Dear Graduates: Don’t Set Out to Change the World

Dear Graduates,

Don’t set out to change the world.

As a society, we are impact-obsessed.

We look at a mother at home with her kids and, as much as we say we promote motherhood, we secretly wonder what volunteering she has done recently, or whether she has started a super successful business on the side. Most of us would rather say we volunteered at the local homeless shelter than that we did the dishes for our parents, or called up a grandparent to encourage them. Out-of-the-home volunteering makes us feel good, like we’ve behaved just a little better than we had to, maybe even made up for something we’d done wrong in the past. We all like to be heroes, after all.

So we toss around the idea of world-changing as if it’s everyone’s unspoken goal. With a starry-eyed emoji, we comment on a cute Instagram pic, “You’ll change the world!!!” and think we’ve said something encouraging.

In reality, world-changing is a high stakes business and one we shouldn’t be all so eager to undertake.

How many of the true world-changers out there accomplished something entirely good?

Some good has been done on a grandiose scale: William Wilberforce fought for the abolition of slavery; Gutenberg invented the printing press; the discovery of electricity wasn’t so bad (although it has probably brought some negatives with it that we fail to consider when we flip on the light switch). Authors such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have moved millions with good and lasting stories. Noble leaders have defended societies against tyranny and the encroachment of evil.

At the same time, a lot of change has been negative. Most powerful leaders have been corrupt and power-hungry. And, for all the convenience and power of technology, I wouldn’t like to be the person who brought Instagram to millions of people—beyond photos and hashtags, it has brought us unhealthy comparisons, depression, anxiety, and a watering down of social life among teens. Also, what about Alexander the Great? He changed the world through conquering it—not exactly upstanding. iPhones are nice, but I wouldn’t like to say I changed the world through them; part of that change has been widespread addiction and social isolation. I wouldn’t like to be one of the world-changing activists from the 60’s or 70’s who protested against the established order of society: chaos and the slow unraveling of society may be their legacy.

Change is a risky business, and the flaws in ourselves which have smaller consequences on an individual scale have pretty huge ones on a national or global scale.

Then, of course, there is the murky water of motivation.

How much do we want to change the world because of genuine, selfless love for God and other people, and how much do we want to change the world because we’d like to be important? There’s a lot of glamour in the business of making an impact, and we’d be dishonest to suggest that we aren’t tempted by visions of ourselves smugly accepting the Nobel Peace Prize—or at least the accolades of all our friends.

Still, I don’t suppose that the fact that we may want to change the world for the wrong reasons should deter us completely; if that were the case, we should resign ourselves to doing absolutely nothing at all, since bad motives tempt us all the time. And neither should the risk of making a large-scale mistake be a total deterrent. Risk is a part of life.

But changing the world isn’t only risky or prone to selfish motives. It’s just not what most of us are tasked with.

It’s hard as a graduating senior to know just precisely what you are tasked with, so it can be helpful to think about your life in terms of circles of responsibility—starting with yourself, for whom you have the primary responsibility, and moving outward first to your family, then to your church, then to your community, then beyond.

Your first task, then, is making wise and responsible choices in your own life. I don’t mean your first task is to make yourself wealthy or comfortable—just to care of yourself and live your life wisely.

Then, you should look out for those placed in your life and serve them. Maybe your parents need help taking care of the lawn. Maybe your grandma needs someone to buy her groceries. Maybe your sibling needs help with math.

After you’ve met those responsibilities, your next task is to look beyond to the extent that you can; you serve at your church; you help a neighbor mow their lawn; you volunteer at the local food shelf.

It sounds selfish to look at things this way—but it’s not. It is both the natural and rational order of things. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t help anyone else—and everyone else will have to help you. After that, it is only common sense that you would look out for your own family first: as a member of the family, you are naturally positioned to do so; moreover, family is the primary unit of society. I could go on, but I believe you get the picture. Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting those around you with theirs.

Most of us find that our capacity for reaching beyond those three spheres of responsibility (self, family, neighbor) is limited. Unless we have a lot of money, or a position of influence, or a famous last name, chances are both our time and resources will be exhausted by meeting those responsibilities—and in doing so, we shall have done well.

What about, you ask, starting an organization, or working at a charity for your job, or inventing the next greatest improvement to human life? What about becoming an influencer on social media, or an activist?

Aren’t these ways that we can and should change the world?

It all comes down to asking yourself, first, how you can best use your skills for the Lord, and second, whether you have really sat down and considered what it is that you can accomplish through such opportunities.

You can serve God by working in any respectable career, and you will do better for yourself and those around you by selecting something that fits your skill set. My husband is an accountant. He won’t be winning any humanitarian awards, but then again, he uses his analytical mind to serve God and others through a career that provides order and structure to society. Moreover, his work allows him to provide for himself and me, and he can be a good witness to his coworkers. He isn’t a lesser person because he doesn’t busy himself with the abstract and lofty mission of world-change every morning. Getting the income statements and balance sheets right is enough, and, with beautiful irony, doing so really does change the world for the better, if in a small way.

God might place you in a career in which you will rise to great influence and power, but don’t make that a prerequisite for your work or healthy self-esteem. If you do have widespread influence, pray that you use it for good.

Secondly, organizations, social media influencing, and activism aren’t always as meritorious as they sound. If you start an organization, you’ll need to be realistic about what you can accomplish and whether that is worth your while. Keep in mind that the most rewarding and successful human actions are the ones done by individuals for other individuals. Technology is powerful, but extending your reach doesn’t necessarily mean that you can accomplish the same things for people far away that you could for your neighbor. To cite one example, videos convey messages quite well, but we are unlikely to learn from a video the way we could from a live person.

Additionally, influencing and activism take on some of that risk we talked about at the beginning: you better be more than sure—having done countless hours of research and consulted with many wise people—that indeed what you are promoting is good. Besides, it is prudent as a young person to take some time to evaluate and test out your beliefs in the real world before beginning to advise others on how to run their lives, or attempting to influence political or world affairs.

Listen more than you speak, and ask questions more than you provide answers to others. Your time may come to lead, but there is nothing like the regret of having led in the wrong direction, or the pain of knowing that you neglected your family to make some imaginary impact, or the disappointment of realizing that your labors have come to naught because you were seeking to do more than was humanly possible.

Seek the truth in humility, and you will do well.