Something Bigger Than Yourself
“This idea of ‘just follow your passion’, I don’t even have an understanding of what that means. Even though my whole life I have been very clear about the way I wanted to create change, and for whom, it wasn’t this out of the box understanding that we were going to use different forms of capital and support it with the right kind of talent to work a system to create real change …. I would say just start.
Don’t start by asking ‘what is my purpose’, what is my passion? Start by asking what are the problems that need to be solved? Which ones attract me? And take a step towards that. Take one step and the work will teach you where you need to take the next step. Build tools in your toolbox. If you still don’t know what your passion or your purpose is after you take those steps, follow a leader and learn from that leader. There’s something so powerful… in apprenticing. I would say I apprenticed for fifteen years. And… skipping steps, particularly because life is shorter than we think it is and it’s longer than we think it is, it doesn’t serve the world and it doesn’t serve you.
Just commit to something. This we don’t tell young people, or even old people. We don’t expect that enough. I think the cult of the individual is also the cult of optionality. And the secret is that when you commit to something, particularly something bigger than yourself, it will set you free. And suddenly you will find a freedom and layering of life that you never understood you had.” – Jacqueline Novagratz, from The Tim Ferriss Show
The funny thing about Commencement speeches is that they’re full of grand visions and language and guidance for the graduating class. Yet few ever act on the very best advice they hear that day. The quotes above offer some of the best advice I’ve come across for people stepping out into the unknown world of their “career path”: Build tools in your toolbox. Take one step towards solving the problems that need solving, and then another. See where it takes you. When you’re unsure, find a leader worth following and learn from them.
The thing is, this isn’t just timely advice for the Class of 2021 (or the frustrated Class of 2020 for that matter). It’s great advice for any of us from someone who has walked the path, tripped a few times along the way and risen to greater heights as a result. For all the talk of changing the world most people profess in unguarded moments of truth, the vast majority of us walk the path of career growth and embrace the cult of the individual (living my best life!). There’s nothing wrong with individualism, it just doesn’t do much to change the world.
Deeper in the interview, Novagratz speaks of tackling problems that won’t be solved in our lifetime. There are plenty to choose from: poverty, racial equality, fixing the climate change mess and a hundred other problems that warrant solutions but are too big for one person to tackle. It’s a funny thing, thinking about taking on a project that you won’t live to see solved. But aren’t we all working to create things that will outlive us? Raising children, building a business, making art, writing… all are beyond ourselves. And so is meaningful change.
When I hear someone like Novagratz speak, I recognize the small thinking I’ve been guilty of in my own lifetime. Thinking about things bigger than yourself is a path towards immortality, in a way. It’s creating something that will outlive you. Shouldn’t it be something that positively alters the course of humanity? If that seems too bold, well, maybe we aren’t giving ourselves enough credit for what we might accomplish. If we’d just commit and do the work. The work of our lifetime.