Knowing When to Toss Away the Map

05/27/2015 03:30 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

It's graduation season across the U.S., and millions of students and their families are celebrating commencement and wondering, with hope and excitement, what exactly is commencing.

At the Yale University commencement ceremony last week, I thought of the amazing opportunities that are open to these graduates of today, and the truly unprecedented world they're leaping into.

It's a world that's more shape-shifting, open-ended, volatile, malleable, and up-for-grabs than ever before, with challenges as immense as the possibilities.

But the pace of change, the breaking down of silos, the scale of these challenges and possibilities, means that pre-established paths to success are increasingly dubious--as are the ready-made definitions of what success really is.

There are no maps or guides for what so many of these innovative young people are setting out to do and become. For them to live the purposeful, impactful lives they want to live, they have to be willing--and excited--to search without maps.

Millennials Co-Create a New World

It's becoming increasingly clear that the Millennial generation is considerably different from their predecessors. It's a generation that feels a much greater responsibility for the world around them, but also a greater desire for purpose in their own lives. They're embracing entrepreneurship as a means of determining their own identities and futures. They're letting go of the profit-at-all-costs ethos that's defined business for hundreds of years, and are instead pursuing social and civic entrepreneurship--with a growing awareness that financial viability and social/environmental sustainability can support each other.

Statistical pictures, such as the Deloitte Millennial Survey and this Net Impact study, illuminate this megatrend--and so does day-to-day experience. University campuses around the world are teeming with a new mentality, and the challenge for these aspiring changemakers, as well as for their teachers and mentors, is to harness their ideals and desires and transform them into new realities.

The natural question for all of them to ask is: What steps should I take?

The short answer is: Your own.

There Is No Clear Map For Where You Are Going

One of the ironies of our increasingly open and interconnected world is that it's so thoroughly mapped. There is an endless supply of map apps telling us where we are, where we should go, and how we can get there quickest and easiest.

Maps are, of course, indispensable when our goal is get from point A to point B--that is, when we know where we're going, and all we care about is getting there. But maps blind us when our goal is to discover new paths through uncharted territory. And isn't that our goal?

This is true in travel, of course, where there's an art to getting lost and relishing the experience. But more importantly, it's true for the most important quest in our lives: finding our calling and building what it asks us to build.

Who Has the Map of You?

My 10 years as a social entrepreneur have left me completely convinced that each of us has a calling. When discovered, our calling gives us a constant source of energy, creativity, and meaning. We feel at once that we have found our mission and that we have found ourselves.

I'm equally convinced, however, that this calling is never served to us ready-made on a silver platter. In fact, finding it requires some serious experimentation and exploration of the world around and within us. And that is not easy.

Maps to life and success--in the form of school curricula, advice from mentors and peers, the example of role models, etc.--can help orient us. We should take all the tips and wisdom we can get from these maps, while improving them for those who come after us.

But when we grow over-dependent on maps, we blind ourselves to what's new and unique in the world--including ourselves, for which no map will ever exist.

Mapping the Life of the Social Entrepreneur

This willingness to journey without maps can help transform anyone in any context. But it's especially important for social entrepreneurs, who are, by definition, attempting to create new structures that change our collective reality for the better.

It's extremely exciting to see so many young people turning to social entrepreneurship as a way of life, and it's crucially important for them to have experienced role models as well as the support of incubators, mentors, and a top-down commitment from institutional leadership--that is, for them to have maps to success.

But it's even more important for aspiring social entrepreneurs to rise above their support systems and guides, toss away the maps, and do something truly bold, new, experimental, and unique--and not just once, but continually throughout their lives.

Success comes in many forms, and only you can decide what it will mean for you. To me, real changemakers--the ones determined to improve the state of the world with an open mind -- are willing and excited to go where no one else has gone before, with only their inner voice and strength as guides and judges.