THE BLOG
11/20/2014 04:43 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2015

The Alchemy of Purpose

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In his landmark book The Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton Christensen argues that even great companies can fail when they overemphasize current needs at the expense of adopting new technologies and business models that can better address future demands.

It seems to me that the Social Innovator's Dilemma is how we balance the patience required for building enduring impact with the urgency that compels us to impassioned action.

Patience without urgency slips into inaction. Urgency without patience is blind to the truth that good things take time.

I believe we balance patience and urgency through purpose. Purpose that by its definition is authentic, focused, and uncompromising.

I have long admired emerging social luminary Ted Gonder for the purpose with which he leads his life and the nonprofit organization Moneythink.

Moneythink is restoring the economic health of the United States through preventative, transformative, and evidence-driven youth financial education. Since 2009, more than 1,000 college leaders have served as financial mentors and college role models to more than 9,000 teenagers across 10 states.

Moneythink has also partnered with IDEO.org and CauseLabs to launch Moneythink Mobile, which builds upon the organization's high-touch financial mentorship.

Simply put, Ted and Monythink are in the business of alchemy.

They foster the alchemy of financial acumen, of new friendships, of entrepreneurship. Indeed what is alchemy if not a teen who, empowered with actionable knowledge, can do more to better herself and her community with each dollar?

Ted is also a member of the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans. With his tenacity, generosity, and passion, I shortly expect Ted to be named to the Forbes Impact 30 Under 30 list among other honors.

Expressing the Social Innovator's Dilemma, Ted describes himself as "being impatient when I feel like I am wasting time." Even from a young age, he says, "I couldn't sit still in high school because I couldn't take my mind off the fact that time is ticking."

At the same time, Ted understands Moneythink must focus on the long-term task of building a movement because the societal and economic problems Moneythink is tackling are incredibly complex.

"This isn't something we can solve in two to three years," he admits. "This will take a generation and the collective impact of many, many ripples."

Our sense of purpose, like water, can ripple and expand over time. Before co-founding Moneythink, Ted got his start in social entrepreneurship leading a number of climate-change-related student initiatives in high school, most notably serving as the student advisor to Al Gore's The Climate Project.

When we are given the luxury of not having to worry about basic needs, Ted explains, we are given "the responsibility of making our time add value to others." We do this by forging -- and living according to -- our purpose.

This is not always easy, but it is essential.

"Quit early, quit often" is one of Ted's mantras: he quit his high school swim team to devote more time to his climate change efforts, and later quit his college fraternity to take Moneythink to the next level. Ted took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

He describes living in China during college as another such challenge: "I got very, very sick -- not just physically, but also I was lacking spiritual guidance. I came back disgruntled and disappointed."

Yet Ted says the experience "enabled me to open my heart and mind to new ways of living, thinking, and interacting with the world. My darkest moments came right before various dawns: finding Aikido, recommitting to Moneythink, expressing myself more vulnerably and forming deep friendships."

Our sense of purpose, like water, can ebb and flow and become something greater.

The martial art of Aikido has helped Ted continue to expand his purpose: "the first thing you learn, the first move is how to fall." When we trust in our purpose rather than succumbing to self-doubt -- when we transform our "fear of falling" into a "love of flying" -- that is alchemy.

Our unique purpose is the alchemy we each bring to the world. It is our legacy. To create lasting change at both the scale and speed required, we must balance urgency and patience so that they bring out the best in each other.

As you face your own version of the Social Innovator's Dilemma, may you find the purpose and the people who perform alchemy on your heart.