All millennials want to change the world. Our world is beautiful, and yet, it is imperfect, with many people lacking the economic, social, and political resources to self-actualize. And yet, many of us choose career paths outside the social change realm. In some cases, these choices may be due to pressing student loans or cultural pressures. At the same time, there is a huge swath of young people who want to change the world, but do not for three reasons:
1) A belief that the world's issues are too large and intractable to solve
2) The idea that we need badges of competence, or specific training, in order to become changemakers.
3) A weak (though growing) ecosystem for supporting young social change makers.
We are bombarded with statistics about how many people live on a dollar per day. Becoming aware of the severity of a problem makes us feel powerless and creates inertia; we feel like helping one individual will probably do very little "in the grand scheme of things," so we instead chose not to do anything. Yet, imagine if your parents decided that you appeared to lack intelligence or integrity as a five year old, so investing in your education would be a waste, since "in the grand scheme of things," you would never amount to much. Obviously that makes you feel uncomfortable, because you're a human being with needs; so are impoverished children living all over the world. If we think of each child as a person, as opposed to as 1/1,000,000,000, then it becomes easier to be motivated to serve others. In no way do I mean to suggest that we shouldn't look for and test systemic solutions -- we absolutely should. At the same time, if we continue to search for the perfect, systemic solution, we will never find it, and in the meantime, while we are looking, millions of children will lose out.
The second point relates to a culture and society that is obsessed with name brands and qualifications. The thinking is that until you have those names on your resume, along with their attendant toolkits, then you cannot and should not work to solve social problems. I find two problems with this way of thinking. Firstly, if I know I want to be a practitioner of education, isn't it best for me to work in education? All of the research on gritty people who have risen to the tops of their fields suggests that they stuck with one activity for at least 10 years, investing at least 10,000 hours in deliberate practice. Thus, if my vision is to work with a group of likeminded people to use education to transform communities, then wouldn't it be better for me to continuously work in education?
At the same time, we need to acknowledge the importance of skill acquisition and network expansion that are a result of working at a top consulting firm or attending a prestigious business school. Yet, surely there are better ways of introducing aspiring changemakers to the right people and helping them to learn relevant skills. In response to student demand, this ecosystem is starting to grow. For example, right now I am a fellow at the Penn Social Impact House, which is a cohort of 22 UPenn current students and alumni with bold ideas to change the world. We have received mentorship from a variety of professors, entrepreneurs, social innovators, and business people. One of the mentors, Eric Glostrom, is starting a similar, more radical initiative called Watson University, in which aspiring young changemakers will receive mentorship from Nobel Peace Prize winners, MacArthur Fellows, serial entrepreneurs and other highly successful people.
Let us close the gap between the status quo and what us millennials want to do. The best way to move beyond the jarring statistics is to commit yourself to service of others so that you understand those you are serving as individuals, as opposed to as "lives under a dollar per day." Have confidence in your ability to be a changemaker, regardless of your qualifications -- even start with random acts of kindness. In the meantime, let us ensure that the right ecosystem and supportive scaffolding is in place to ensure that young people with world-changing ideas succeed. If we can do all of that, then we can shape our future to look like the world we want to live in.