I once told my friend Lucy something I secretly had been thinking about for a while.
I told her I wanted to get rid of the few things I keep around in life, and move to the Dominican Republic to work for Esperanza International – an anti-poverty institution that I love and admire.
I’d spend half my time at headquarters, helping to improve operations and fundraising. And I’d spend half my time in the field, working directly with the women who are empowered by Esperanza.
It’s so compelling to me. For the rest of my life I would know that I had helped, hands-on, some of the most vulnerable people in my human family. I would forever have those memories, being shoulder to shoulder with the women and the field workers, changing lives. I would have the incomparable experience of helping to build a first class poverty fighting institution.
Lucy is one of the most practical people I know, so I thought she was going to tell me that wouldn’t be very wise for my career or retirement plans. But that’s not what she said at all. Her eyes flashed, and she spoke sharply, so I would remember it.
“Salah! You’re being selfish!”
It wasn’t the reaction I expected after just explaining that I wanted to get rid of all my worldly possessions and move to another land to help impoverished women.
Lucy said, “You’re mixing up feeling good about what you do with actual impact. There are many people who can go help the women of Esperanza. There are less that can help improve the operations of Esperanza, but there are still a lot. But you told me that you are working on a business model that could enable thousands of entrepreneurs to impact the lives of millions of people around the globe.”
“Your problem,” she said, “is that you are scared that you might fail. If you strive for something really big and really difficult, the likelihood of failure is high. You might waste precious years in your effort to create a platform to empower millions of lives. You might be left with nothing to show for your work. But if you don’t make the attempt, you will certainly not achieve your potential.”
“If you go to the island, the likelihood that you will help a few people is very high. It will certainly make you feel good. But you will be squandering any chance you have at making a big, worldwide impact. There’s nothing wrong with that – but see it with clear eyes. It’s selfish.”
If you are a social entrepreneur, I hope you have a Lucy in your life. Whenever I have a difficult decision to make, I remember what she showed me that evening. It helps give me the courage to go all-in. It keeps me from accidentally taking the easy way.
I’d like to hear your stories about risk taking and impact. Comments are open, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with me on Facebook.