I recently had the wonderful opportunity to attend a two-day kickoff retreat for a social entrepreneurship scholarship program I was part of as a college student at NYU. The Catherine B. Reynolds program is “designed to attract, encourage and train a new generation of leaders in public service. The program exposes a highly selective group of undergraduate and graduate students to the cross-disciplinary skills, experiences and networking opportunities needed to advance and support their efforts to realize sustainable and scalable pattern-breaking solutions to society’s most intractable problems.”
It was a neat experience to return as an alumni and reflect on the many lessons I learned from my time as a Reynolds scholar in NYC, and the two years I spent traveling across India, the Canary Islands, Spain, Mexico, the U.S. and now serving prisoners in California. I remember the overwhelming sense of responsibility that accompanied the tremendous support of the program – the pressure we all felt to perform and live up to high standards of achievement. I was not surprised, for this reason, when one new graduate fellow asked alumni during the retreat about how to balance one’s professional and personal lives.
“Ask Ripa,” replied an alum named Kate.
We all laughed.
“No, really.” She was serious.
So many thoughts came, but our time was coming close to completion. Mark Twain once shared that he “wanted to write a short letter but did not have enough time.” I likewise didn’t want to take up too much time talking, as I believe in the power of silence and only speaking as few words as possible. After reflecting more deeply on the question, I came up with some food for thought that I shared with the group just prior to departing:
I really believe that the answers to this question, and ultimately, to all problems we face, lie deep within ourselves and that we have within ourselves everything we need to be whole. I therefore encourage you to find the tools, space and time to listen to the sound of your own voice each day. For me, daily yoga, meditation and writing have been really helpful practices for that.
Until and unless you can learn to listen to your own self, there will always be this search for external validation. In this program, you’ll encounter elevator pitches, venture capital competitions and presentations, funding proposals and countless other avenues to seek this validation. Listening to your inner wisdom provides you the chance to validate yourself, first and foremost. No one else will tell you this, but providing yourself validation is what will give you true power over your choices, your life and your self. When you do things out of a sense of guilt or obligation (seeking external validation), this puts a toxic energy into your actions, actually making them a disservice to those you are trying to serve. It’s not good for you either. Listening deeply to yourself is what empowers you to align your thoughts, words and actions, thereby serving as an example for others.
Something I’ve found really helpful in finding balance between the personal and professional is to approach every person, place and situation as a teacher, with the understanding that there is no real separation between the personal and political. Any obstacle you face will definitely affect others, too. Challenges will always be there. The extent to which you can learn from each obstacle, treating every one as an opportunity, is the extent to which you can develop your arsenal of service, to have more to be able to give to others.
And lastly, I’m reminded of something Kate and I used to often talk about at the start of this journey, four years ago. There can be a temptation to believe that service is something you can only do on a grand scale, once you have the funding and visibility to make it happen. In the process of creating large-scale visions in this program, never neglect all those small opportunities for service that exist around you every moment of each day. Even if it’s just smiling at someone, or passing on a lesson learned to someone in need. Practicing small acts of kindness like these makes service more of a way of life, and not just something you do professionally. And when service becomes an integral part of who you are, it can naturally flow into your professional work in ways you might never even imagine or expect. Serving others in small ways each day is an invitation to become fearlessly open to the infinite possibilities for giving.