If you are like me, you will have given at least a passing thought to the subject of New Year’s resolutions—to live healthier, to be more patient, to save more, and so on. But what if we set ourselves, individually and collectively, a more ambitious goal—to make a difference to the world?
Setting high goals is important. Often, our incoming students don't yet realize they have what it takes to make a difference in this world—assuming instead that to do so one must come with a name like Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, or Bill Gates. I happen to believe that every one of us is put in this world to contribute and make a difference in our own unique way, and that we all should try.
Here’s what I tell students:
1. Don’t view it as an enormous task
“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”—Mother Teresa
You already have what it takes to make the world a better place. Making a difference to the world may seem like an enormous task, but it is, in fact, the collective effort of everyone to make small contributions with a lot of heart. To put it differently, the size of the contribution is not what matters most. The key here is to have the heart to do it.
2. There is no better time to start than right now
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”—Anne Frank
There is no one best time to start to make a difference to the world. You don’t need to wait until you have an abundance of free time. You don’t have to wait until you make lots of money. All effort counts, and you can start making a difference, however small, today.
3. Empower others
“Abilities wither under criticism; they blossom under encouragement.”—Dale Carnegie
Anyone can change the world by helping one person at a time. One of the ways to help someone is to empower him or her. But how do you empower a person? Well, choosing to be generous in giving praise and encouragement, rather than criticism, can work wonders.
4. Focus on making a lasting impact
“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own.”—Benjamin Disraeli
The good that we seek to do will make more of a difference when there is a lasting effect. For example, if you choose to help build a school, it will benefit many people for years to come. And when more people receive the kind of education you have had the privilege to receive, they will in turn provide more value to the world.
5. Take responsibility, anchor with clear purpose, and lead
“A good example has twice the value of good advice.”—Author Unknown
The best way to convince other people is to lead by example. We cannot be effective in any area of life unless we exercise good leadership. As you already know, leadership is an art, and each of us needs to find our own approach. Primarily, we need to understand how to lead ourselves. This means having a compass—a direction—that guides all our actions. This compass often takes the form of a personal mission statement—a document spelling out the values we live by.
6. Don’t let fear stop you
“Men are not afraid of things, but of how they view them.”—Epictetus
Whenever we grow or do something new, there is fear. This is the nature of life—either we are moving forward and growing, or we are moving backward. We have a choice. We can either grow, or we can stagnate. Growth and fear go hand in hand. It is part of a package. If we fail to embrace the whole package, we will not progress.
7. Never stop learning
“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”—Abigail Adams
I chose a career in education because I concluded that learning is the fundamental activity in a successful and purposeful life. If we fail to learn, we fail to grow. Life gives us endless opportunities to learn, and the more difficult the situation, the more we are likely to learn. We can learn from other people. We can learn from the things happening around us. And most of all, we can learn by watching ourselves, seeing how we react, and reflecting deeply on what moves us.
So act, live, and learn—and have a peaceful and purposeful 2013.
Cornelis A. "Kees" de Kluyver
Dean and James and Shirley Rippey Distinguished Professor