people have been drenching their bodies in ice-laced water nationwide, the foundation for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, primarily known as ALS, has been the primary beneficiary. An opportunity that once presented $10 – $15 million is now worth close to $80 million and has garnered national attention by recruiting the likes of Former President George Bush, Bill Gates, Eminem, Ben Affleck, Lebron James, and more. Not many people have had a personal connection with ALS and that’s the beauty of it – an issue no one seemed to know or care about is now on the forefront of everyone’s heart and the national medical research agenda. We are all now abreast of the inevitable fatal nature of ALS: the disease doesn’t have any immediate cures, it creates a morose reality for those who have to live with it, and it is still a real possibility for almost anyone regardless of their genetic background. It’s a noble cause, of course, to find a cure for a disease for which one doesn’t exist and one which has barely caught wind since the prognosis of Lou Gehrig and Stephen Hawking. One of the hardest things to do as a non-profit is not to fundraise, but to empower individuals to care what you’re talking about. I can’t imagine any foundation or non-profit right now that wouldn’t want to trade places with the ALS.

Yet, the ALS has received a fair amount of skepticism. This isn’t uncommon; most people will find a few reasons for someone to not donate to a charity. It started when skeptics began to complain about people doing the ice bucket challenges and not donating money. We began to find that many people had donated money but there now had to be a system of trust to keep the skeptics at bay. The second wave of ice bucket challenges included many individuals that decided to forgo the bucket altogether and put up donation receipts. It was hard to imagine those same skeptics would be on the hunt again – they weren’t. Yet, hordes of new skeptics came out of the woodwork. Some criticized the amount of water used, the utility of a small donation, and the intentions of the ALS foundation; some even went as far to dissect individual videos to determine the exact level of awareness aggregated by the set of words and actions. You might have also seen pictures like this:

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A campaign that has been universally lauded was still met with cynics and this puzzled me. The most annoying part was that many would criticize but not do a thing afterwards. Here’s the funny part: no one will outright admit they don’t care about ALS. Some might argue that other diseases exist and there are far more opportunities to meet diseases that have a chance of killing more Americans. You can’t debate this but here’s my question: why openly denounce the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? If you want someone who donated $10 to ALS to donate to another disease, create a strong argument in favor of that instead of against ALS. $10 is not a lot of money to Americans and many find a special buzz in philanthropy – give them another reason to donate. To everyone arguing that the ALS is wasting water, here’s a fun fact: The Washington Post says over 5 million gallons of water have been used by the 1.2 million people who have taken the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as of 8/18/14).The average shower uses 2.5 to 4 gallons of water per minute. If you shower for 3 extra minutes today, you’re using more water than most people do during their challenge. Why not convince people to take shorter showers instead of doing more bucket challenges?

Bottom line: Give the ALS a chance. They’ve raised $80 million. Despite the skepticism, they’ve gotten some of the most influential names in our nation to participate. They’ve never had this many donations in a short amount of time. Give them a chance to process and see how best to allocate all this money. A vilification of this campaign doesn’t provide any benefit. Most donors who donate here will not stop at ALS – they want to look at other issues in the world and find out how to improve them. If you want to be a critic, don’t be a lazy one. If ALS is really not a big deal to you, then keep your focus on something else. Focus on something that has a greater meaning to you. Focus on figuring out the art of enticing a nation to care about your cause as the Ice Bucket Challenge has done. I hope to see this challenge inspire a line of new philanthropic initiatives down the line. For now, can we just let charity exist without loud critics?

What Gives You Goosebumps?

“You can’t fake passion.” -Barbara Corcoran

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As I finished mixing myself a cup of French Vanilla Coffee in my project office a couple weeks ago, I was promptly greeted by my first office kitchen tragedy: the office sugar packets were not in their usual place. As I swung open cabinet after cabinet in exasperated frenzy, a short man came to my rescue. Carrying a Sam’s Club, he pulled out a container marked “Njoy Pure Cane Sugar”. I hadn’t immediately recognized my savior and he acknowledged this with an introduction and clarification that he was on the client side of our project. As we simultaneously put the finishing touches on our coffee and had a friendly conversation about downtown San Antonio, he proceeded to ask me one of the strangest questions I’d encountered in a first meeting: “So, Kushaan, what gives you goosebumps?”

Laughing it off at first, I joked about how I was from the Northeast where we are “immune to cold weather”. Noticing his lack of amusement, I fumbled around for an answer until he saw that I was visibly confused. He then further explained his question: “I’m not talking about the goosebumps you get from the cold or a scary movie. I’m talking about passion goosebumps.”

He went on to expound on his theory of passion goosebumps by providing an example from his own life: how he found his passion for coding. It started with his father showing him HTML at a young age, checking out books from the adult section of the library as a teenager and spending summers building and taking apart web sites. “I knew it was what I wanted to do because every time I accomplished something big, I’d get goosebumps. Every time I read a new tag or trick I didn’t know in a book, I’d get an adrenaline rush. Every completed website gave me a burst of fulfillment. Goosebumps, when it came to my career and education, represented excitement.” He concluded that goosebumps were not the optimal barometer but a good way to experiment further. “I’ve had interns who have had trouble choosing majors. I tell them that if they are interested in a class to read a book or an article about the subject. If you get goosebumps, it’s a wonderful thing.”

Human beings are not impervious to biological triggers and involuntary reflexes – it’s what separates us from robots. What we can avoid, however, is confusion, misdirection, and a lack of purpose. What if we could use these biological triggers to help us figure out where we want to go? What if instead of just using goosebumps to determine if we’re cold or scared, we can help determine if we’re passionate and inspired? Passion is one of the hardest and loosest, not to mention most intimidating areas of your life to define. Goosebumps can be a symptom, a metric by which you evaluate the strength of your own passions. Ever since the conversation I had with this man, I can’t help but be self-aware of whenever I get these “passion goosebumps”, especially with books, articles, and YouTube videos. It feels cool.

Think back to your own life and what you consider yourself to be passionate about. What really gives you goosebumps?

We Could All Use a John Keating

“O Captain, my Captain. Who knows where that comes from? Anybody? Not a clue? It’s from a poem by Walt Whitman about Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Now in this class you can either call me Mr. Keating, or if you’re slightly more daring, O Captain my Captain” – Dead Poets Society

thank-youThe recent passing of Robin Williams left me in a bit of a nostalgiac lull, reflecting on his more famous movie roles and the intricacy with which some of his characters were designed. One of my favorite performances of his has always been his portrayal of John Keating, a poetry teacher in Dead Poets Society who taught his students to see the light of day and the value of carpe diem. Little did I know just how profound that movie I had once snoozed through on a rainy day in English class was, with the message it spread about education, love, and self.

From the beginning, John Keating was quite the unconventional teacher. In Keating’s class, pages were ripped out of textbooks, students were encouraged to start underground poetry clubs, and boys were inspired to love and pursue romance against all odds. In a world where teachers encouraged their students to pursue medicine and law, Keating focused on poetry, beauty, nature, and the idea of staying alive. He believed that the idea of education was to prepare students to think for themselves, to constantly look at things in a different way, to search for a “verse”, to cultivate your passions. He implored students to find their voice (the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all!) and to seize the hell out of their day.

One of Keating’s most famous quotes from the movie is hallmark advice based on his free thinking philosophy: “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

While the movie was released in 1989, many of the norms that Keating contested at the elite Welton Academy are still prevalent today. There are still many classrooms where free thinking is suppressed, students are designed to be submissive, and teachers are more likely to focus on lecturing then inspiring.

Even today, we could all use a John Keating. We could all use someone in the journey of our education and life, who opens our eyes away from conformity and leads us down our own paths. We could all use someone who wants to push us off a nest and see us fly. We could all use someone who challenges us to challenge assumptions. We could all use someone who tells us even in our toughest times, that we have the power to change the world.

If you haven’t already, check out the movie and celebrate a remarkable performance by Robin Williams. Rest easy, my captain.

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