FAQ: The Practitioner’s Guide To Becoming a Changemaker

Q: Do I have what it takes to help change the world?
A: I don’t know if those who make it their life’s work to change the world are born or made—probably some of both. What they share is a sense of passion about what they do. The best have an unrelenting tenacity to produce the results they want to see. And incidentally, a passionate approach to work and career often spills over to a life rich in many other areas.

Q: What does it mean to “change the world”? Clearly, all the world’s problems aren’t going away anytime soon, no matter what I do. So how can you “succeed”?
A: You can’t define success in terms of “solving all the world’s problems” or even those that concern you most, though having hopes and goals for attacking them is important. You can define success in your own life. If what you’re doing gives you meaning—a sense that you are doing something that really matters—makes you eager to charge ahead, and gives you an outlet for being, well, “you,” that’s real success. Part of your feeling of success will usually involve relationships with others who share your passion. It certainly doesn’t revolve around what “other people” think or gaining their approval.

Q: Aren’t all the most important problems “taken,” or at least the jobs that you need to have to address them?
A: You’re kidding, right? Maybe what you mean is that many high-profile organizations that do work to alleviate poverty or provide health care or heal the environment have more applicants than positions. That doesn’t mean that they are unavailable to you, just difficult to get. But there is so much need on the planet, and there are so many organizations that are taking—and can be taught to take—innovative approaches to addressing key societal problems that you certainly can find something that fits you well. You can work within a traditional company to influence it or work from the outside. You can work in the developing world or in a developed-world context. You can start something of your own. The possibilities are endless.

Q: But isn’t it important to find the right opportunity, because that can set you up or set you back?
A: Even if you get one of those “perfect” jobs that everyone wants, it won’t be perfect. No company or organization is. Neither is there a perfect way to address any given problem of society. The opportunity you receive is equal to what you make of it. It may not be the perfect fit; it may not last a lifetime (it almost certainly won’t), and you may ultimately feel the position isn’t taking you forward the way you’d like. It’s not about finding the best company but producing the best you. When it’s time, acknowledge what’s gone wrong, learn from your experience, and move on. You certainly have heard that there’s no failure, just learning. That advice may be especially true in advancing your career.

Q: When is the best time to seek an off-the-beaten-path-change-the-world job?
A: Knee-jerk answer: tomorrow. Bit longer answer: probably tomorrow. More extended answer: only you know, but you are asking this question because you sense that “going corporate” or “going social work” or “going law” in a conventional sense isn’t right for you. It’s easy to think in terms of waiting until you’re “all ready”—more money, better skills, more security, and so on—but it won’t be easy then either. You may have gotten used to a fat corporate income. Someone always seems to have skills that are superior to yours. Now you’ve got kids to think about. … Your concerns are real, and it’s crazy not to acknowledge them. But ask yourself what a successful life is all about. If it’s about meaning and contribution, then my answer remains the same: probably tomorrow. If you want it enough, you can pick up the skills you need and move forward despite your doubts and concerns.

Q: How do I start?
A: Begin by getting as clear as you can about what makes you you. The answer will be different from your closest friend’s, even if you agree with each other about nearly everything. What are you passionate about? What are you willing to put in the hours to achieve? What would you do for free if you knew you absolutely would succeed? Then read, talk, network, find role models—you know the drill. Strive to become more and more knowledgeable in your chosen area. Wow them with what you know when you get the chance. (Of course, humility is a virtue, too.) Authentically become the you who deserves the job you’re waiting for.

Q: When does it end?
A: For most people who are truly committed to a cause and passionate about what they do, it doesn’t. And that’s good, because a life lived this way is a life lived with the knowledge that you’re not “going through the motions.” You’re living with “flow” when you direct your energies toward something you truly care about. Why would you want to stop? To play golf?

Q: You started this book talking about hybrid this, hybrid that. What do you mean?
A: We’ve seen how innovative, society-focused organizations steal ideas shamelessly and adapt them to their own context. These organizations comprise a constellation of ideas and features, which they test out, tweak, reject, or ramp up as they strive to grow and have greater impact. We’ve seen how society itself makes advances through a process of recombining effective features and letting the “fittest” not only survive but thrive.

Isn’t your life worth hybridizing? Aren’t there ideas, skills, attitudes, even experiences of others that you can “steal shamelessly,” test out, adapt, and amplify as you think best? At every moment there are “two roads” (and more) diverging ahead of you. So, based on all you know, choose, go forward, and know that there’s always another fork ahead if you want to change direction.

Q: You also said at the outset that you don’t have to choose, that you can create a life that has it all. It doesn’t appear that all society changers are wealthy. What gives?
A: You really don’t have to choose whether to pursue wealth or a life that gives you meaning. There are certainly many examples of people who find great meaning in their life who are materially comfortable and then some. The idea of “living hybrid” means noticing what others whom you want to emulate do and choosing to move your life in their direction. But I’m guessing that what you admire most in the people you’d want to emulate isn’t their “stuff”—fancy cars, big houses, trips around the world (though those might be amazing perks). Even if they gave you those things, you might feel more “important,” but becoming important is a lot different from pursuing and living the life you really desire. By doing what makes your heart sing, you get meaning—something more elusive but ever more gratifying. So, you see, you don’t have to choose. But my advice: choose wisely.

Q: This all sounds good. Are there any examplesof the kinds of people you’re hinting at in this FAQ or the kinds of organizations that they work for?
A: Please read the book!