The first in a series of short insights into successful citizen activism by veteran change-maker John Graham

In a long career of helping people get good stuff done in their communities and beyond, I’ve worked out many ways to help activists and wannabees succeed—to see real change happen as a result of their efforts.

One key element is motivation.

Have you ever thought of getting involved in solving a problem you see but then backed off, thinking it would be impossible to make it better? Even if you see a way to succeed, the job could mean nasty people taking potshots at you. That’s stopped a lot of people with good ideas from ever moving into action.

The organization I work with—the Giraffe Heroes Project—honors people who stick their necks out for the common good. These “Giraffe Heroes” are men and women, young and old, from every ethnic and economic background, tackling every kind of public problem you can think of, from climate change to poverty to crimes against women.

Why do they take on the risks of being criticized or simply failing? Some of them risk losing their livelihoods or even their lives. Why?

Some Giraffe Heroes use religious language to describe their motivation but most don’t. They’re more likely to feel that what they’re doing is meaningful to them—that is, that it satisfies a personal sense of purpose at the core of their beings. That deep conviction helps drive them forward. It’s this motivation—based on meaning—that makes Giraffe Heroes so effective in solving problems—and so inspiring to people who hear their stories.

Of course it isn't just Giraffe Heroes who are motivated by a personal sense of meaning. Philosophers and spiritual leaders have been telling us for millennia that there’s no deeper human need and no more powerful yearning than to live a life we know is meaningful. We all want to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and know that what we’re doing counts, that we're not just marking time.

Look to your own experience. Isn’t it true that the more meaning there is in the things you the more alive you feel? You may work very hard and there may be trials, but when you’re doing something you know is meaningful to you, there's also energy, a sense of excitement, a deep satisfaction of being in the right place at the right time. You’re inspiring to others, and they're attracted to join you, to follow your lead. You’re much more likely to get the results you want.

If meaning is this important, it’s fair to ask—where does meaning come from?

For Giraffe Heroes, the most stable, long-term source of meaning in their lives is service—helping solve public problems, making life better for other people. Time after time after time we see this: it’s the personal meaning they find in service that motivates and sustains Giraffe Heroes to do difficult things and succeed.

Giraffe Hero Sarri Gilman, for example, stuck her neck out to provide safe shelter for abused and runaway teenagers in Everett, Washington. Muhammad Yunus, a banker in Bangladesh, created a global model for creating economic self-sufficiency among the poor. Craig Keilburger, a teen in Toronto, started an international program to stop the practice of child slave labor in some parts of the world. Giraffes like Gilman, Yunus and Keilburger saw a task that meant a great deal to them and they took it on. They all found meaning in their lives by being of service. And it was that meaning that kept—and keeps—them going.

It is or will be the same for you. Get involved because you’ll help solve a public problem that’s important to you. Get involved to make life better for other people. But also do it for you. Get involved because service is your surest path to a meaningful life. Find a way to serve and it will add to your personal excitement, power and clarity of purpose. You’ll know that what you’re doing matters.

Next: #2— Which Challenge Has Your Name in It?

John Graham is author of Stick Your Neck Out—a Street-smart Guide to Creating Change in Your Community and Beyond

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