How young entrepreneurs can change the world

This is a transcript of my presentation given at the PATA Youth Symposium in Jakarta, Indonesia, September 8, 2016. This event was part of Pacific Asia Travel Association’s 2016 Travel Mart, Asia Pacific’s premier travel trade show.

Salamat Siang.

For seven years I’ve been teaching courses on sustainability at Capilano University in Vancouver, Canada. Put simply, I help students to understand and take action on environmental and social issues.

I consider myself to be an environmentally concerned person. As much as possible, I try to act in ways that respect the planet. So I was disappointed in myself when I realized a few years ago that I wasn’t living up to my own values.

My watershed moment came while waiting for the elevator to take me up to my third-floor office. I had always silently cursed low-floor elevator users in the past. Now, despite my values, I had become one of them.

Given my self-professed concern for the environment, I found it troubling that I had failed the simple task of choosing the stairs. It might not sound like much, but it was significant to me. How could I authentically convey the importance of sustainability to my students, if I couldn’t even take a few flights of stairs to get to my office?

My elevator moment made me rethink how I approached the classroom. My past courses on sustainability had focused solely on cognitive learning. This isn’t all bad. Cognitive learning lets you expand your knowledge base and enhance your critical thinking skills. In a nutshell, it helps you build book smarts. While important, book smarts alone are not sufficient for creating positive change in the world.

And so I decided to overhaul my course. The new course is called Project Change. Through an experiential learning process, the course enables students to become a change maker.

A change maker is someone who endeavors to make a positive change in the world through their personal or professional lives. Students still work on building book smarts, but they also develop the abilities, skills and mindsets to think and act like a change maker.

So, how can you change the world?

In the first part of the course, we focus on developing the inner self. We talk about what it means to live like a change maker. At its foundation, this means living a life that’s grounded on four main principles:

  1. Staying true to your values means making choices and working on things that are meaningful to you.
  2. Nurturing your passions means spending time and working on things that you enjoy.
  3. Putting your skills to work means applying your unique skills to the things you work on.
  4. Contributing to the world means doing things that make a positive impact on the world around you.

Understanding these principles, and incorporating them into your life and work, is one of the most powerful ways to create positive change in the world. This is what it means to live like a change maker.

Let’s look at each of these principles in more detail.

The first principle is to stay true to your values. Values are qualities that guide how you want to carry yourself in life. For example, my own values include qualities like adventure, creativity, and contribution. Collectively, I like to think of my values as providing a character sketch of the best possible version of me. They are like a blueprint for what I want my life to represent.

Your values will be different from mine. That’s okay. Values are highly personal, but here’s the thing: you need to believe in them. You need to feel they are worthwhile qualities that you can aspire to. You need to feel they paint a portrait of the type of person you want to be in the world. You will know your values are true when they make you feel that you’re looking at a reflection of the best possible version of you.

The second principle is to nurture your passions. By focusing your efforts on things you enjoy and that you care about, you will naturally strive to go higher and further in taking action on things that matter to you.

Everyone’s passions are different. Don’t feel you need to pursue something just because other people are passionate about it. Focus on whatever lights you up, and if you’re not sure what that is yet try something new for the pleasure of it.

By the way, there is a reason I use the phrase “nurture your passions” rather than the more common phrase “follow your passions.” Following your passions suggests that your passions somehow pre-exist, and it’s your job to uncover your hidden passions. I don’t believe this. You aren’t born with passions somehow part of your DNA. Passions don’t pre-exist; you nurture them over time. As you spend time pursuing something new, your interest for it grows. Over time, passion blooms.

The third principle is to put your skills to work. We all have our unique talents: perhaps you have a flair for design or an aptitude for numbers, or maybe you possess a gift for communication or the ability to make things by hand. Fostering your own particular skills, and then applying them to something you care about, is a sure-fire way to unleash your true potential and leave your mark on the world.

Remember that it takes time to develop your skills. When it comes to learning and eventually mastering a new skill, your mindset matters a lot. People who achieve highly usually have a growth mindset: they are willing to continually practice in order to get better at what they do.

Even if you’re already good at a skill, there is always room for improvement. That means making time for learning and for deliberate practice. The more you consciously develop your skills, the better you will get – and you’ll realize that you can achieve far more than you once thought possible.

The fourth principle is to contribute to the world. We all want to sense that in some way the world is a better place for our existence in it. We want to feel like our lives matter; that we are helping to make a difference in the world around us.

Contributing to the world doesn’t mean creating a radical sea change that will alter the course of history. It means making consistent positive contributions through the everyday actions in your life and work. Ultimately, doing things that make the world a better place will help you to awaken your sense of purpose and produce positive legacies in all aspects of your life.

Living like a change maker means integrating these four principles into your life and sticking with them over the long haul. It is not an easy path to take, but the rewards are great. Not only will you make the world a better place for all, but living this way can bring real benefits to your own life too.

  • Staying true to your values means you will do what’s truly important to you. This will give your life meaning.
  • Nurturing your passions means you will like what you do. This will give your life joy.
  • Putting your skills to work means you will be good at what you do. This will give you a feeling of excellence.
  • Contributing to the world means you will do things that make a difference. This will make your life worthwhile.

And here’s the best part: you get to choose whether or not to live this way. Living in accordance with these principles is completely in your control. All it takes is a deliberate choice. That choice is yours, and yours alone.

But what about money?  Money is needed to sustain your life and it allows you to get the things that you want. Is it possible to live a life of purpose and also get paid?

Yes. You can apply these principles to your professional career – and it will pay off. Your work will be enjoyable and you will be good at it, which means you’ll be more motivated to get out of bed in the morning and give your all. Your work will be important to you and it will make a difference to others, which means you’ll go to bed at night feeling good about your contribution. And here’s the best part: If you can develop your career in line with these four principles, I guarantee you will have more than a job; you will have found your calling.

So far, we’ve talked about the inner self. Of course, you don’t live in an isolated bubble. You live in a community of people. To make your mark on the world, you need to be able to communicate with and influence others. That’s why, in the second part of the course, we focus on how to better interact with the world around us.

Creating a positive change in the world is hard work. However, you don’t need to do it on your own, nor should you want to. You can usually achieve a lot more by involving other people in your endeavors.

Every day you interact with a wide range of people from different circles. These people can be a tremendous source of support and resources to help you succeed. Getting their help, however, is not always easy. How you communicate with them matters. To get people to join you, you’ll need to effectively engage with them and inspire them to get involved. The good news is that anyone can do this.

To connect with people and inspire them to take action, it helps to have a compelling vision for the better world you want to create. Just like in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech, a well-crafted vision is like a guiding light, which paints a mental picture of the better world you see possible. To change the world – even if it’s just your small part of it – first visualize the better future you want to achieve, and then find a way to articulate your vision so it will connect authentically with the hearts and minds of others.

Change makers realize they have the ability to shape their future. They envision the type of future they want to create, and make choices and take actions in life that will make this vision a reality.

A good metaphor is to think of your life as a canvas. It begins blank and, over the years, you create a work of art that marks your journey through life. The thing is, you only have one canvas. Rather than filling it haphazardly – hoping that something of value will eventually emerge – why not visualize the masterpiece you want to create ahead of time? This is what visionaries do – and you can do it too. Realizing that you are the artist of your own future is a powerful way to live your life. The question is: What will you create?

Realize that you have the ability to shape your future into something special. The formula is really quite simple: 1) dream (big), and 2) take action.

If you want to start a company or a charity, do it. If you want to create beautiful art, make it. If you want to do international aid work in Africa, go for it! Don’t let fear stop you. Don’t let other people’s opinions stop you. Don’t let the risk of failure stop you. These are just temporary blips in the grand scheme of things. So go for it. Follow your heart, pursue your dreams, and create your future legacy!

Once you have visualized the future you wish to achieve, then you need to get to work to bring your vision to life. Let’s say you have set a goal to help move your vision forward. You start by making a plan, and then set off on a clear path towards your goal. Step by step, you complete a series of tasks set out in your plan. Everything goes exactly as expected, and you successfully complete your goal with ample time to spare. The crowd goes wild!

There’s only one problem: this is a fairy tale. Things never go as smoothly as you plan. There’s always going to be unknown and unexpected challenges that will take you off course. That’s just part of life.

In reality, your path towards your goal is more likely going to look like this. You start your project with a surge of energy and make some immediate progress. Then, you hit a small obstacle that sets you back a little bit. You deal with it and continue on towards your goal. Then, a major crisis hits, which drastically sets you back. You have to quickly manage the crisis, and get back on track. With your deadline looming, you make a final mad dash to the finish line, to complete your goal on time. It wasn’t pretty and it was far from perfect, but you got there in the end.

Here’s the thing: You are going to face some obstacles along the path towards your goals. It’s impossible to avoid them, and it can be costly to ignore them, so you might as well deal with them head on.

On the path to success, obstacles are to be expected, and even embraced. Rather than get frustrated by them, celebrate that you have obstacles in your path.  Because if there aren’t any obstacles, then your goals are probably not high enough. Indeed, obstacles are a good indication that you’re stretching yourself.

I think it’s healthy to think of obstacles as opportunities. They give you a chance to grow and develop, as you push forward towards your goals. Now, some of the obstacles you face will be difficult to overcome. They may cause significant set-backs and possibly even result in failure. This is completely natural.

There’s a false ideal in our society that it’s bad to fail. It somehow means we’re personally not a success. On the contrary, set-backs and failure are a natural part of growth. I’ll say it again, if you aren’t experiencing failure from time to time, you aren’t stretching yourself enough, and you probably aren’t growing either.

Failure is not only an indication that you’re growing. It also provides an opportunity to learn. Through failure, we learn what doesn’t work. We can reassess our strategy, and develop new ways for tackling the obstacles we face.

So next time you experience failure, try not to get too down or take it too personally. All the great change makers throughout history have experienced failure – probably a lot of failures. The key is to pick yourself up, learn from your mistakes, refine your strategy, and move on.

Some of you may have no idea what you want to create yet. Trust me, that is completely natural. There is nothing wrong with you. If you haven’t figured out what you want to create with your life, don’t worry, there is lots of time ahead of you. It might not become apparent until years from now. That’s okay. Everyone is on their own unique life path.

For now, my advice is to try a lot of different things and be open to new opportunities. Treat life as a big, fun experiment. If you keep an open mind, when the time is right, you’ll find something that fits. Something that aligns with your values and becomes one of your biggest passions. You’ll be good at it, and it will feel like you’re making a positive contribution to the world around you. You’ll realize you’ve uncovered your purpose, and you can run with it! Till then, never stop dreaming.

I think there’s a misconception that people who change the world are somehow separate from us. They are special in some way. They are born into greatness. While some people do achieve fame from their good deeds, for the most part, people who change the world are just like you and me. They are ordinary people who have a modest yet measurable impact on the world through the actions of their everyday lives.

If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this presentation, it’s that you have the power to change the world. What you do with that power is up to you, but realize that power is within you now and forever.

Some of you may have watched Randy Pausch’s presentation called the Last Lecture. The talk is about achieving your childhood dreams. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend that you watch it. Pausch uses the analogy of a “head fake” to end his talk. I’m going to borrow this analogy.

In football, the best teams often win by using deception. They will fake a run in one direction, and then hand off the football to a player going the other way. Or, they will fake a pass to one side of the field, and then throw the ball in the other direction. Deception is effective because it keeps the defense guessing. In football language, this is called a “head fake.”

Well, just like a good football team, I have to confess that I used a head fake in my presentation. Did you notice it? I told you at the start that my presentation was about how entrepreneurs can change the world. I hate to tell you, but that was a head fake.

This presentation wasn’t about that at all. It was about how to live a good life. A life that you can be proud of. A life that will give you lasting happiness, fulfillment and connection. That was my true intent.

To conclude, I’d like to leave you with this brilliant quote from Mark Twain:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

I anticipate big things from you, so go forth and make your mark on the world!

Terima Kasih!

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