“The problem with the world” said the gentleman while peering over his rimless glasses, “is that people don’t care. People are too comfortable in their jobs and too afraid to take risks. And that is why nothing changes.” Have you heard that story also? And doesn’t it make your heart sink if you believe it? Luckily, I realize that this story is not entirely true. Every year as I meet the new DSI cohort I find living proof that people are caring, brave and that parts of the world are slowly changing – for the better.
When Marc and I start our semester at DSI, we take a day to meet with each student and listen to the story of how they got to DSI. It is one of the most inspiring days of my year. I would like to tell you some of the things I’ve heard and some of the themes that emerged from our conversations.
The known is comfortable and often a little glamorous
For many people it feels good to be employed by a respected university, to have your designs published in glossy magazines and sold by hoity-toiti furniture companies. It feels good to see your work on billboards, to be working at one of the top museums in the world. It’s lovely to have a prestigious job and reliable income. But somehow, this is no longer enough.
The known is often problematic
Every job asks us to do things we don’t like. But we can only go so far. At some point you get tired of numbing the discomfort you feel away. You start to get agitated that your organization turns a blind eye to unintended consequences of their designs. You get tired of not having honest conversations around discrimination in the workplace. You feel bored by the challenge to increase profit, to increase sales. You feel that your talents and gifts are set to serve a system that is causing harm to our world and it doesn’t feel good.
Or maybe you have started on the road towards “Social Good” but your tools are blunt. Your naïve attempts are trampled on by the larger system or you witness the harmful wake international development leaves. You yearn for more tools to affect change.
And then one day, you have had enough
Your co-worker loses her baby because of the insane work-pressure you live under. Your boss asks you to Photoshop the perfectly normal women into the unsustainably sexy supermodel. You observe how the dye of your clothing-industry stains a whole river pink. Your heart breaks at the abject poverty factory workers live in as they manufacture items the West will discard again next fall. You listen to the homeless person and the abstraction caves in — he could be your dad. And you realize: “It is time for me to seek a better way, this old paradigm is broken, we can do better than this.”
And it is really scary
The usual career story end with retirement, not with changing the system we were born into. How do you respond when your parents say “What are you going to do? You need to make a living. You need to work for the system, not challenge it!” Or they plead, “Please don’t leave, we need you here. You need to take care of us.” Or you doubt yourself “Am I doing the right thing? Is this the way forward? What if I fail and I disappoint all those people who have sacrificed so much to get me to where I am now?”
But you persevere
Among the fears, the doubts, the disapproval of your visa, the frightening thought of leaving home, the uncertainty about how you are going to pay for it all and where are you going to find a place to stay. Among it all is a deep knowing that you are on the right path, and you keep going.
And you arrive at DSI
With your life packed tightly into a suit-case or two, you arrive. Of course there is still a great deal of uncertainty and fear. But you also feel vibrantly alive! Deep down you have a sense of rightness, you’ve followed what felt true for you over what was expected of you. One student taps on her chest “I know in my deepest of hearts that I am in the right place.” Another expresses a sense of relief “I feel like I have come home.” Another one smiles broadly and says “All of a sudden I am surrounded with people who are like me. People who are deeply touched and move to action by the difficulty of the world. People who can no longer just sit and witness it all.”
As I listened to these stories, there were several times that I wanted to cry. Maybe I wanted to cry because I was so deeply moved by the extraordinary tenacity and bravery of the human spirit. Or maybe it was the cynic inside me, the one with the rimless glasses, who wanted to cry. Cry with a sense of relief that he might be wrong. Cry because opening our hearts to the tender hopefulness that humanity can indeed care and create a life-sustaining world can hurt just a little.