I’ve had the pleasure of working with a couple of groups of bright, talented youth over the last week. These individuals are getting ready to start their academic journey at Harvard or MIT, or are preparing to travel the world in a journey of service and connecting. I’ve seen so much hope and promise in the eyes of these youthful individuals.
And yet, I’ve also noticed a troubling theme throughout many of my conversations.
“I’m just not sure that I making a big enough impact right now.”
“If I come back from my experience and I don’t know which direction to go, I feel like my life will be over. I may as well just go in a hole and disappear.”
“I just want to leave a legacy and change the world; I feel like I’m just not doing enough.”
Inevitably…I ask these individuals: “How old are you?”
And inevitably I am flabbergasted. And a bit saddened
We in this society have a grown up with the idea of impact in our veins. We’ve been inculcated with the idea that we all should go out and change the world, to become the next Elon Musk or President of the United States or whomever.
There’s nothing wrong with having these ambitions. What’s troubling is when they are not authentic to people who want to pursue a different route. What’s ever more troubling is when individuals feel like they haven’t left a big enough legacy before they’ve turned the age of 20. Or 30. Or 40.
A legacy is built over a long period of time. The etymology of the word legacy literally means “a gift left by will.”
It’s a gift that we leave, that we delegate when we are no longer to able to serve in the ways that we would like.
And there’s a long time for most of us before that happens.
The American idea of impact can also over-emphasize the self. We often feel that we’re not making an impact if it doesn’t look the way we think it should look.
But as a person who has traveled all around the world, I often encourage people to look at impact in terms of asking. Oftentimes the easiest way to help an individual or community — at home or abroad — is to simply ask them what they most need.
And when you get the answer, here is the hardest part: doing it. Accepting it and actually doing what they ask.
It may not look to you like traditional world-changing. But the whole idea of world-changing is often misconstrued. Indeed, there are the grandstanding individuals who get put on the cover of magazines. But their impact is built on the shoulders of teammates and volunteers and employees and mentors who don’t get to bathe and the warmth of the limelight.
There is no such thing as “changing the world” by yourself. The process of true impact and true legacy is long and grueling. There are many highs, but far more lows. There are times where even the greatest creators and leaders wander in the dark. There are times where these individuals are scared or nervous or fraying at the edges. And there are the daily struggles that the masses just don’t see.
In the end, this idea of needing to make an impact and earn prestige is linked with our intrinsic desire for acceptance. We’re taught that more prestige = more acceptance, and thus more love. But it’s a never-ending treadmill that only stops when we realize that we’re already worthy.
You don’t have to go out and prove your worth. As long as you act in ways that are meaningful to you, then the world is already a better place.
You have so much time. So lean on the people around you. Know that instability and uncertainty are inevitable. And do the small actions of asking and acting. And when you start to doubt, keep asking and acting. And when you’re scared, keep acting and asking.
Then one day, you’ll look down and your mark will be staring right back at you.