What Can I Do?
Philanthropists donate money and volunteers commit their energy to causes. Increasingly, many individuals are responding to the question of “what can I do” by contributing their entrepreneurial spirit to drive change through new organisations and ventures — sometimes outside of their own day jobs or as dedicated, full-time pursuits. This Feed session features 3 social innovators who have each gone on distinct journeys, building alternative models and staying the course for their personal visions. -Project Feed
Last Thursday, I joined Project Feed as part of a panel of three, thinking together on the theme of innovating for society. According to the organisers, the question of ‘What can I do?’ appears to have appealed to many, which perhaps points to the fact, that the age-old quest to make a difference in the best way I can, is very much alive.
Moderated by a very thoughtful Shan, the session was very much a coalescing point for many of my recent thoughts around hard choices, and what would make for a meaningful life, whether defined by impact, ease or fun.
Here is a loosely edited capture of the questions and my answers.
Q: What would you describe as the turning point in your life, that brought you onto your current path in social impact work?
My story hinges less on a turning point but really a time when I came to a fork in the road. There was a story I came across at the time.
It was about a hunter who was chasing two foxes, the foxes ran into the forest and when they came to a fork in the road, they ran down two different paths. The hunter stood there momentarily, not knowing which way to go, and in that moment of hesitation, he lost both of the foxes. But of course, it is less an issue of what is the moral of this fable, but what I made out of it.
I was pursuing a fast-paced career as part of the Singapore Civil Service and at the same time, very much devoted to a ground-up mentoring movement called Beautiful People, chasing my two foxes, as it were. But the two streams of work seemed to pull me in different directions. One was about numbers and percentiles, and the other was a heart conversation with people with names and faces and families.
At that time, I hit a major career milestone, and to my surprise, it did not mean as much to me as I thought it would. I asked myself, if I really had to give up one fox and choose one path to go down, which one would it be? I knew I would not give up the people work I was doing. I decided I would try going down that path and see where it would take me. And that is the fork in the road that led me on my journey.
Q: When is the right time to devote all your energy on your side-projects?
I was having a discussion with someone today and the question was, what does success mean to you? And I said that I thought that it was a life of ease.
A life of ease does not necessarily mean comfortable or easy. To live a life with ease means a life that fits the contours of who you are, and so it fits you, it suits you, and it doesn’t feel awkward or overly difficult.
So in other words, I think it really depends on who you are. In my earlier life, my friend told me about a banker who spent all her life working in a bank and then went into a retirement phase where she did nothing but volunteer work. He asked me why I couldn’t just do that and make things easier for myself. But it was not for me. I was seeking a life of coherence rather than co-existence. And that probably worked out great for her, it was just not for me. So each of us, I think, has to find out what a life of ease means for us.
Q: Social innovation, is it ever done? What is the explicit goal you are pursuing now?
I think scale for the sake of scale is overrated. Recently, I have been thinking about the idea of Bold as an oasis.
An oasis is a place that is bustling with life and creativity; it is a place where people have come alive, alive to who they are and what they bring.
And an oasis may be small, it is just part of the desert. But would you rather have a huge expanse of desert but where there is no life or would you rather have an small oasis which is truly and fully alive? So Bold is an oasis where there are different standards for what education can look like, what community can be, and what success is defined as.
Q: When we help people, how do you know you are helping them in the way that they need and not harming them instead?
I think in the question, there seems to be an assumption that you and I are different and I am the one giving help and you are the one receiving help. And I am not you, so I fear that I do not know you and what you need, and inadvertently, I may do harm. But if we can start to see what is common between us, and focus on the commonality and not differences, the barriers come down.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when? -Rabbi Hillel
In our work to help individuals and organisations decipher the unique space where who they are intersects with what the world needs, we often invite them into a space of contemplation of the quote above.
The universe has a you-shaped spot which awaits you and your work, and we believe in finding that place of ease that is you.
Swing by to the oasis: www.boldatwork.sg!