Another short insight into successful citizen activism by veteran change-maker John Graham

Some time ago I went back for a reunion to the high school in Tacoma I graduated from. Nearly all my classmates were leading comfortable lives in business or the professions. They talked about their houses and their investments and how well their kids were doing.

But the classmate who most caught my attention was Tom. He’d been the "slow” one in our class, the butt of jokes. But for 30 years he’d been directing a social service agency in the worst area of Tacoma and had just started a controversial needle exchange program. Tom was fascinating. He spoke about his work with addicts with the charisma and energy and peace of mind of a person who had truly found his calling and answered it with everything he had.

Wise people have known for thousands of years that nothing is more important in life than finding personal meaning in what we do, something in sync with our deepest priorities and ideals. We all want to look at the image in the mirror in the morning and know that we're not on the planet just to take up space.

Like Tom, like many others, I've found the surest path to this meaning is service, is helping make life better for other people. If you find a way to serve, you’ll find a path to meaning that will bring joy to the deepest part of you. And you'll help solve the problems that you care about.

"Service" does not mean becoming Mother Theresa. It does not mean sackcloth and ashes.

Service as a professional person, say as a doctor or teacher, can be making other peoples’ lives healthier, more fulfilled, more productive…

Service as a businessperson can be making a needed product at a fair price, under conditions fair to labor and friendly to the environment and to the community.

Service as an artist does not mean winning at Cannes. It means using your art to help people see the truth and beauty in the world.

Service in a “service job” means more than doing your job. It means taking pride in what you do, inspiring others to do the same—and lending your thoughts and support to the fight for fair labor conditions.

Service as a community member and as a citizen—well, I don’t need to tell you about the problems that need solving in your community or nation or the world.

But there are so many challenges and problems out there. How do you make the best possible use of the time and resources you’ve got? Tom had found his path. Which path is yours?

Only you can know what the best path is for you. What I do know is that every one of us has and will have unique opportunities to make a difference, if only in small and quiet ways. A successful life is about spotting those opportunities and acting on them. The only mistake you can make is to ignore the quest.

If your opportunity to serve, to make a difference, is not yet clear to you, here are some suggestions for finding it:

• Ask what you care about. Is there something calling out to you, something that just won’t go away? You think about it when you are alone. It’s in your dreams. Even an errant billboard or online commercial might remind you of it.

• Take inventory of your background and experiences, and of what you like to do and what you’re good at. Those elements are not in your life as accidents. If you assume, as I do, that there is purpose to existence, then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that personal attributes, whether innate or acquired, are there in order to be used. There’s a reason for an eagle’s claws, a bat’s sonar. So if you’re really good at working with preschoolers, or giving speeches, or repairing machines, or balancing budgets, or making people laugh, or conquering the Internet—consider these areas as indicators of where your path of service may lie.

• Spend part of your search in silence and pay attention to signs and hunches.

• Look at all the things in your community and city and on your planet that you think aren’t going right. Not enough is being done to fix them and you are not happy with that. Maybe there’s an issue here with your name on it.

Service is not about being a superhero. It’s about starting from where you are, using your talents, personality, enthusiasm, and preferences. You don’t have to save the world—maybe the problems that grab your attention are small and local. Maybe they have to do with some big, pressing social concern, and maybe they don’t. Your cause doesn’t have to be something intrinsically noble, like feeding the hungry or freeing the oppressed. Most problems are much more “ordinary” than that, but that doesn’t mean they are any less worth solving, or that doing so would be any less satisfying.

On the other hand, it's simply not enough to just wish something good might happen or to cheer someone else on. What’s important is to commit to the search for the problem that calls for you and, when you find it, to pitch into solving it with everything you’ve got. Do this not just for the people you’ll serve. Do it for you. Do it for the meaning it will give to your life.

Next: #3—How to Launch an Initiative for Change

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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