What’s the Most Important Question in Your Life?
Aaron Schwartz, the famous programmer and internet activist who died before his time, said: “You should be asking yourself all the time what is the most important thing in the world I could be working on right now, and if you are not working on that, why aren’t you?”
These days in Silicon Valley, I meet people who are smart and working at a company “changing the world.” I don’t want to rain on their parade, but developing another instant messaging service is not “changing the world.”
It’s not that these people are intentionally neglecting the larger issues in the world, or that they don’t care.
I believe it’s because some people don’t yet know what is important to them and what they can do about it.
How do you move from skimming news headlines to caring about the issue? And then from caring about the issue to wanting to make it what you want to spend your time working on?
How to Find Yourself and Change the World
I encourage people to take this into their own hands. To learn about yourself and what you are capable of. Take the initiative and open yourself up to the broader experiences of the world—to experiences that might be new, exciting, emotional, and sometimes physically uncomfortable.
One of the most meaningful experiences of my life was volunteering at a human rights nonprofit and interviewing refugees in a camp on the Thai-Burma border. There was no running water, no electricity. We sat on the bare floors of their thatched huts. I listened to their stories of their lives. Family members would pick up the guitar and take turns singing traditional folk songs.
I came back to my last year of Harvard Law School and felt no temptation to go to the recruiting events of the big law firms. I was one of the very few who did not have a job upon graduation. I continued to write and eventually fell into journalism. I was so grateful that I had found something that was important to me, that I could call my work.
To truly realize what is important to you and what you can do to make a difference—learn by doing. Don’t worry if you don’t know enough yet about the issue—you will learn it by doing it.
Be Curious—Say Yes
If you are invited to visit a low-income neighborhood in Oakland and tour their community garden, do it. Go and don’t be afraid to talk to the people who live there and learn about their community. If the Rainforest Action Network has a public talk about orangutans in the Sumatran rainforest threatened by loggers, go listen and meet the people involved. If there’s a screening of Power of Two, an award-winning movie about cystic fibrosis and discussion with the producers, go to the movie and stay for the discussion. If your local open space preserve has a family day with guided bird-watching tours, go check it out and hear from the guides about how they are building more public access trails.
There are so many public events open to all who are curious to learn more about social causes. Say yes to these invitations.
Volunteer with a Nonprofit
Do you have an interest in children? Volunteer with CASA, a national nonprofit, to visit a young child near you who is placed in foster home. Get a huge smile from your foster-child when you offer to take them to see a movie.
Do you want to learn more about health on the frontlines? Volunteer at the local free clinic that serves the poorest of our society—help people get screened for high blood pressure or get training to be a peer counsellor to at-risk young people.
Do you have skills such as writing or design? You’ve got a valuable skill that almost any nonprofit could use. Take action and call them up even if you don’t see a volunteer posting. Ask them if you could help them with their email newsletter, brochure for an upcoming fundraiser, or their website.
Bono was asked about how he became an activist for Africa. Once I visited Africa, he said, “I saw it, I heard it and I felt it.”
You will gain knowledge and confidence. By living fully—not turning away from things that are different, complex, messy, intense—you will find how you are capable of doing meaningful work.
Keep asking yourself along the way: “What is the most important thing in the world I could be working on right now, and if I’m not, why aren’t I?”