I used to want to save the world and why I’m thinking twice

One of the things that has surprised me and continues to surprise me the most about growing up is how normal, how like-everyone-else I am. Growing up, I naively believed that I was immune to the demands and pressures of this world, that I was not as shallow and frivolous as peers around me who were so caught up chasing money, possessions and achievement. I was different – I wasn’t going to settle for status quo and “be like everyone else”. No sir, not me. I was going to change the world and make the world a better place.

I have grown to realise that none of us, no matter how noble our intentions, are immune from pride. Ambition doesn’t just come in the form of ruthless, driven, climb-the-ladder types, but in the subtlest of disguises. These days, being environmentally, socially or politically conscious has become a badge of honour that often earns much respect. Social activist and marine biologist are the cool, coveted jobs these days. Nobody grows up saying they want to be an engineer or accountant anymore. My whole generation has been told we’re all special and gifted in our own unique ways. Nonconformity, discerning taste, and the rejection of mainstream values are celebrated and revered. 

All of this tree-hugging, Moleskine-toting, positivity-mantra-chanting, impoverished-third-world-country-visiting makes me wonder if behind all our good intentions to “be real”, “save the world” and “make a difference” lies the same pride and greed for achievement that drove Wall Street into the Lehman crisis. Sure, the latter was all about achieving personal gains in the form of dollars and cents, but isn’t the former about achieving things as well – achieving a different sort of status, credibility, respect, and the title of being seen as a “good person”?

I mean, travelling to Africa and spending a week among the less fortunate may teach me to be more thankful – but do I really need to travel to another continent to recognise undeserved love in my mother’s hands, wrinkled and rough from years of washing dishes and doing house work, and be grateful for it? Quitting my job and living on a shoestring budget to travel the world might teach me to manage a budget – but so can deciding to propose to the girl you’ve been dating for the past two years. Joining a protest may give you the thrill of feeling like a rebel – but you are just as much a rebel when you choose to stay committed at your job when all your friends are quitting theirs for better offers and a quick boost up the ladder. 

Come on, admit it. It would work either way. Just that saying you learnt to be grateful after traveling to Africa sounds a lot cooler than saying you woke up one day and realised how much your parents had sacrificed for you. It’s more impressive to say you learnt to manage a budget after you quit your job to travel, than to describe the raw, nerve-wracking emotion of making a once-in-a-lifetime decision that too many claim is not really important. It’s easier to type out a Facebook post about all the things that are wrong with the country than to explain to your friends why you don’t want to move on to more promising job offers. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling, Moleskine notebooks, and artisan coffee as much as the next young urban adult – and I think these things definitely have their time and place and make our lives richer and fuller – but my question is do these seemingly “good” things define us? If I am defined by how much I donate to charity and how many young people I have mentored or how many backpacking trips I’ve made or how many days I spent volunteering my time for community projects, then how different am I, really, from someone who defines himself by how much is in his bank account, how many times he’s flown Business Class, how many people call him “Boss”, and how many days of paid vacation he can get? 

Because is the value of our life really defined by how people perceive us? Or is it defined not by how we look and appear to others, but by who we really are, deep down inside, when no one’s looking? Is it success when I receive an interview request from Forbes? Or is it success when World Vision wants to recruit me as a spokesperson? Is one better than the other? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately. Can someone work in the “soul-less” corporate world and yet still maintain integrity, vision, heart and depth? And can someone be serving a great cause and yet still get sidelined and distracted by numbers, recognition and accolades? I think the answer to both questions is yes

I used to ask myself big questions. Like, “What need is there in the world that I can meet?” “What can I offer the world with my talents and skills?”

These days, I’m wondering if I should be asking myself smaller questions instead. Like, “How can I do what is in front of me, right this very day and hour, with great love?” “What kind of friend, daughter, sister, and partner would those closest to me say I am?” “Did I do my very best with the last thing I was given the opportunity to do?” “Have I stopped to be thankful today?” “Do I say ‘Thank you’ enough?”  

Maybe when we focus less on looking good to others, and we work harder at actually being good, the answers to the big questions will come, naturally. Maybe they will come when we’re not looking for them. Maybe we will find that the really important things in life are not the big things, but the small things. And when we get those things right, when we tend to the things that matter, maybe we will find that the big questions don’t seem so important anymore. Maybe instead of trying to change the world we will change ourselves, and in doing so, find that the world around us can’t help but be changed too.