How to figure this out?
April 14, 2011 8:06 PM   Subscribe

Did you ever have a burning urge to do something significant that makes a difference in the world? How did you become that person? How did you figure out what is it that you wanted to do and how to get there?

I am not talking about getting a degree or improving one's lifestyle/living standard or being part of an important relationship or such. I mean something that actually makes your presence on earth worth it for other human beings.

If you are an activist of some sort...how did you find out what you were passionate about and get where you wanted to be? (I have read the million times favorited post on finding one's passion...so you can skip that..)
posted by xm to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
You already know what it is, so just look inside yourself for that weird thing that you really care about, even if you don't know if it deserves the label of passion. Remember what it looks like. Then start finding closer and closer approximations in the real world.
posted by salvia at 8:20 PM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Is it a passion to do something to change the world, or a desire to be remembered after you're dead? Be truthful to yourself, and choose carefully.
posted by tumid dahlia at 8:21 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Every time you're extra nice to someone - family, friend or complete stranger - you change the world.
posted by joannemullen at 8:22 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I may not qualify to answer your question because I haven't Changed The World, but I have changed some lives. I'm a paramedic, and there are people out there who may not know my name or recall my face, but whose lives I helped save. There are more who (I hope) remember being treated with calm kindness on what was for many of them the worst day of their lives. It's not a world-altering contribution but it has merit and I'm pretty passionate about it.

And the way I figured out that I wanted to do this was... by doing lots of things. People intellectualize passion, as if it's a hidden property within you just waiting to be unlocked, but passion is about doing. I was an EMT when I was in college, and never thought I would do anything like it again. After a few career leaps in which I felt further and further removed from the people I was allegedly helping, I realized that direct service was what really excited me. Even though I could affect more lives by administering programs or changing policy, it just wasn't as fulfilling as the direct human contact I had while running emergency calls as an ill-paid 21 year-old EMT. So I started a new career as a firefighter and paramedic.

The point is that I wouldn't have understood this by pondering it; I needed to have actual experiences to give me the information. I had to try different angles and struggle to understand why some weren't satisfying and others fit me well. Your passions are the things you will return to, almost in spite of yourself and the pressures of the world, because they fit you. Doing different things is the first step to getting the experiences you need to develop that vision.
posted by itstheclamsname at 8:32 PM on April 14, 2011 [8 favorites]


is it..desire to be remembered after you're dead?

Nope.

It's not about fame/money/legacy etc etc
posted by xm at 8:39 PM on April 14, 2011


How did you become that person? how did you... ...get where you wanted to be?

That phrasing bothers me, and I think it's why there were questions above as to whether it was really about fame. Get where you wanted to be? Like, you're seeking a state where you can say "I have done THIS! Now I am complete."?

Derail based on a hunch - let's say you succeed and you get there. Now you're faced with a personal problem: you still don't feel worthwhile or special (or whatever), because you're still you and how you feel about you doesn't change the way media has been telling us every since the day we were born. This is nastier than it sounds, because it strips away hope; if you have everything you wanted and it didn't help, then what possible recourse is left to you? The next time someone exclaims at the news "It makes no sense - why would he kill himself?! He had everything!", think about that.

Back to the question.
You're not trying to get anywhere or become anyone. You're trying to do something of some significance to a wider group of people.
A good way to game success in this is to focus your efforts where little effort is being made. You can change the world by volunteering for the presidential campaign, but a lot of people are also putting a lot of resources into opposing you, which means even immense personal contribution tends to not make a definitive difference.
Likewise, you can change the world by building a mega-corporation from nothing, but you would be competing for profit, which is the focus of so much human effort that again, it's possible, but more likely that you will expend your energy without getting there. A HUGE silver lining is that even if you fail, but got a small way there with say a small company, owning a small company is a very valuable personal gain!

So think, what can you do, what are others not doing, what do people need, and how can you connect those?
Alternatively; every time you say "Damnit, how come no-one has done X yet?", stop and think - is it that X can't be done, or is it that people haven't really tried yet?
Alternatively, think; what could make a difference, but is so unrewarding that few would bother? What would happen if instead, someone were to crank that up to 11?
Focus your time and effort (resources) on where resources are not being focused, and your resources will define the future.

Low hanging fruits (meaning, stuff that advances the global state of the art but that you can achieve with resources not unrealistic for a person) are still out there. The advance of technology is constantly creating more - an innovation that would be awesome but is impossible or super-expensive to do, may become not just possible tomorrow, but trivial. Eventually someone will notice and do it. But if you're paying attention to what is coming down the pipes, you can fairly easily be the first to put 2 and 2 together. And if there is very little money (just human benefit) in this 2+2, you probably have the field largely to yourself anyway :)

A low-hanging fruit example - the abortion debate in America is an immobile trench-war institution. Lots of energy expended, but not much opportunity for the average person to have any impact - everything is too entrenched. You might disagree with this example, as the trenches haven't really shifted, but one woman, on her own, in her spare time, did some research, wrote it up, and released it onto the internet - a guide to DIY home abortion for women denied access to legal medical options. And that day, with headlines around the world, everyone, on all sides of the issue, froze in absolute shock and horror, at the graphic picture of a possible future that this one woman had illustrated for all see and think about.

Make notes of your observations and ideas, because you'll have to research them, and eventually you're going to have to stake your resources and focus on just one (or on a small number) of the most promising.

Make notes of problems that you don't have solutions for. Make notes of solutions that you don't have problems for. Make notes of things that are not problems now, but are likely to become problems in the future. Etc. Be thinking about the world always (be it your neighbourhood or country or industry or hobby or the whole globe), be thinking about how things work, how things could potentially work.

And as I said, it's satisfying to see the influence of your contribution reflecting in the world around you, but you'll still be you. It's unlikely to make you feel like a better person.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:58 PM on April 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


I did it through trial and error. I worked with environmentalism, child abuse, HIV+ folks, sexual abuse victims. I tried being a campus activist, did a teeny tiny bit of politicking, and then after casting about for 15+ years found the world of domestic violence advocacy, which is where I focus my time these days (well, my free time when not earning a paycheck). And I know that it "actually makes [my] presence on earth worth it for other human beings", because I've gotten that feedback directly from other people.

I think it's hard to intellectualize the search, and that you learn more by trying and doing than thinking. You don't have to go into it blind, just pick something that you might be interested in, and explore it (volunteer, intern, etc). If it works out, stick with it, try variations, etc. If you don't feel anything, look for something else. I guess in that sense I'm 2nding itstheclamsname.
posted by Gorgik at 9:59 PM on April 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have some strong artistic passions, which I wouldn't be above referring to as "callings". I might be successful with them and I might not. But as for changing the world, I can't come up with any original way to do it.

Like itstheclamsname said, healthcare professionals change the world significantly for somebody every day. So do teachers, some lawyers, therapists, etcetera.

However, if you want to do something that will get you noticed personally, you can try to open an advocacy organization like Avaaz, or you can start a protest. These things happen, and they work. Don't let anyone talk you out of it. And don't let anyone call you narcissistic for wanting attention for your accomplishment. We deserve credit for good things we put into the world.

But I don't think too many activists you've heard of simply wake up and say "I'm going to change the world today. Usually it is applicable to something they believe in, like abortion or improving world literacy.

Think about it.
posted by CorduroyCorset at 10:36 PM on April 14, 2011


Find other people who share your passions*, talk to them about their observations of the world, and then go off those observations as to what you want to do.

2 friends and I started our own community service organization this year to teach south side Chicago kids how to play musical instruments after noticing public schools have instruments hidden away in closets but no one to teach the kids how to play them. We're all musically inclined, have musically inclined friends, and managed to tap into the music community in the neighborhoods and on our school's campus.

It takes a lot of patience to get started on anything. My friends and I just lucked out in that our cause garnered a tremendous outpouring of support from the community at large. Even still, getting the resources and logistics figured out was a big undertaking. Just make sure it's not a quick burning passion! You have to stick with it for a bit.

I don't really think we're activists but we do champion music education! It's not exactly changing the world but I'd like to think we're helping the kids.


*Finding my passion wasn't hard since I've studied piano since I was 6 and have realized just how helpful music is to keeping me balanced (takes away my awful mood swings when I get stressed or down).
posted by astapasta24 at 11:16 PM on April 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Shovel snow off your neighbors sidewalk, when you're out doing your own sidewalk. Ask your other neighbor, that older guy who doesn't drive, does he need anything from the grocery store, cuz you're going and maybe he needs some half n half or whatever. Lend that sympathetic ear to that friend or family member who needs it, even if sometimes you don't want to do so -- it's good to stretch sometimes, not so much as to suffer, just to grow.

What is the largest challenge you've had and successfully negotiated? What have you done that others might need support as they decide to do it? Because you are in a unique position, you can help them when others cannot, you can help them because you've walked the road. And people can hear it in your voice when it's something that you've done, a life you've lived, and they'll trust you, as they should.

Foster care a dog, or a cat, or an aardvark, whatever, find a rescue organization and take on a dog named Myrtle, and Myrtle has been given a raw shake in life, and she's timid, she needs gentle care and love and food and a gentle hand to pet her head until the organization can find a suitable home from her. Maybe she'll poop on the floor and be absolutely terrified that she's gonna get beaten, and you clean up the poop and give her a dog cookie and go for a walk, give her a kiss on her head and throw the ball with her. You've just made a huge difference in a life. You have helped. You have loved.

It could be anything -- maybe you had a real hard time in algebra, you can absolutely find someone who would love your tutoring. Maybe you've moved from one country to another, and walked through all the changes involved in that, and can guide someone else through it. My understanding is that the entire 12 step deal -- AA OA AlAnon etc and etc -- my understanding is that they operate by doing this, that they understand this idea that everyone benefits if those who've walked the road grab the hand of the person behind them and lead them on their way.

Changing other peoples lives doesn't have to be Sister Theresa or whatever, and even Sister Theresa had gas some days, and didn't like something or other about her life, she didn't set out to be Sister Theresa, she was justs being herself and her life found her, same as yours will find you, once you're open to doing what is needed, what is in front of you.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:31 AM on April 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


I like this question, because this has been my own personal desire for my whole life. I don't know exactly what you think will change the world or leave a mark, so I can only speak for myself but maybe my own experience can help you.

So what I have done throughout my life is ignore the things that are conventionally regarded as "what you do." I have no career to speak of (well, maybe the beginnings of one now, at age 36). Instead I spent a lot of years working crap jobs that gave me the free time to think about things: how does the world really work? How do you really make change? How can I do those things that make change happen in a realistic, effective way?

I haven't figured it all out yet, and I don't know if I'll ever actually make some lasting change for the world as a whole. But I do finally feel like I've reached a point where my skills, community, and passions are beginning to intersect, and I could potentially do some good stuff if I'm lucky.

I like Harlequin's advice, and also the advice to try lots of different things and you'll figure it out over time. Maybe you'll find that making a difference for individuals is what makes you feel good - maybe you'll be more like me and find that larger issues are what's important.

Something to try: look at other people who have done something similar to what you envision for yourself. What did they do? I like Bucky Fuller's lifestory - there are many other visionaries who have been effective to some degree in putting new ideas out there, or bringing those ideas into reality. Find out who those people are, and figure out where they succeeded, where they failed, what they did and think about what they could have done better.

Also, read lots of books on strategy. The Art of War, The Book of Five Rings, business strategy, von Clausewitz, Kenichi Ohmae, military strategy. Play Chess and Go, Civ, and other strategy games.

And be prepared to pay some personal cost. Going to work for a think tank or political campaign might be lucrative, but it might well lock you into a conventional, trench warfare kind of struggle that will not actually ever have any lasting impact. Listen to your critics but follow your own path, don't let self doubt or other people's criticism dissuade you from doing things. Failure is the best opportunity to learn, and you will neither fail or succeed if you don't do.
posted by natteringnabob at 10:17 AM on April 15, 2011


I appreciate all of you taking the time to write.

I am very surprised at how many people have missed the point entirely. I have chosen best answers to give an idea of what I meant to ask and these answers are very helpful. I hope to hear more from people who can understand what I mean and relate to it. Feel free to email if you are uncomfortable posting here.
posted by xm at 9:02 AM on April 16, 2011


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