I have the great good fortune and indeed privilege to work with a group of clients and friends that want to transform the world – or at least some piece of it – and are willing to put that passion on the line every day, often when it isn’t easy or comfortable. They risk rejection, fight indifference, and spend a whole lot of time on airplanes to bring vision to reality.
Working with hundreds of them since Public Words began in 1997, I have seen a group of attitudes and attributes among the most successful ones, a pattern that repeats over and over again. So here is the hard-won wisdom of a wonderful group of people who are changing the world. Thanks, all! Most of you exhibit all of these characteristics, so forgive me for picking out just one example for each.
You want to change the world? Here’s what it takes.
1. Take the plunge. No one ever gives you permission to start doing something different. You have to take the risk. There is no magic moment when all your colleagues in your day job say, “It’s time – go for it!” That voice has to come from inside you. You have to take the first step. Always. No one gave Glenn Llopis permission to start a new dialogue about the extraordinary contribution Hispanics are making in the United States, in order to shift the focus off illegal immigration and talk about something positive for a change. But he did, because it needed to be done, and he had the vision that came ultimately from his own Cuban roots.
2. Start with passion, keep going with focus and hard work. There’s no substitute for putting in the hours – the passion just gets you started. This is not an era of hobbyists. You’re competing with a tougher and tougher crowd of people who want to put their idea forward, and you have to insist – in the nicest possible way – on your point of view. That takes both hard work and unrelenting focus on the goal. Les Gold not only has begun to transform America’s attitude toward pawnshops, but he has become a reality TV star in the process. And he begins every day at 5:00 AM by going to the gym for 61 minutes. Why 61? He says, “Anyone can do 60.”
3. Always look through the filter. Whatever your particular point of view is, you have to look at the world with that lens – always. Every moment becomes an opportunity for a new insight, a new data point, a new addition to your bank of stories and wisdom. Even downtime is an opportunity, always. David Meerman Scott created the New Rules of Marketing and PR after getting fired from his corporate job for trying to bring new thinking, including social media, into the workplace. He’s never looked back, and he’s been redefining the workplace ever since by seeing every moment as an opportunity to stay fresh, re-think marketing and strategy, and connect with people around the world who share similar passions. Recently, he was re-thinking the “About” page everyone has on their websites and blog pages.
4. Sideways moves are OK – good, even. If you’re creating something new, it – by definition – probably isn’t out there already. So there’s no corner office or neat job title waiting you – you have to get there in a series of sideways moves and approximations. With time, it gets clearer and clearer what you’re up to and what really works for you. So be patient and stay open. Tim Washer is probably the first corporate comedian who’s actually funny, not just safe. The first time I heard him improvise, I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. He’s doing something truly new, and he’s working a lot of different ways to make it happen.
5. Create it, don’t wait for it. If it doesn’t exist already, then you are going to have to create it, eventually. Don’t wait for permission or a phone call. Instead, start something new. People won’t get it, they’ll tell you it won’t work, they’ll ignore you. Until one day, when it is working, and everyone says, “Oh yeah, I knew it all along.” At that point, smile and reap the rewards. You’ve earned them. Majka Burhardt is an adventurer-rock climber-writer-advocate for social change. Try putting that on a business card. Yet, she’s found cliffs to climb and coffee to drink in Ethiopia and around the world and brings her thoughtful, joyful message of hope everywhere she goes.
What wisdom have you found on the journey to changing the world?