This post was originally produced for Forbes.
The advice to “follow your passion” is so common as to be considered by thoughtful writers of original prose to be a cliché. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is bad advice, but it does leave audiences wanting more. Experienced, successful social entrepreneurs model the procedure.
For purposes of this article, I will presume that your passion is something that matters, that someone’s life other than your own is dependent upon your success. If your passion is rounded corners on rectangles, I wish you well but have nothing for you. If your passion is ending the impoverishing bias against pygmy populations in the Congo or fighting echinococcosis or other neglected tropical diseases or implementing age-old agricultural techniques that increase yields while sequestering carbon, please stick around.
Here is my guide for following your passion.
Step 1. Find your passion. Regardless of your age, you know you’ve found your passion when making a physical sacrifice—sleeping on the floor, walking long distance, traveling constantly, or going without good food for days at a time—seems a small price to pay for the opportunity to make a difference. James Mayfield, founder of CHOICE Humanitarian, is in his 80s and still finds himself working in remote villages in Nepal, sleeping on the floor, in his quest to end extreme poverty in that country. He found his passion. Find a big problem you’re willing to make physical sacrifices to solve.
Step 2. Develop and deploy a relevant skill. The greater and more relevant your skills to addressing the problem you’ve chosen, the more likely you are to solve the problem. Yes, Médecins Sans Frontières does need lawyers, travel agents, logicians and a variety of other trained and skilled people, but if you really want to play in this arena, you’ll want to develop mad medical skills as a doctor, physician’s assistant or nurse.
Step 3. Spot your spot. At some point in your career—early or late—you’re likely to see a problem, probably a subset of the problem you’ve been working to solve, that is being entirely neglected. For example, Owen Robinson, founder of Haiti Cardiac Alliance, was working for the large international NGO Partners in Health when he noted that no one was tracking the children who needed cardiac care in Haiti. He launched his organization to do just that and has since saved hundreds of children by not only matching them to capable caregivers but also by assiduously tracking their progress over time. His organization is effective—radically so by my analysis—because he knew what he was doing when he spotted his spot and went to work.
Step 4. Scale your good. There are nearly a billion people who are living in extreme poverty, seldom having enough food to eat, often lacking access to clean water and certainly having no sanitary place to defecate. As noble as it is to help the one, you cannot allow yourself to be satisfied by small things. The scale of problems is so vast, you must constantly be thinking about how to increase your impact not 10% but tenfold. The magnitude of the problems the world faces, including climate change, demands a relentless focus on growth. When Ann Cotton helped the first 32 girls in Zimbabwe attend school, she likely didn’t imagine that one day the organization she founded, CAMFED, would have educated 10,000 times that number—but it is quickly approaching that milestone. Having grown its impact by four orders of magnitude, she and the organization must continue to think about growing by yet another order of magnitude to reach millions of girls.
It is easy to conclude that only remarkable people can have great impact. That notion turns reality entirely on its head. The people who have made the greatest change for good in the world are remarkable precisely because of what they did. No one knew Mother Teresa was remarkable when she took her vow of poverty and began her ministry in Calcutta in 1932. The fact is, she wasn’t so remarkable then. She is admired for her work because of what she accomplished not for who she was.
One of the people I have come to admire most, is Susanna Rea Oam, an ordinary woman from Australia. She is a polio survivor, but unlike many others who were paralyzed by the crippling disease, she suffers little apparent harm from the childhood disease. After her first husband passed away, she organized a campaign within Rotary (I, too, am a member) to raise money for the international service organization’s global campaign to eradicate polio. Over the years since, she has helped raise over $3 million by flying around the world to Rotary Clubs and personally asking club members to donate to her “World’s Greatest Meal to End Polio” campaign. With a match from the Gates Foundation, the $3 million has become $9 million, enough to vaccinate 15 million children. This is how ordinary becomes extraordinary.
You can follow your passion. You can do more than round the corners on rectangles. You can change the world.
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