Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Passion and Happiness

There is a viewpoint in our culture that in order for someone to be successful they must work very hard, sacrifice a great deal, be without friends, miss out on important family moments, suffer from high cholesterol and heart problems, and basically choose between quality of life or success. The same applies to artistic and creative people; they should be socially awkward, impractical and suffer from wild mood-swings.

Over the last few decades numerous studies have analysed what makes a person successful; in business, in artistic endeavors, in any field.  Similar studies have been done in the field of happiness. What makes a person happy: is it money, power, friends, success, intelligence, values? Incredibly enough, studies contradict the mythology surrounding both success and happiness.  Despite these two being what most people in life strive for, as a species we suck at knowing how to achieve either.

Interviews with successful people, and interviews with happy people tend to reveal very similar trends. The most successful people are usually also very happy.  They are typically not living the Hollywood life - they may spend their days at an office, in a studio, in a refugee camp or performing research.  They are often not the most glamorous or fashionable people.  They are often not at all wealthy, or at least not living a wealthy lifestyle. What does unite them is they chose to do something different, something which fascinated them.

In each case, the successful person listened to and cultivated their curiosity.  They turned down safe jobs. They chose to pursue a life different from those around them, and to devote their energies and talents to perfection in whichever area fascinated them.  In the process they experienced months and years of failure, sometimes rejection, sometimes a lack of acceptance in 'normal' society.  When, years later, they emerged with a discovery, an invention, a new viewpoint or something radical they became celebrities.  Celebrated for how amazing they were, how special, how few of us are capable of doing what they have done.  

It is true.  How many of us are willing to give up the status quo, to seek a life outside of the normal career path to follow some vague dream inside? We continue to believe in the Hollywood dream that if I find some glamorous, beautiful, wealthy person and meet celebrities and by association become one myself, that I will be happy.  

What in fact studies are demonstrating, successful and happy people have already figured out, and we should all pay attention to, is that if we truly wish to be happy we need to learn what makes us unique.  We need to devote ourselves to cultivating our talents and using them in the best way possible.  We will have to struggle, to forge new paths, to step outside of our comfort zones.  We will have a life which appears hard and uncomfortable.  We may become successful.  What we will be, is happy.

Monday, June 1, 2009

How do we solve poverty?!?

I recently read a book entitled "In the River They Swim".  It's a collection of essays from many of the world's leading development experts.  The essays don't offer the solution to global poverty, nor do they explain how to solve corruption or improve entrepreneurship. Some of the essays speak of failure or personal difficulty in adjusting to cultures, learning to respect another viewpoint or attempting to improve a situation.  

So often we are offered THE solution to poverty.  We need to double aid to certain countries, we need to cancel debts, we need to all go over there and spend our time helping out.  Notice how it's all about US? YOU? ME?  What the development experts have realised, and what their essays are discussing, is that not one of us has THE solution.

The solution doesn't exist!  What WE can do, is to speak with people living in different circumstances, we can figure out what is holding them back from creating opportunities or taking advantage of existing opportunities, we can offer education, our experience, we can help them to think through the situation.  Ultimately, we are only guides. It is up to us to observe, to learn, to offer assistance; it is up to those living in the situation to act.

To read essay after essay written by brilliant people, with decades of experience - who, looking through their resumes, have concretely changed hundreds and thousands of lives for the better through their work, and to have those people admit that they don't have the solution is eye opening.  If only we could all have the humility to realise our limitations and to offer what resources and knowledge we do have to those who are capable of alleviating poverty in ways that I and you never can.

In my own travels, I speak with youth who are incredibly capable, passionate and dedicated to improving their societies.  I am continuously asked, "what can we do to improve?" At first, I answered I didn't know, because I didn't know their societies, their culture, what opportunities they had, the difficulties with which they were faced. I was clueless.  Now, I answer that I don't know, because the more I learn the less I am able to offer some quick solution. There are so many areas that need focus, and it will take each person within the society using their strengths and skills to make it better. In the meantime, it will take a very few people working very hard to inspire others to join them.

How encouraging for me, and for everyone working on these issues to read examples of what has worked in different places all over the world - sometimes in the most impossible situations where no one thought there was any hope for improvement.  On top of that, how encouraging to know that I can continue to learn and work with people all over the world and that I will never have the answer.  What is important is that we observe, listen, begin - and when we fail we adjust and try again.