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A Step-by-Step Plan to Create the World You Want to Live In
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Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.
FINDING YOUR NORTH STAR
I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.
He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.
BELIEVE IT OR not, a punctuation mark compelled you to pick up this book. And it’s not a question mark, despite all the answers you’re searching for here.
It’s a dash.
Specifically, it’s your dash, the one that separates the day you were born from the day you will die. Yes, we’ll be the first to admit that sounds a bit morbid… and also deeply meaningful. This little punctuation mark packs so much power, it should get you thinking: What will my dash mean for the world?
When you’re contributing to the greater good of humanity and you feel a spark inside, that’s a hint about your dash. The moments when you’re volunteering, working to elect a capable leader, or protecting the planet for all the little kids who will inherit it—just to name a few examples—are chances to express your dash while you’re alive and well. You, like both of us, want to know that the world is just a tiny bit better because you live in it.
Even though you’ve already done some good, you want your life to mean something. You suspect that there is untapped potential inside you. You know you have skills and ideas to contribute to movements, and perhaps you’re just not sure how to apply them without rocking the boat and throwing your other responsibilities in life overboard—or where to focus when you care about so damn much.
In practical terms, you have many options from here: Should you take that next promotion or change careers entirely? Should you save up and work hard to donate more later? Should you stash your stuff in storage and head off on a worldwide volunteering voyage? Should you go all in with a local community project or invest in global causes? Should you run for office or launch an advocacy project?
These question marks (our other favorite piece of punctuation, obviously) are part of the journey that gives our lives purpose, beyond our friendships and family relationships or faith. Perhaps you’re looking for that extra bit of self-actualization outside of your home, in a way that previous generations of your family didn’t think about because they were focused on setting you up for a better life. Nailing down that larger purpose often fluctuates somewhere between “changing the world,” which feels too big to take on, and “doing good,” which feels too vague, gentle, and earnest.
This is why we developed the framework we call the Impact Plan. We want to help you make this journey more manageable without diluting its importance. Impact is a deeply personal process, beginning with an examination of your own story; continuing with an understanding of your resources, priorities, and biases; and ending with new commitments to action.
We tested the Impact Plan in workshops with professionals in their twenties and thirties. The first questions we asked them were: Why? Why do you want to take this workshop? Why do you feel you need an Impact Advisor? The answers inevitably were:
“I feel I’m not giving back enough and I want to help make change.”
“While I do various forms of volunteering activities, I know there is more that I can do and that needs to be done… and I don’t have any idea how to be structured about this!”
“I feel like since I’ve joined ‘corporate America’ I’ve stopped giving back—and I’d love to add value again.”
“I have a vision, but I don’t know how to get there. How does my plan bloom?”
You might sense a theme emerging. Many, many people have the drive to create change. The gratification of doing so is real, if not addictive. However, it’s also fleeting. Where to start becomes such a large hurdle that people end up giving in sporadic ways, volunteering once per year, donating to friends’ birthday fundraisers, chipping in to a political campaign—it never quite feels like it all adds up. With only so much time and so many resources, we each need a sustainable way to commit long enough to see the real dent we’re making in an issue. Missing from common wisdom on how to create impact was a strategy on how to integrate it into everyday life. Without that, what’s the point?
As your Impact Advisors, our part of the bargain is making sure you have a solid plan to create tangible, sustainable impact, now and into the future. Your part? Being open to the exercises and reflection opportunities, which have corresponding worksheets wherever you see a . You can easily revisit these exercises whenever your plan needs a tune-up.
OUR FIRST STEP IS PINPOINTING YOUR NORTH STAR. You’ve probably heard of a North Star as a way of talking about your purpose. Your North Star is what you want your dash to stand for. It lights you up and guides you in making the most fulfilling life decisions, much like how, before Google Maps, our forebears used the brightest stars in the sky to find their way. Our definition of a North Star connects your actions with vision.
In your Impact Plan, the North Star represents your end goal, the future you want to see. Like real stars that are trillions of miles away, a North Star can feel distant from the world you live in today. That’s okay. The point is that your North Star is something you can visualize. When you’re describing a future world where , your North Star is what you fill in that blank with. Perhaps it is a future of racial justice, gender equality, religious tolerance, financial freedom, universal education, or environmental sustainability. Your vision could be at any scale—focused on your local community all the way up to the planet at large.
When there is so much to care about, your North Star helps you filter out the opportunities that do not match your desired focus so you aren’t overspending energy elsewhere. When you are overwhelmed, your North Star keeps you inspired, grounded, and hopeful for what could be.
For some people, choosing a North Star feels paralyzing. If this is you, don’t worry; we’ll come back to that challenge and get you unstuck. First, let’s look at some people who are so sure of their North Star that it’s as if it’s written in stone. That’s actually how one woman we admire, Tiffany Dufu, thinks of it. Tiffany is the founder of The Cru, a peer coaching company for women. Long before she made that entrepreneurial leap, she held fundraising positions at nonprofits and schools serving girls, served on the board of directors for Girls Who Code, and authored a book called Drop the Ball to help women cultivate the skill of letting go. She frequently talks on stage about the nine words that will be on her tombstone one day (right under her dash): “She got to as many women as she could.” Tiffany is driven by advancing women and girls, and when you look at her career and the work she’s committed herself to, that’s the through line.
Her rock-solid conviction surprises some people: How does she know this is her calling? It’s a lot of pressure to choose the one outcome you want to orient your life around when there seems to be one injustice, one marginalized group, one natural disaster after another calling for your attention. Tiffany sums up her approach in a simple motto: “Purpose is simply commitment inspired by experience.”
In other words, commit to a North Star that’s informed by your experience. Use Tiffany’s advice to whittle down your focus, or to solidify it, so you come out of this chapter with a clear narrative on what matters to you and why. Draw on the life experiences that define who you are today.
If you’ve had positive moments of gratitude, support, and strength, these advantages make you who you are, and they inform how you want to pay it forward. Or maybe there was a time when you had extreme anxiety, felt completely overwhelmed and saddened. What was happening in your life when you felt that way? If you experienced poverty, racism, bullying, cyber harassment, abuse, or any difficult circumstances unique to you… those negative experiences you’ve accumulated can push you, too.
Jamira Burley is an unforgettable example of someone who found a bright North Star in the darkness of tragedy and hardship. Jamira is the first of sixteen siblings to graduate from high school in Philadelphia. Both of her parents and twelve of her thirteen brothers have been incarcerated. She’s lost several relatives to gun violence, including her brother who was murdered when she was fifteen. “I believe you should be the expert of your own experience,” Jamira says, and for her, that means speaking up on issues she is, or was, personally affected by and feeling qualified to effect change in those areas.
Even as a teenager, Jamira would not wait for someone with fancy credentials to come along and fix the problems in her community. After her brother’s death, she organized an antiviolence program in her high school—and it ended up reducing the rate of violence by 30 percent. The governor then provided funding for the program’s implementation at ten high schools in the city.
You rarely realize as a child how tied your personal experience is to the larger forces of policy, law, or discrimination. Systemic inequalities are the unequal outcomes built into our institutions. As Jamira got older and became the first in her family to attend university, she recognized that a lack of access to quality education was a root cause for the violence she grew up around.
The issues of gun violence prevention and education ended up intertwining and feeding into her ultimate outcome—a world where young people reach their potential. As an activist and Impact Advisor herself, Jamira’s North Star guides her to create pathways for youth to escape the environments they didn’t choose to be born into and then to go back to change their communities. Now in her thirties, Jamira has the credentials of working for the mayor of Philadelphia, Amnesty International USA, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and the Global Business Coalition for Education. She was also named a White House Champion of Change during the Obama administration. And yet, despite all these amazing accomplishments on her résumé, Jamira would tell you what most qualifies her as a changemaker is not where she has worked, but what she lived through in West Philadelphia.
Examining your own life as inspiration for your North Star makes you an authentic and compassionate advocate and ally. It’s your why. A connection to your personal history is what keeps you humble, passionate, and most effective.
Author, physician, and professor Rachel Naomi Remen has struggled with Crohn’s disease her entire life, which has informed her view of life and medicine. She wrote a piece that illuminated the difference between “helping,” “fixing,” and “serving” that is popular among nonprofit workers. It’s one of the reasons we push you to see your North Star as self-sustaining, to avoid the word help in how you approach the change you want to create. Remen says when you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. And when you serve, you see life as whole. “Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego,” she writes, “and service the work of the soul.… Fixing and helping create a distance between people, but we cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected.”
Think about how powerful that empathy is. The context of how you experience an issue may differ greatly from how others do, based on privilege, geography, and what makes you unique, but that doesn’t stop you from relating to them. For example, we are both first-generation college graduates. We understand what it means to use our education to unlock levels of social mobility that previous generations of our family didn’t have. These pieces of our identity drew us to be passionate about fighting for equality alongside girls who are first in their families to graduate from high school and create new paths. That said, we have limitations in understanding the experience of girls who are facing dangers and instability we never had to think about.
Gaps between your frame of reference and others’ simply means it’s critical to have ongoing conversations in which you listen more than you speak. Focus on learning more about the issue you’re fighting and the people affected by it to avoid projecting your own experience… and there’s a whole lot more where that came from in Part II of this book.
After reading these examples, it’s your turn. If you had to pick the top experiences or circumstances that make you who you are today, what would they be? As you read through this next section, use the workbook or your Impact Journal to jot down your thoughts.
WHAT MOVES YOU?
In case unpacking your life story doesn’t bring you immediate clarity on your North Star, here’s another tactic to identify it. If you were to pop open the New York Times right now, what headlines would you want to click on? Notice the stories that stir emotions like anger, heartbreak, and hope. Is there a documentary you saw and can’t get out of your mind? Or a nonfiction book that you couldn’t keep to yourself and recommended to multiple people? An article you posted to Facebook?
Anger united the two of us on our changemaking journey. Our collaboration traces back to a news article that Tammy posted on Facebook in 2009. It was from a Liberian news outlet and shamed young women for teen pregnancies. Tammy was livid that the story failed to mention the lack of sex education provided to girls (and boys). The community had failed these girls, not the other way around. Tammy posted to Facebook that she wanted to start a social media campaign to promote the importance of girls’ education. When she asked if anyone would like to join her, Christen—someone she had only met once before “in real life”—messaged her directly to express her shared anger and to jump on board… the rest is history.
Thinking about what pushes your buttons is a reminder that, contrary to how it sounds, a North Star isn’t whimsical; it’s powerful. And when you see something that threatens it, you have a visceral reaction.
Another way to locate your North Star is to think about where you spend your time. That might be in a rally, march, community service, family care, event, or volunteer or pro bono capacity.
For model Imaan Hammam, she found clues to her North Star in an unexpected place: her Instagram. “I hear from young girls on Instagram daily who look up to me as a role model,” she says. Imaan spent more and more time responding to their comments and DMs while on photo shoot breaks and airport layovers. “I knew I wanted to give back to a cause that would change the lives of young girls,” Imaan told us. “And since I am half Egyptian, half Moroccan, I wanted to not just help girls in the United States, where I live, but around the world. You can only give of yourself when you really believe in the cause.” In her first year as an ambassador, Imaan raised more than $40,000 for girls globally through She’s the First and spoke about her work at publicity events, in magazines, and on social media.
And how about where you donate? Think about the causes or situations that compel you to give, even in small amounts, to nonprofits, individuals, political campaigns, or neighborhood needs.
When you consider where you’ve shown up, what outcome are those groups and activities supporting? For the stories that anger you, what right or kind of person are they threatening? Now, in your Impact Journal, go back to that list of experiences that shaped you and see if you can connect them to the issues you already support and read about. Where you see overlap is the zone where you find your North Star.
WHAT YOU “SHOULD” DO
By now, you may already lean toward what could be your North Star (but if not, don’t sweat it!). It’s at this stage that self-doubt and second-guessing tend to emerge in our Impact Planners. There’s a common sticking point: the notion of where you should focus to maximize impact versus what lights you up. The dreaded “should” might come from an opinionated passerby or from academics who have data-driven arguments, and it can make you feel like what you’re passionate about isn’t enough.
One of our Impact Planners, Raquel, struggled at first in naming her North Star. She’s passionate about animal rights. It’s not unusual for her to be running late because she saved an abandoned dog or because a neighbor found a stray and then brought it to Raquel, trusting she’d know what to do. At any given time, she’s fostering dogs or cats, with the goal of having her own rescue one day. Raquel finds herself torn about where to focus her impact efforts. “I feel like there are so many people who need help. Should I put more time into that? Is me focusing on animals neglecting people that I could help?”
You might feel like this, too. Perhaps your passions point you toward supporting the arts as your focus, but the news keeps reminding you about all the issues affecting the world right now. Maybe international issues draw you in, even though you know there are families struggling on the same block where you live. These dichotomies we create in our heads are not productive, so be careful you don’t get lost down this rabbit hole. When we pit worthy issues against each other, we let other people’s judgment, or at least the fear of it, stand in our way. There are nearly eight billion people on this planet; no one—yourself included—can put the weight of solving everything on your shoulders. Not to mention, each of us has unique skills and abilities that make more of a difference in certain areas than in others. The purpose of an Impact Plan is to concentrate your resources behind an area of need that matches your interests and talents, not to account for all of them.
- "When you're feeling overwhelmed, this book is your go-to resource to focus your ideas and bravely commit to the world you want to build."—Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code and bestselling author of Brave, Not Perfect
"Want to make a difference? Impact is your guide for how to make change in a world that desperately needs it."
—Amanda Gorman, Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate of the US
- "Christen and Tammy offer tangible approaches to help us navigate our plans for transformation within our communities and around the globe."—Jamia Wilson, executive director and publisher of the Feminist Press at CUNY and author of Step Into Your Power
"Impact is the book I wish I'd had when I was embarking on my journey to become a changemaker. Christen and Tammy have poured their immense experience into every single one of these pages and by the time you've finished this book, you'll be bursting with ideas and passion to make this world a better place!"
—Isha Sesay, journalist and author of Beneath the Tamarind Tree: A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram
- "An action-oriented must-read for every ambitious changemaker."—Meena Harris, founder and CEO of Phenomenal, and bestselling author of Kamala and Maya's Big Idea
- On Sale
- Nov 17, 2020
- Page Count
- 224 pages