At a recent conference I attended in Brisbane, called Powershift – which was run by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) - there was a man who spoke of the power of persisting in finding answers to these questions, and acting on what you discover.
“Now all throughout high school I remember at family birthday parties, at barbecues, my parent’s friends would ask me ‘what are you going to do next?’ ‘what are you going to study?’ ‘what job are you going to do?’,” said Glen Berman, The General Manager of AYCC.
“I remember feeling pretty stressed by that. It started to sink into me and make me start to feel like – well I knew I wanted to do something – but before I wanted to do something I’d have to get a degree, I’d have to get a job.”
“I knew I wanted to have an impact, make a difference, but I had no idea what that impact or difference was and I just reached the conclusion that the only way I could make a difference was by answering that question of what was I going to do next?”
After gaining the grades he needed to get into his ‘dream’ degree, law, Berman said he felt like it was his “time to shine” and recalls the feeling of walking into his first day of uni “banging your chest in” thinking “now is my time, I am an adult – I’m going to make a difference”.
But it didn’t last, and he said the family birthday parties continued to turn up questions around what he was going to do for his post-grad, what law firm he’d work in and what area of law he might specialise in.
“All of a sudden I started to get stuck in that same mindset. The same sense that I’ve got to put my head down, I’ve got to study, I’ve got to get good grades, then I’ve got to get a good job, a mortgage, 2.5 children and maybe at some point in time when I’m 40 years old I can start to make a difference in the world.”
While Burman said he had no specific answer to the questions we all face - ‘why am I here, what is my purpose in life, how can I make a difference?’ – he, like many, was adamant he wanted to help create a better world - he just wasn’t yet sure how to do it.
“Now I think that as young people, it is really easy in today’s society to get stuck… thinking that I can’t do anything yet.”
“It’s really easy to get stuck in the cycle of future planning, where you are constantly asking yourself, ‘what am I going to do next?’ ‘how am I going to get the next thing?’, so that one day I can create change.”
The reason we human beings often get stuck in this cycle of ‘future planning’ is largely scientific and involves the most dominant, evolved and fastest growing part of the human brain – the frontal lobe – which allows us to recognise future consequences resulting from current actions, choose between good and bad actions and override and suppress unacceptable social responses.
In essence, it has become more difficult to think instinctively, act for the now and go against the ‘norm’ - something Glen said he felt strongly, but eventually overcame.
“I got into third year uni and by this time I was spending more time outside of uni volunteering than I was in uni, so I made a really tough decision and I decided to drop out of uni.”
“It was a decision I agonised over for 18 months. It’s a decision I still get asked about a lot and I still question a lot, but I decided that I was sick of doing something that bored me.”
“I wanted to do something that engaged me. I wanted to do something that I would enjoy, that would challenge me. I had no idea how effective I could be, or how crucial my work could be, I simply wanted to change.”
Berman said he believes it is a struggle many go through, as they fight with how to balance the things we want to achieve in the world, with our lives.
“How do we balance responding to the crises we see, the injustices we experience and feel, with university, with exams, with our friends and our family. How do we find the headspace to share the both of those?”
Berman simply chose not to try and do both, and said he soon realised the power and happiness that comes from giving your full self to a cause you believe in – in his case, solving climate change.
But Berman knew he was not the first to sacrifice everything, and said he found strength in looking at what others who’d done the same had been able to achieve.
“Kumi Naidoo was expelled from high school when he was 15 in South Africa to join the anti-apartheid movement. He was just a boy with no experience, no degree, who decided to give his life to a cause that was threatening his generation,” he said.
Having been a key figure in the anti-apartheid movement and then lived to see the end of it, the now Executive Director of Greenpeace International, Kumi Naidoo, personifies the power of acting on those questions we all ask.
But Berman said there were also many current examples of the same theory in action, including that of the Arab Spring uprising.
“Young men and women who decided to stare down dictators, with men with guns, to stare down death, because they knew there was a change, they knew there was an injustice they wanted to resolve and they knew they could do something about it.”
Berman said he believes the growing number of people across the globe giving their full selves to issues of peace, environment and poverty has the potential to change the world.
“We see the change we want to see in the world, not the obstacles.”
“We know that we can win, we know that we can be effective, we know that when we work together we can be the change we want to see in the world.”
“Without our vision, without our creativity, without our resilience, without our passion and without our excitement… no change would ever happen.”
For more information on Glen Berman, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition or Powershift please head to http://aycc.org.au/
The psychology - “Human beings, ineluctably, want meaning and purpose in life. The meaningful life consists in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self, and humanity creates all the positive institutions to allow this: religion, political party, being Green, the Boy Scouts, or the family.” - Dr Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, believes finding and holding meaning in life is one of the three fundamentals to leading a happy life.