10/24/2014 02:32 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

What Composers and Social Entrepreneurs Have in Common


Last week I saw the composer John Adams conduct the Yale Symphony Orchestra, performing one of his own works, Absolute Jest. It's amazing to see a composer of Adams' caliber conduct his own music. He had that passion and intensity you sometimes see, when musician, instrument, and music merge into one. But his instrument was an entire orchestra, and the music was his creation. They were all working at their utmost to bring it to life.

After the final note, the audience gave a loud ovation, and I watched Adams closely as he turned to face us. It was striking to see the overwhelming sense of joy and satisfaction he felt. It was the satisfaction of one who's put every cell of his being into a work, and who knows it's impacted the lives of others.

I imagined if I asked him at the end of his life, "What did you live for?" he would say, "For this very moment."

A Deeper Kind of Satisfaction

How many people get to feel the satisfaction Adams felt in that moment? We hear a lot about "job satisfaction," but what about the satisfaction of devoting ourselves to what we were meant to do?

It's available to all of us, and we should strive for it.

For social entrepreneurs in particular, it's the source of what we do. There's no auditorium or applause in our case, just those moments when we know our work -- the work we've put our entire being into -- has impacted the world beyond us.

We don't get it in the regular business world. That world is about increasing personal wealth and the wealth of companies, measured in money and possessions.

When I worked in that world, I may have felt the satisfactions of successful negotiations, of teamwork, of traveling the world, of pay raises and bonuses. But they didn't run deep. Something vital was missing. That's why I left.

Impacting the world beyond us

Everything changed the moment I began using my skills and energy to help the world beyond me. I was still doing business, but the goal and payoff were fundamentally different. I was part of something larger. As I began to see the real impact of my work, the satisfaction was completely different from anything I'd known before.

When we put our talents to work for the greater good, we feel the beginnings of a deeper satisfaction -- different in quality and intensity. It changes our awareness of our place in the world and our responsibility toward it. It triggers our creativity, opens our horizons and encourages us to keep going.

Arriving at this kind of satisfaction takes immense amounts of dedication, no less than a composer needs to bring an idea to performance. But it's absolutely worth striving for, because it forms us and stays with us.

But it starts with some hard questions: Do we feel that satisfaction now? Are we working for something that goes beyond us? Have we felt what it's like to devote ourselves to something beyond us?

If not, why not?