The idea of what is true merit should also be often presented to youth, explained and impressed on their minds, as consisting in an inclination joined with an ability to serve mankind, one’s country, friends and family; which ability is (with the blessing of God) to be acquired or greatly increased by true learning; and should indeed be the great aim and end of all learning. ~Benjamin Franklin
Samantha Powers, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, gave the commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Powers quoted the passage above by Benjamin Franklin, one of the founders of the university, and she challenged them to answer Franklin’s cause, and to make their mission to serve their community, their nation, and their world. To improve their odds, she said, of making a tangible difference in a world that needs them, regardless of the field or the profession, the country or the scale, she provided four pieces of advice.
1. Act “As If”.
(“Fake it ‘til you make it.”) Act as if you can do something and you will figure it out. I’ve often not done something out of fear, or because I spent so much time reading and researching how to do something instead of just jumping in and learning by doing. There is always a learning curve, and that’s ok. Whether it was acting as if I could make a difference through my new job or acting as if I could help someone through mentoring…as Ms. Powers said, I acted “as if” and I am figuring it out.
2. Know something about something.
Read, learn, theorize, question, learn more, and get out in to the real world to where the problem actually is. My take on this one, for me, is that I need to probe deeper on my assumptions. It’s often easier to use anecdotes or perpetuate others beliefs without actually questioning those beliefs or getting out to where the problems live to get actual insight and data. Really knowing something takes time and effort and questioning every assertion, but in the end it’s the only way to know anything about anything.
3. Bring others along.
To make a lasting change, you need to bring other people along and have good people around you. People working together for a common cause makes a much stronger force to tackle a problem, and encouraging others to join and carry on will help create a more lasting change. Meet people where they are, she said. “All advocacy is, at its core, an exercise in empathy.”
4. Humanize your cause.
“Don’t take for granted that the worthiness of your cause will win you allies; bring it down to a scale that people can relate to.” Big causes are great and noble, but they can bring along a sense of detachment. People relate to people, so include them and their efforts when you talk about your cause. And both the good and the bad. “Part of humanizing means not only humanizing the bad news, but humanizing those who bring light to the dark places – people who, against all odds, are building that human dignity right back up – no matter the obstacles.”
In my new role at work, through my mentoring, and in my new community surrounding my son’s diagnosis, I am trying to find ways to make a difference. Although I graduated from a different university many, many years ago, the mission of Benjamin Franklin, that the end of all learning should be to serve, is increasingly becoming my mission, too.
You can read the transcript here.