One of the great hallmarks of the nonprofit world is that it is inhabited by a special breed of people… people that for whatever reason, genuinely bleed for others and believe that they can save the world. Indeed, there weren’t too many of those types inhabiting the infamous halls of wall street say circa 2007 or currently haunting the tech-fueled frat houses of companies like Uber. No, the motivators there are, shall we say, a tad bit more selfish, bordering on the manipulative, misanthropic and sociopathic. Do we really doubt the stereotype that some of these bastions of greed would be willing to sacrifice their grandmother on a pyre dedicated to Cthulhu just to make a buck?
That’s one of the things about the nonprofit world that’s refreshing in a ginger ale plucked from the bottom of an ice-filled tub by the “hot mugshot model” guy sort of way. We work with people who get in early and stay late not because they’re trying to impress during year-end bonus time (Bonus? What’s a bonus?) but rather because, by doing so, they can save another life just like Oskar Schindler lamenting that he should have sold his watch to save two more people. Or like Private Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge trying to save just one more life in the midst of a firefight. Or like Rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy who goes out of his way to stop a horde of Necrocraft from dive-bombing innocent people fleeing Nova City (Cough, How many people did Superman save again in Man of Steel? Cough).
We wear t-shirts on casual Friday that say, “I’m trying to save the world, what are you doing?” We spend our paycheck on things like backpacks and boxes of crayons for the children we serve because a) their families can’t afford them and b) our nonprofits can’t afford them. Oh yea, and all the while we make a fraction of what those frat boys at Uber make. Sure it sucks watching our friends in the for-profit world get brand spanking new IPads on a random Tuesday because… Team building… when all we have to look forward to is a box of Munchkins leftover from yesterday’s morning meeting… Yay! (We were waving a tiny flag just then). But hey, with the right application of effort, we believe we can save the world, and who cares about IPads or even a paycheck anyway.
Well, this may come as a thunderous revelation to you, our most esteemed fellow nonprofit warriors, but we can’t save the world.
No amount of effort, no steely determination, no recitation of magical phrases like “Wally Wally Foo Foo,” and certainly no rotation of t-shirts with pedantic and pithy phrases will change the fact that we can’t save everyone. Seriously. Just how many people do you think you can fireman carry on your back at any one time? Two? Fifty? Five-hundred thousand? We’re thinking it’s more like one. And if you’re like Jon’s friend Allison who admittedly is “not weak, but rather, not strong,” then that one better be a very small puppy. Oskar Schindler didn’t sell his watch. Private Doss didn’t carry every wounded soldier back. Rocket couldn’t stop every suicide dive-bomber.
And yet, they kept going.
Because there will always be another person to pick up. And to them, you will be their salvation. That should be enough to define ourselves. That should be enough to help us sleep at night. Truly, every life is important. We have to stop defining ourselves by what we haven’t achieved or what we haven’t done, and start defining ourselves by our successes.
Here’s what happens when you constantly define everything according to a YOLO, Win At All Cost, Go Big Or Go Home, Save the World perspective. You breed out failure. And there’s nothing wrong with failure. Firstly, because we’re humans and not Vulcans, we fuck-up sometimes. We forget anniversaries. We leave the toilet seat up. We order the French Fries instead of the salad. We get sick and miss important meetings. We can’t remember the capital of Iowa (Newton?).
And secondly, there is no way to win big without failing at first. You seriously doubt our credibility on that statement? Google every single successful person’s bio and read about how their great failures lead to their great successes. Ask Bill Gates about his first business Traf-O-Data. Steve Jobs failed out of college. Thomas Edison was fired from his first two jobs. J.K. Rowling was a single mom living on welfare when she wrote Harry Potter. Babe Ruth failed to get a hit 65% of the time. Etc. Etc. Ad nauseum.
Success is universally defined by our failures. We appreciate sunrises because we have nighttime to compare it to. We treasure life, because we know the eternal emptiness of death. We love French Fries, because we know what broccoli tastes like.
We have to stop defining success by exclusion and berating ourselves with each failure, for one very simple reason. The world is a dark and scary place, and it’s getting darker every day. We need all the Browncoats we can get to fight the Core Planets… every rebel to help Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar fight the Empire… every solider to stand with King Henry before the breach.
If we can’t find a way to live with our flaws, accept our failures, and forgive ourselves for not saving every single person, the fires of that guilt will consume us and unmake us… and then… who will be left to fireman carry those that need us?