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The Former CEO Of Invisible Children Knows One Surefire Way To Change The World
by Ben Keesey
This spring, we’re celebrating innovators who are tackling pressing global issues. We call them the GOOD 100. In the spirit of solidarity, we’re also rolling out insights and personal stories from a select list of influential global citizens working in alliance with the world at large. We’ll be highlighting GOOD Citizens once a week.
In your early years, you are surrounded by people who push you to develop and take on additional responsibility. Your teacher believes you can be a group leader, so she assigns you the role. Your coach needs someone to head up fundraising, and your name gets called. It’s natural to work hard, get noticed, and be given more responsibility.
But like guilt-free cotton candy, healing quickly, and summer vacation, once you grow up—those things are over.
As an adult, you have to pursue leadership in society. It doesn’t come to you. Your city mayor will never come to your house and say, “Hey, kid, you seem to be a great person. I need you to volunteer and help solve this problem.”
That doesn’t happen. Ever.
As an adult, we have to nominate ourselves and choose to engage the problems around us. We must believe that we are capable of acting and making a difference, even if it “is not our job,” and even in the face of a neverending supply of “lazy-boy critics.” You know these folks—the people who are doing nothing, but who complain that the people who are doing something aren't doing it the way the critics would do it (assuming they could be bothered to do anything).
It can be difficult to move forward because these critics feed the doubt that is already present in your mind. (“It’s not going to work,” “Who am I kidding,” “This person may get mad at me.”) But here is the secret—no one ever feels fully ready or qualified to take action. Most people, even extraordinary and accomplished leaders, have to push through a period of insecurity to get anything done.
The good news is that when we show up and help with something that isn’t our job, great things can happen. Perhaps the greatest is the empowerment that you feel by not having to wait another day on the government, or the PTA, or your dang neighbor who never cleans up after his dog (you know who you are). In both small and large matters, taking the initiative to fix a problem that bothers you, instead of waiting or complaining, can have enormous power over your life, and even society as a whole. In fact, I’ve experienced that power many times in my own life. Let me give two examples:
December 17, 2012: Washington, D.C. Convention Center
On this day, I was far out my comfort zone as I led the “Global Summit on the LRA” (the Lord's Resistance Army), speaking to 5,000 audience participants and representatives on stage from the United Nations, the African Union, the International Criminal Court, and the governments of Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the United States.
At the time, I was the CEO of Invisible Children, a nonprofit I helped found in 2004 to stop the violence of Joseph Kony’s brutal rebel group in Central Africa. No one nominated us to start the organization. No one gave us a strategy guide on ending a rebel conflict or convening world leaders. What we did have was motivation to stop horrific violence and a naïve (but authentic) belief that it was up to us.
Because we believed this, we constantly took responsibility for things that no other NGO, company, or even government was willing to do, such as convene a successful public meeting of world leaders.
January 12, 2016: A-B-CPR Training Center
On a Saturday morning, I walked into a CPR and First Aid training class down the street from my house. I wasn’t going because I wanted to be an EMT or to satisfy the requirement of a job application. I was going because I wanted to develop the ability to effectively help in a medical crisis. Twice in the past year, I’d found myself very unprepared and very uncomfortable in the face of an emergency. The first time, I was on an airplane when myseat mate fell over unconscious. The second, I’d just witnessed a bad car accident in front of my house. In both cases, no one expected me to jump in and help. There were no demotions to my social status or my San Diego citizenship card for being unprepared—there weren’t even disappointed looks from my fellow bystanders.
I did the training because I wanted to be a citizen that takes responsibility to at least try to help when the need arises. I want to choose to actively engage in the problems that stand out to me, rather than complain that other people are failing or letting me down. Of course, none of us can solve all of the problems in our society alone. And sometimes the fear of not being able to fix everything stops us from working on anything. But if each of us works to engage the problems that personally stand out to us, then we don’t have to be overwhelmed. Instead, we can each play our specific role.
The bottom line is, you already have all of the permission that you need to impact the world around you. All that’s holding you back is believing that you can. So nominate yourself and get to it.
For the past 10 years, Ben Keesey served as the CEO of Invisible Children, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending the violence of the Lord's Resistance Army lead by Joseph Kony. Keesey currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Center for Action and Contemplation.