What makes you different makes you valuable. And it’s your responsibility to translate your assets into something that can add value to others.
The problem is that we have been conditioned to conform, by the systems around us, because their existence depends on our conformity. We have been told to “succeed”, without ever questioning the metrics of success. We’re told to become doctors, while turning a blind eye to the forces that make - and keep - us sick. We’re told to become lawyers, without addressing the invisible systems that so predictably perpetuate injustice. We’re told to become financiers, without acknowledging the widening wealth gap that continues to stoke political polarization and unravel the very fabric of our democracy. We’ve profited off the symptoms while failing to look at the systems.
Conventional wisdom says to ‘follow instructions’, ‘do as you're told’, ‘don’t ask questions’, ‘play it safe’. So we’ve muted our voice, hidden our gifts, and quelched our conscience in order to fit into a culture of conformity and consumption and compliance. We’ve obsessed over status and stuff in a world supposedly strapped by scarcity. We have resigned ourselves to a world of gilded cages and golden handcuffs, living lives defined by monotony, mediocrity, and midlife crises. So in pursuit of “success”, we become corporate cogs in broken systems, strung along with promises of pensions and paychecks. And to add insult to injury, we become unwitting cogs in broken systems that have led to our own despair.
But you are not a cog. Because cogs are cookie-cutter, replaceable parts used primarily to operate corporate machinery. They have no hopes, no dreams, and no chance at changing a broken system. And while they are excellent at maintaining status quo, they are by definition incapable of changing things for the better.
But you are not a cog. You are a human, and as a human you have uniquely creative capacity. You have the ability to make things better, by making better things. You have the ability to break old things that aren’t working by creating new things that do. This innate ingenuity is what separates us from other species - and from cogs.
Conventional wisdom handed us a script, and told us to play our part.
Social entrepreneurs flip the script. They are inspired an inspiring people who refuse to settle for prevailing definitions of success, and set their sights on creating opportunities not merely for material gain, but for meaning, significance, generosity, authenticity, creativity, and contribution. They lean into their own peculiarity and distinct design to create bold ways forward. And where conventional wisdom operates in silos and competition, social entrepreneurs build bridges and collaboration. And if there’s one thing they “specialize” in, it is in bringing together ideas, practices, and fields that wouldn’t naturally coalesce, in order to create bold ideas and new solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Bart Weetjens harnessed his love of rats to eradicate landmines. As a child in Belgium, he raised rats and other small rodents as pets. He knew they were smart, and they loved repetitive tasks. But could they be trained to sniff out landmines, and light enough that they wouldn’t detonate them? It turns out, they can, and Apopo has since employed these “hero rats” to clear hundreds of thousands of landmines, and save millions of lives, for a tiny fraction of the cost.
Veronika Scott used her love of fashion to reverse homelessness. Having grown up in that cycle of poverty herself, she decided to invent a coat that turned into a sleeping bag for the homeless. But one homeless woman told her that she didn’t want a coat, she wanted a job. So, Veronika began to hire the homeless to produce this awesome coat and earn the money they needed to pay for a home, breaking the cycle of generational poverty, one cozy coat at a time.
Gary Slutkin applied his experience in infectious disease to reduce gun violce. As an epidemiologist, he worked around the world to stop the spread of infectious diseases. But when he returned back to the states, he was shocked at the level of gun violence. So, he applied the same data mapping tools he would use to track infectious disease, realized that gun violence moved exactly like an infectious disease, and applied the same sort of multidisciplinary intervention to one of the most violent cities in his hometown of Chicago, reducing gun violence by 67% in the first year.
Katie Patrick combined her passion for gaming to drive climate action. She realized that a lot of smart people were busy working on the technical solutions to huge environmental problems. But no one was paying attention to the psychological barriers that kept people from taking practical action on those solutions. So she combined her vibrant aesthetic, and expertise in environmental engineering, human psychology, and game design to make climate change action accessible to a wider audience.
Each of these changemakers drew on their distinct combination of strengths to create solutions they wish existed. They recognized problems that were being ignored, mishandled, or blatantly exploited by traditional institutions, and they created their own solutions. They did not wait for governments, corporations, churches, or universities to lead. Because if obvious solutions could have come from obvious problems, they would have happened already. But often times, the obvious sources have a vested interest in status quo. Which is why it takes people like you to flip the script, challenge status quo, and change our world for the better. Because in this strange new world, it is the odd combinations, and unlikely approaches that win.
If you don’t understand your unique design, you’ll be tempted to squeeze into a mold you were never designed to fit into. In fact, one of the greatest casualties we face today, as a result of this “Cog Economy”, even among top level CEO’s, is a profound lack of self-awareness. We don’t even recognize our own gifts, because we have denied ourselves in order to achieve society’s definition of success. As a result, we’ve taken our greatest gifts for granted, and we have overlooked and undervalued the very things that make us stand out.
Your distinct combination of personality, talents, and experiences is as unique as your fingerprint. There is not another you; there never was another you; and there never will be another you. So your work cannot be replaced, and your life will never be repeated. You are here, at this moment in history, to use your gifts in the service of others; to reach and teach and serve a segment of the population in a way that only you can; and to make a difference that only you can make.
Social entrepreneurs are creative combiners. And they find new possibilities in unlikely places. Your greatest contribution lies at the intersection of who you are, what you do, and where you’ve been. And you will do your greatest work when what you do is aligned with who you are. Because when you know who you are, you’ll know why you’re here.