Advice to Young (and Not So Young) Folks Who Want to Make a Difference

Several years ago I was asked to present an award to a pioneering labor leader at the annual banquet of Americans for Democratic Action, on whose board I sit. I don’t know why I thought this, but as I started to research his background, I half expected to see a long list of jobs in different labor and political organizations.

Instead, I learned that he had served in his current position for well over a decade.

That very longevity framed my introduction at the banquet, directed especially to the college students and summer interns in attendance: If you want to make a difference, find something you care about and stick with it.

Look around you:  Most of the difference makers have staying power. They are driven by heartfelt commitment and a desire to do something meaningful.

Personal experience

I’ve grown to understand this in my own life.  It took me a few years to find my niche after I graduated from law school, but eventually I was drawn to workers’ rights and employment policy.  Over the past ten years, workplace bullying has become my primary focal point, and the wisdom and insights I have developed are invaluable to me and hopefully useful to others.

There is no magic “minimum time.”  For some, it may be a lifetime mission; for others, it may be five, ten, or twenty years. And there’s always the risk of burnout, which may be a sign that it’s time to develop better coping skills or to switch gears.

That said, I’ll take the person with the genuine commitment over someone who flits around for years almost every time.  The dilettante may have a more interesting resume, but I’d bet that if you dig beneath the surface, you’ll often discover little in the way of meaningful accomplishment.  Instead, you’re more likely to find a string of jobs and unrealized or unfinished projects, without much completed substance.

Beyond obvious labels

Finally, let’s recognize that difference making can occur anywhere.  It’s not just in initiatives or organizations that might be labeled “social change” or “public service.”  Helping to build and sustain a sound business enterprise (hopefully one that is socially conscious!) provides useful goods and services, not to mention jobs.  Immersion in a craft or trade contributes to our everyday experience of living.  Devoting one’s self to raising a family nurtures individual lives and contributes immeasurably to the common good.  A long-term commitment to a civic, charitable, or artistic activity enlivens our communities.  These things matter, big time.

This world is in serious need of difference makers.  So here’s to finding one’s niche and sticking with it long enough to make that difference.

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