10/31/2012 10:41 am ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

Believe Like You're 16. Believe Like You're Malala

When you were 16, you believed you would matter someday. You believed that you would change the world, find a cure for cancer, walk on the moon, and make a difference in the world.

Pakistani girl activist Malala Yousafzai believes that she can make a difference. She is 14-years-old and now an international icon for girls' rights. She believes that girls have the right to education and that her voice will make a difference. And it did.

Yet very few adults I have met have actually believed that. For some reason, although children--all children--believe in their own unlimited potential, adults are constrained by invisible chains. Where does this change occur? And so, I embarked on a quest to find out the answer to this apparent contradiction between dreams and reality--and where they fell through. Perhaps because the capital-F Future seems imminent, I too k an impromptu survey of strangers on trains to find out whether it was actually possible to make a difference in the adult world.

Did these strangers on the train feel like their lives thus far had mattered? Did they come away from each day with a sense of accomplishment? Did they feel like they had made a difference or was that just a concept that all children would eventually let go of?

The first stranger was a college student named Brad, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, with a backpack slung over his shoulder. He claimed that his goal was to work on Wall Street and make a lot of money. When I gently probed his reasoning, he chuckled uncomfortably, "It's a good field. Safe future, plus the possibility of making a fortune in New York with a nice retirement in Florida."

The second stranger was a Community Director at Comcast, a middle aged Indian man who had a more moderate view. He reasoned that his job put food on the table first, but if at his job, he was then able to aid in programs that provide the poor with computers and school supplies, then it was a win-win situation. Not every day had to be about making a difference, he said, but some days he felt like he did. I asked him then, if overall, he felt like he had done something with his life. He responded, "Everyone does something with their life. He does what he thinks he is supposed to do."

The third stranger was a blonde chemist who had emigrated from Poland, perhaps in her 30's. She had pretty wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and a weary, distant look in her eyes. She claimed she had lived a simple life, just trying to enjoy each day, from her childhood in Eastern Europe to her recent years in the United States. "I'm not the type of person where I have to make a difference every day. I never wanted to change the world. It's too difficult to even change yourself." Curious, I then inquired as to whether she even wanted to change herself. She gave a mixture of a smile and a sigh, "No, I think I'm comfortable with who I am now."

All of these exchanges reminded me of a term called, "functional nihilism." In New York Times best-selling author John Green's words, "Very few of us believe that human life is devoid of all meaning and that all we should do is answer to our base urges and fulfill our basic desires and try to distract ourselves from pain or fear or unpleasantness, but almost all of us act as if we believe that." Brad pushed his conscience about a career purely for the money to the back of his mind; the Comcast man tried to do both and simply prioritized the "making a living;" the chemist had simply forgotten that she once had dreams. So many children dream of shaping history in some way--at what point do we dismiss this fantasy for perceived reality? Is it just a part of growing up to lose that search for a career with meaning in the quest to put food on the table? Then what, if anything, are all the courageous activists like Malala, fighting for? What, if anything, are children everywhere dreaming of?

Yet last weekend, when I traveled to New York for a Conference with Girl Up and to attend the International Day of the Girl Reception at the United Nations foundation, speakers like Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon stressed the importance of ordinary people standing up with Malala for what they believe in.

Throughout the weekend, I was struck by the fact that the panelists kept stressing the possibility of "making a difference," as they had done. I looked around the room at all the amazing girls we had gathered and realized that at this age, the only thing that distinguished us from our classmates was our belief that we could make a difference. The only thing that distinguished these speakers was their enduring belief that they could make a difference.

There is nothing wrong with how anyone chooses to live their life. They're simply doing "what they think they are supposed to do." Whether it's true or not, most people feel like they are not only transient, but also unimportant. But as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "It's never too late to be the person you want to be." Whether it's campaigning for a cause, starting a petition, or getting involved in your community, you can do something to make a difference. Fight for girls' education, whether it's in America or in Afghanistan. When you were 16, you believed it. Why can't you believe it now?

So my question was answered. Growing up does not necessarily entail letting go of your dreams; rather for me, I hope growing up will empower me to achieve my dreams--American dreams, of freedom, equality, and justice for all. No one is too old or too worn to believe that they can make a difference. No matter who you are or what you do now, as long as you have the will, there is a way. Find a cause you believe in, and fight. That's a lesson we can learn from Malala Yousafzai. That's advice from a 16-year-old. That's advice from 16-year-old you.

This blog is part of a series called "Malala's Impact," which highlights the need for global education. The series is launched in partnership with the Global Day of Action for Malala campaign, which takes place on November 10.