It was January 23rd, 2013: newly re-elected President Barack Obama stands before 7000 people who worked on his campaign thanking them for their effort. He speaks about how these members of the Millenial generation will go on to do great things. Then he folds up his notes. He takes a beat then says, "Alex was one of you--this incredibly thoughtful, talented, compassionate, caring young person who decided to get involved because he thought he could make a difference...And we know Alex made a difference. But in the same way that Alex left this indelible mark on my life and Michelle's life, and many of your lives, you will leave an indelible mark as well, as long as you decide that you're going to spend your life giving something back."
I sobbed for ten minutes straight. Alex was one of my best friends, and losing him to heart failure a few months before had (has) broken my heart.
When I was done, the idea for the Institute for Compassionate Leadership fell into my head. I looked around the room, filled with twenty-somethings who desired to create social change and, now that the campaign was over and the president re-elected, felt somewhat lost and directionless. I knew they were not alone; most of the hundreds of university students I had met over the past year while traveling for my first book, The Buddha Walks into a Bar, expressed a similar push-pull of "I want to help the world" and "I'm not sure how." I took in the president's words and thought, "There has to be a way to let the Millenial generation figure out their focus and do meaningful work."
The Institute for Compassionate Leadership is unique in that it takes these young aspiring changemakers and offers them a training based in mindfulness meditation, Obama campaign-style organizing techniques, and traditional leadership skills. We offer coaches to help students determine not just what they want to do next but what sort of leaders they want to become, who they want to be. Once a student has an idea of where they want to focus as a career, be it gun control, poverty advocacy, education reform, or elsewhere, we get them a mentor in that field. After they graduate from our program we hustle on their behalf to get them placed in a job in that social change field. In this way, the institute serves as a one-stop shop for training up and empowering more self-aware and compassionate leaders.
Alex was one of these leaders. He took a semester off during our senior year of college to campaign for Barack Obama when he ran for senator. While I never admitted it, I admired him for the bold move of leaving school and working that election. Here we were, all floundering in trying to figure out what we want to do, and Alex was already out there creating real change in the world. He went on to serve in major leadership roles in the 2007 primaries and 2008 and 2012 campaign cycles. He passed away on July 13, 2012, a devastating and horrific day.
The short answer to the question posed in the title of this piece is that Millenials want to do work that matters. There are many people out there who are looking for their chance to have an impact on society, just as Alex did. In 2010 the Pew Research Center released a study which states that Millennial priorities today seem to focus on benefiting others. Their study showed 21% of respondents claiming that "helping others in need" was a priority, which outranked such notions as owning a home or having a high-paying career. A study released by Career Advisory Board in early 2011 shows that Millennials believe that the top three factors that indicate career success are "meaningful work" (30%) which is more important than "high pay" (27%), and "sense of accomplishment" (24%).
I don't agree with everything the president does. But I do believe that he was right when he said that we each have the opportunity to leave an indelible mark, as long as we decide that we're going to spend our lives giving something back. Alex spent his career doing something he loved, and left this indelible mark. In honor of what he accomplished, and because I have seen first-hand how transformative both the grassroots style organizing and mindfulness meditation techniques can be, I am hoping that our fledgling institute will not only leave a positive mark on others but empower them to create the change this world needs. I am hoping it will let them do the work they want to do.
I know I can never get Alex back. I'm pretty sure I've tried everything in that regard already, and nothing panned out. However, he was a compassionate leader. And if I can play some small role in creating more people like that then I'll give my all to that endeavor.
To nominate someone for the inaugural class of the Institute for Compassionate Leadership click here.