In this inaugural blog launching the Actionsmith Network, founder Diana M. Smith speaks to those just launching their lives—or perhaps reconsidering the ones they’re living—about four choices that added up to a life that counts.
Of the many times I’ve had to decide what kind of life I want to live, four stand out. Each time I found myself confronting some version of the same question: Did I want to make a difference in the world, or did I want to count the hours and days until my next vacation while counting the money I’d need to take it?
The first time was when I was fresh out of college and chose a poorly paying, highly demanding job counseling teenagers and organizing communities in some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. I took that over a better paying, less demanding job as a budding journalist with a highly regarded newspaper just outside Boston. At the time the gap in salary felt big, but the gap in experience felt chasmic. Each day I had a chance to touch and transform the lives of kids working hard to dodge drugs, pregnancy, and violence while grappling with the effects of racism and dead-end schools. I learned more about life, about people, about potential and persistence, and about myself in those seven years than I ever could have learned at school or on the job elsewhere.
The second time was when I decided to go to graduate school so I could learn how to change what I’d witnessed every day in the communities I served. Before deciding where to go, I considered a wide range of options: public policy schools, psychology programs, even business schools. In the end, I chose none of these. I picked a small, quirky, nontraditional interdisciplinary program that was focused on understanding and effecting change in individuals, groups, organizations, and communities. The program, which was housed in a school of education, lacked the status of more established, prestigious programs and promised less earning potential on the other side. At the same time, if I wanted to make a difference—and I very much did—I knew I’d have to build a much deeper understanding of how to transform people’s lives and the systems in which they lived them. On that front, I knew of no other program that came close. So there I decided to go, throwing myself into the task of learning from some of the best minds, then or since, on how people and systems learn, grow, and change.
The third time was when I was at the height of my career in my late forties, positioned to make a name for myself and the money that went along with it. Instead I spent half my time over six years caring for my dad who, after a catastrophic fall, went into a slow and steady decline. This required me to make a different kind of difference—not the writ-large difference that strokes the ego but the writ-small difference that stokes the heart. I was very conscious of this choice and very ambivalent about it. But at the end of the six years, after my dad had died, I knew it was the right one, not only because it was the right thing to do for my dad, whom I loved very much, but because it served to fundamentally shift how I saw myself in relation to people I’d always thought were so much more powerful than me.
The fourth choice was when I left the for-profit sector ten years ago to return to the social sector. For twenty years I’d consulted to some of the most innovative companies around—Apple, Herman Miller, and the Monitor Group among them. I’d had the opportunity to work with some of the best leaders, all of them committed to liberating people’s potential and to changing the way we work and live. So I never had a question in my mind about whether it was possible to create transformative impact in the for-profit sector. All I had to do was look at people like Steve Jobs and Tim Cook (Apple), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), David Kelley (IDEO), Reed Hastings (Netflix), Jeff Bezos (Amazon). Talk about impact.
Still, as I looked around, five years into a new millennium, I was becoming increasingly worried that society—the fabric that holds a people together and determines their fate—was growing so ragged and our approaches to social problems so stale that we were putting future generations at great risk. I could see evidence of a fast decline everywhere in how we grappled with such problems as education reform; climate change; electoral reform; differences in race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and religion; inequities of every kind; and violence both local and global.
And that’s when it hit me. There was one place where I did see people creating new ideas, raising controversial issues, pushing for change, inventing fresh approaches—all of it disrupting the status quo: the social sector. It seemed to me that while more and more politicians were being held captive by powerful, well-funded interest groups, and more and more business leaders were being held captive by Wall Street and a pervasive preoccupation with accumulating capital, leaders in the social sector were—at least relatively speaking—freer to move. And that relative freedom meant the social sector was uniquely positioned to push for societal change. So that’s why, in making my fourth and perhaps last career choice, I decided to see if I could help build within the social sector the leadership capabilities and relationships needed to bring about that change.
As I look back on what is now a forty-year career, I see four very different choices held together by a dual thread: the belief that I could make a difference, and the conviction that if I could, I should.
It’s never easy to find your path in life; it’s harder still to create one where none exists. There’s so much noise out there today about what you should and shouldn’t do that it’s hard to hear what lies within. But that only makes it all the more important to listen closely—very closely—to what you really want, to where your passion lies, even if it’s lying a bit dormant right now. Pay attention to that yearning you have for a life of purpose and meaning, to that impulse to make a difference. Take stock of your talents. Push aside all those practical worries for a moment, and uncover what matters most to you. Then, out of what you hear, find or create a way to build a life that matters, and stick to it until it does.