It had just passed midnight on my 26th birthday. My illuminated computer screen beamed through the darkness of my room. The cursor blinked as if impatient for my inability to fill the stark whiteness of the blank page. On it, I had set out to impart the 26 years of wisdom I had accumulated. My mind was as blank as the page.
The Internet is littered with mid-twenties existential crisis aversion tactics. Advice columns proudly proclaim "25 things to do before 25!" or "Lessons to learn before 30!" Surely, I thought, when you reach your mid-twenties, like a snake you shed your skin and are re-born an adult -- full of witticisms to share with those preparing their own transition. Unfortunately, no such transformation occurred and as the clock struck midnight nothing had changed about me other than the number by which I am now supposed to define myself.
But then that is the problem with we "millennials." We just refuse to grow up. Publications love to ponder our potential, our shortcomings, our living habits and our values. Analysts seem to know exactly who we are. It's almost funny, as a common criticism is that we do not know ourselves.
It is true, many of the generalizations about my generation apply to me and my life. I'm not ready to get married. I am over-educated (and that masters degree in journalism hasn't yet upped my pay rate). I believe I have a distinct identity. I value purpose over paycheck, and I am ready and willing to commit to making a difference.
There is, however, no blueprint for changing the world and many of us simply don't know where to start. We are waiting for an opportunity or invitation to put our money where our mouth is -- our skills to the test.
I knew there were probably others who shared these sentiments. So, one night several months ago, I put on a pot of lentils and invited everyone on facebook to come to my apartment. I hoped we might work together to answer the questions about how to solve problems in my community -- and ultimately my life.
Four people showed up. We didn't find answers. We asked more questions. As we did, however, we felt our momentum build. We decided that night perhaps resolution lay not in discussion but in action.
A few weeks later we met in the early hours before work on a Wednesday, to feed the homeless in South Central Los Angeles. Our group of four had grown into a group of nine. We smiled as we served, finding fulfillment in the simple tasks assigned to us. Still, again we were unable to find answers. Again more questions arose. Had we really made a difference?
Each additional question bloomed into determination and we planned a second volunteer event. This time we met on a weekend to pull invasive weeds from Malibu Creek. The work wasn't glamorous but it was rewarding. Under the early autumn sunshine more people showed up to participate. Each additional person brought ideas, enthusiasm, and, of course, more questions.
To maintain momentum we called our movement "Volunteer for a Year" and set a goal to meet each month. November was our third event and it highlighted the biggest lesson I have learned in my 26 years.
Rather than volunteer, for November I wanted to try something different -- an event that would showcase an issue. One that would raise money, and, ultimately, would bring more people together to grow our budding community.
We planned a night of art and music to benefit a new art program being launched at Homeboy Industries -- an organization that helps former gang members rebuild their lives. The planning was exhausting, the logistics harrowing, and the investment expensive. When the night rolled around I worried that no one would come.
Soon familiar faces filed in. Fabian Debora, Homeboy Industries resident artist and founder of the new program, displayed his beautiful and inspiring paintings on the walls. Singer/songwriter Adrian Bourgeois, who opened the evening, performed and enthusiastically promoted the cause even though we met that night for the first time. Leslie Lowe and her incredible band drove over two hours to play for us. Zachary and Dylan Zmed, front men for The Janks, canceled a show and took time out of a busy performance schedule to close the night. Photographer Colin Young Wolff captured the essence of the evening in his photos.
Though the room was not filled, I found myself stunned by the sheer talent held within it -- within one community of people. I was astounded by the dedication of those who contributed their time to pouring drinks or calling the raffle. I was inspired by those who had shown up, brought friends, and met new ones that night. I was amazed that together we raised over $650 for Homeboy Industries.
It was possible because each person who came invested -- financially, mentally, and physically -- to be there. During the course of the night it became our shared event and we all were touched by what we could achieve together.
This is why I write this post now. This event highlighted what I learned in my 26 years and helped me fill my blank page. I am now a fuller person because of those who dedicated their time and talent and sought to ask the questions that matter.
My advice to you, whatever age you are, is do what they all did that night. Do what changed and inspired me. Do what the participants of Volunteer For A Year do each month.
If you want to change your life and the world: Just. Show. Up.
Many people do not show up. Showing up is difficult. It can be scary and stressful. It can be frustrating, disappointing, and risky. If doesn't offer guarantees and often doesn't provide answers. But showing up separates those who will overcome the challenges in their lives and those who will succumb to them.
If mountains are the problems in our paths we cannot fight them--we must climb them. Step by step, slowly and steadily. And though at times it is daunting to see how far we must still climb, we must focus on the wonder and excitement to discover what lies over the horizon -- the questions we must continue to ask. We must delight in the wind against our backs and take respite gazing at the view of how far we have come.
Ultimately I still have questions about where I am going. I still wonder how I fit into the generalizations about my generation and how I can achieve the goals I set for myself. But, even if I am moving at my own pace, if I continue to show up I will continue to grow. I know I will stumble and I will rely on those climbing with me to pick me up and brush me off. I, in turn will offer my hand to others trying to take those small steps.
Now, I am preparing to take the next step in my life and I hope you will join me. All you have to do is just show up. If you do, there will be no limit to what we can accomplish.
Event Slideshow: (Photos by Photographer Colin Young Wolff)
Created with flickr slideshow.