To Save The World, Save Yourself!

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY Fran Blandy Picture taken on April 29, 2012 show the view of Tokeh beach near Freetown. Bone-white sa
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY Fran Blandy Picture taken on April 29, 2012 show the view of Tokeh beach near Freetown. Bone-white sand squeaks beneath your feet, the curved beach framed by lush forested hills, empty but for a handful of expats and intrepid tourists who have gotten wind of Sierra Leone's raw beauty. AFP PHOTO/ ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/GettyImages)

Tiffany Persons is Shine on Sierra Leone's charismatic Founder/CEO, a dedicated mother and a successful Hollywood-based casting director. Four years ago, I was her mentor.

Today, roles are reversed. Her tough truth-telling about economic development work and social sector volunteerism now make her my mentor. Possibly yours too.

After growing Shine on Sierra Leone's program, year after year, achieving new international recognition and funding, enlarging its reach and complexity, Tiffany hit the brakes. As she tells it, "It really hurt my heart to realize the people that I was working with didn't feel connected and part of the change."

The French art historian Henri Focillon elegantly wrote that "the spiritual instant that is our life..." is not automatically in sync with the times in which we live. Ask any martyr, any undiscovered artist, any unelected statesman.

In economic justice work, our times seemingly call out for leaders with big plans, big ideas, big scale. The ugly, terrible vastness of global poverty seems to demand leaders with the skill to create large systems of opportunity, the talent to reach millions and the urgency of purpose to never sleep, never rest, never flag.

Tiffany has a different idea. "I was sold the idea of scale, but now I am the anti-scale."

"I am going to focus all of my energy and all of my love into this one place. Let us grow inward, instead of expand outward."

"We throw words around like sustainability, but we are throwing to the side the human connection. Touch! Engage with the person whose life you want to transform."

"Fully, fully immerse in the culture you want to work with. Live locally. Listen. If you want to work in developing countries, then get in there and be a citizen," Tiffany implores.

If you think "doing good" is a recovery program for a deadend career, or a panacea for personal happiness, or a path towards building a personal brand, forget it. As Tiffany notes, "If you don't find happiness where you are right now, you are going to be unhappy in the social sector."

As Levitt and Dubner summed up in SuperFreakonomics, "Most giving is... impure altruism or warm-glow altruism. You give not only because you want to help, but because it makes you look good, or feel good, or perhaps feel less bad." The same can hold true for casual volunteerism and, all-too-often, for switching from a soulless industry to a mission-driven career.

"Every moment of every day has incredible meaning, but, if you don't know that, when you jump into the helping sector, you're gonna find yourself where you started -- unhappy and unfulfilled," Tiffany warns.

"Be prepared to grow yourself. Don't get into the [social sector] thinking that you know everything and you are coming to transform someone's life. Into what? Into being YOU!?!"