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How to make a difference to yourself and to society (even when the odds feel stacked against you)

by connectedpotential
January 14, 2014

There is something inside all of us that desires to make a positive difference – to leave a great fingerprint on the universe that says “Hello. I was here, and my being here changed things for the better.”

In a time defined both by great challenge and great determination, more people than ever are seeking occupations that make a meaningful difference to themselves and to society. But increased competition in the job market forces many of us to compromise on our desire to make a positive difference. The good news is that taking the initiative to make the world a better place will help you develop the skills you need to get your next job in a field that you care about. Here are some things you can do to get started:

1.  See a problem in the world? Decide to be the person to fix it.  

Special hint: It should be a problem that you really, really, care about.

Ami Dar, founder and Executive Director of Idealist.org, once noted that even though people often have a deep internal desire to make a positive difference in the world, they often pass up the opportunity to fix problems they are presented with because doing so seems too messy or time consuming. Think about it: when was the last time you noticed something that bothered you, just a little: trash in the local park, a pothole in the street… did you take time to come up with a way to fix it, or did you keep going about your day because it felt like it would be too much trouble to take action? You are not alone – it is so common for us to forego tasks that seem daunting or complicated, even if it means that the problem won’t get resolved. A great way to differentiate yourself from others in your field of interest is to find a problem that you are deeply passionate about solving, and commit to making a valuable contribution in that area. Doing so shows that you are committed to making a difference, that you are not afraid of a challenge, and that you are willing to take initiative in an area that you care deeply about.

Work/Life Skills: +1 initiative, tenacity, and drive.

2.  Do your research

Special hint: Somewhere, out there, someone has done this already

You know that wheel that everyone keeps talking about? There really is no need to reinvent it. Once you have decided what problem you want to focus on, first look to what others have done in the field. Chances are there are already groups out there that are interested in solving the same problem you are.  If that’s the case, how can you provide value to them and help them do their work better? Finding ways to collaborate with existing groups and organizations can help you expand your professional portfolio and can also provide infrastructure and support to the work you want to do. An example of this might be offering to build a website to support an organization or group that you care about, or to organize a smaller project that falls under their umbrella. Talk to people that you want to work with to find out what their needs are, and see if there is a way for you to contribute that helps you develop skills relevant to your interests.

Work/Life Skills: +1 technical skills, practical experience, networking

3.  Come up with realistic and achievable strategies to solve the problem. Special hint: Dream big, but start small…all big things start small, and grow with dedicated effort.

You know how lots of groups and organizations talk about how they are solving world hunger? Taking on poverty, climate change or global health? Well, chances are they are doing that by focusing on just one or a few key areas. And even the biggest efforts often start small. So make ambitious but realistic goals, celebrate early accomplishments, and recognize your impact, at any level. It is true that optimism is a key ingredient for success, but don’t let your eagerness to do it all make you lose sight of the good work you are already doing. Most of any good endeavor is aspirational. Do what is within your ability to the best of your ability, and figure out how to grow towards your goal as you go.

Work/Life Skills: +1 pragmatism, reliability, positioning for the long term

4.  Don’t go it alone.

Special hint: It is much more difficult to do anything on your own. Figure out what you need, and seek assistance.

Look to the most successful endeavors, and you will find a team of players that have complementary interests and skill sets. Building a team of interested peers will help you distribute the workload, keep ideas flowing, and when well-organized, will make sure that everyone is playing to their strengths. Seek out people that are motivated to make a difference, and are looking for opportunities to build their credentials. As Ian Fisk, Executive Director of The William James Foundation said, “You want to find the people that win when you win.” As you seek out people to help you in your efforts, look for those that want to make a difference, are interested in the problem you hope to address, bring special skills to the team, and can benefit from being involved.

Work/Life Skills: +1 collaboration, teambuilding, leadership

5.  Get help from experts.

You would be surprised how many people would be willing to offer their advice or expertise if they believe in what you are doing, and you know the right way to ask. Be open, frank, and genuine in seeking the help of others. Make a specific request about what type of information and advice you are seeking, and be specific about the amount of time that you think a call or in-person meeting will take. Bring specific questions to the conversation, and thank the person for their time afterwards.

Work/Life Skills: +1 resourcefulness, thoroughness, knowledge-sharing

6.  Relate your social good experience to your long-term professional goals.

Special hint: You’ve just done something amazing! Flaunt it.

Know what terms look FIERCE on a resume? Try “initiated”, “led” “organized” “built a team”, “led efforts resulting in” … Were you able to measure a quantifiable impact from your work? Did you bring in a certain amount of funding as a result of your project? Being able to cite action terms and specific numbers on your resume is a sure way to stand out and win your next interview in your field of interest. Try including a summary statement at the top of your resume with a few sentences about who you are and what you stand for extra impact. Example: “Self-motivated and results-driven public health professional with proven track record in community organizing, project management, and leading an independent team of thinkers to address [problem]. BAM. Results guaranteed.

Work/Life Skills: +1 Confidence, accomplishment, general fierceness

7.  Find small ways to help others.

Maybe it’s not the right time to start a community project. That’s okay too. If you wake up every day thinking about how you want to make the world a little bit better to live in, then your small actions will create big dividends over time. Find small, meaningful ways to connect with others and create change at home. Sometimes someone else’s smile is more powerful than anything that could be put on a resume.

Work/Life Skills: +1 gratitude, humility, extra good chi

Connected Potential provides young adults with the advice, resources, and personal/professional connections needed to implement the social change projects that energize and inspire them. Join us now and #makechangehappen.

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