11/12/2012 10:57 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

If Everybody Did


A few weeks ago as I boarded a flight home to Germany, I carried with me a strangely melancholy feeling. This feeling troubled me, not only because I don't like to feel melancholy, but also because I had just attended had the incredible opportunity to join a group of 1,200 young people from over 180 countries at the One Young World Summit. Here I spent three days attending inspiring sessions, hearing from individuals who were all doing big things to address global issues, and networking with progressive minds from all over the world.

I scolded myself, "Emily, you should feel uplifted, in high sprits, encouraged and energized! Get out of the dumps and enjoy the post-conference glow!"

It took a while for it to register that this grey haze that I had collected was signaling to me something that was potentially quite obvious to anyone who had even the slightest idea of what my day-to-day existence looks like. Here's the confession: I verbally express care and passion about the great issues of the world, but yet regularly fail to take action to really do anything about them.

I'm sure that there are many who fall in my camp. We did a lot more while we were still college students, but after a while on the career path, the action portion of our progressive ideas fell to the wayside. It's still important to be able to converse about the issues of today to gain access to the circles of interesting people I like to call my friends. All this talk is nice, but as Seth Godin would probably ask me, "What have you shipped?"

For many of us, the answer is nothing. We have not delivered on our heartfelt words. Barring a disaster like Hurricane Sandy that draws us together in action for an admittedly measurable length of time, we each have our own excuses. A few of my favorites include the classics: being too busy, being too tired after a full workday, not knowing which issue to pick, and so on. (Can you feel your guilty conscience giving you a little poke in the ribs yet?) I've even come up with a few creative ones, "I focus on bringing positivity to my daily interactions," "it's much more difficult, not living in my own country," "I just don't trust the existing organizations; how can I know they're really doing more good than harm?" (I can now feel your guilty conscience rolling its eyes at me.)

The truth is, I am lazy and it is so much easier to make excuses than to take action. Muhammed Yunus said during the summit, "Don't be afraid to fail; think so small that it doesn't bother you. When [your business] fails, think about the one who designed the business. Do it again and improve the design." If a man who can count receiving the Nobel Prize and creating of the concept of microfinance and microcredit among his achievements says to start small, I will listen.

We don't all need to go running off to start tiny social businesses. The essence of what Yunus urged us each to do is to take a first step and do something (anything) about the smallest slice of the thing you care about.

Listen to what your guilty dark cloud of a conscience is telling you. Think about what you actually care about (not what your friends tell you to care about). What topic can you not hold back your opinion on when it comes up in conversation? What articles and websites do you lose yourself in, reading for longer than you had planned? Which topics to you always end up watching TED videos on? These are the magical things that, once you put a little energy in, will give you many times that much energy back.

I don't think you have to start an organization that touches millions of people or change the way your corporation works from the inside out to make a difference. If we all started our own movements, we'd have 7 billion movements of one. Get on your social media and figure out who is doing something near you, then ask them what you can do.

You and I both have a responsibility to the current and future world. I'm quitting the excuse-making and getting out there. Imagine the change that would be created if everybody did.