Fulfilling, meaningful work doesn't start with a big idea. It starts with a small voice hiding inside you.
"One of the first things to do is to identify what really matters to you. Try to be very specific. Make sure you choose a mission you really care about: if you do something because you think you 'should', you won't enjoy it and you won't persist," suggests John-Paul Flintoff, author of How to Change the World, in Dumbo Feather:
Listen to amazing social entrepreneurs talk about the intimacy of their first caring steps as agents of change:
"You don't need fancy degrees, lots of resources, or special connections to start something that matters. Every one of us has the capacity to be a changemaker...," writes James Marshall Reilly in Shake the World.
"How you do anything is how you do everything. ....what I bring to it, how much passion, creates the meaningfulness," says Ashwini Narayanan, former General Manager of MicroPlace.
In 2005, I was invited by Freedom from Hunger to visit a microfinance program (microloans finance tiny businesses, principally for women, in the world's most economically depressed areas). High up in the thin air of the Andes, I watched an illiterate, Bolivian woman in a jaunty bowler hat stand in a goat field encircled by other women. She reported that, for the first time in her life, she was reliably able to feed her children every day, three times a day.
She spoke a pre-Inca language, Aymara. Her eyes bristled with a mother's determination. The halting translation from Aymara-to-Spanish-to-English told me her words, but what caused my eyes to water was her palpable pride.
Romanticizing the lives of impoverished people is pointless. Poverty on a pedestal is stupid and unnecessary.
Nonetheless, for a brief 2-3 minutes, this mother reached across the gender/cultural divide, across the economic inequality chasm separating us and across three languages to hug my humanity. I never learned her name, but I remain grateful for the gift she gave me that day.
As social animals, we are shaped by our clan, colleagues, and community. We extol individuality, but we are socialized in our tribe. When we spend time actually doing the work we believe in, we are face-to-face with whom and what we care about. Inevitably and unavoidably, our passion and our purpose deepens.
"When you do have to care for someone else, something rises up inside you and leads you!" says Raquel Donoso, Executive Director of the Latino Community Foundation. My anonymous Bolivian benefactor is led by the children she is raising. In turn, I was led by her.
Who leads you?