Lately I’ve been abnormally preoccupied with the future. There are obviously endless ways to dichotomize humanity, but today I find myself wondering if we could split people into these two groups:

  1. People who stand by and let life happen to them, and
  2. People that make things happen: people who create the future.

I was watching Oprah’s Post-Oscar show the other day. She brought on this year’s host, Ellen DeGeneres, who talked about her well-publiziced period of life when her sitcom, and life, pretty much tanked because she told the world that she’s gay. There were about three years when she was very depressed and moped about her house wondering why life was so, ahem, “shitty”, and why things wouldn’t turn around. But then one day, she got up in the morning and said to herself, “Why am I waiting around for someone to save me? I’m a writer! I’ll just write a show and do what I do!” So she wrote the HBO special which started her re-ascent.

One more story: this is taken from a small booklet called Good To Great And The Social Sectors by Jim Collins.

In the spring of 1988, Wendy Kopp graduated from Princeton with an elegant idea: why not convince graduates from leading universities to spend the first two years of their careers teaching low-income kids in the public education system? She had no money, no office, no infrastructure, no name, no credibilty, no furniture, not even a bed or a dresser in which to store her clothes. In her book, One Day, All Children…, Kopp tells of moving into a small room in New York City after graduation, plopping her sleeping bag on the floor and pulling jeans and shirts out of three garbage bags and piling them into neat stacks on the floor. After convincing Mobil Corporation to grant $26,000 of seed capital to found Teach for America, Kopp spent the next 365 days in a juggling act–convincing top-flight people to join her bus, while at the same time convincing donors that she would convince top-flight people to join her bus.

One year later, Kopp stood in front of 500 recent-graduates from colleges like Yale, Harvard and Michigan, assembled for training and deployment into America’s underserved classrooms. And how did she convince these graduates to work for low pay in tough classrooms? First, by tapping their idealistic passions, and second, by making the process selective. “She basically said to all these overachieving college students: ‘If you’re really good, you might be able to join our cause,'” explained Michael Brown of City Year, who watched with admiration. “‘But first, you have to submit to a rigorous screening and evaluation process. You should prepare yourself for rejection, because it takes a special capability to succeed in these classrooms.'”

Selectivity led to credibility with donors, which increased funding, which made it possible to attract and select even more young people into the program. As of 2005, more than 97,000 individuals applied to be part of Teach for America (yes, ninety-seven thousand), and only 14,100 made the cut, while revenues grew to nearly $40 million in annual support.

Wendy Kopp understood three fundamental points. First, the more selective the process, the more attractive a position becomes–even if volunteer or low pay. Second, the social sectors have one compelling advantage: desperate craving for meaning in our lives. Purity of mission–be it about educationg young people, connecting people to God, making our cities safe, touching the soul with great art, feeding the hungry, serving the poor, or protecting our freedom–has the power to ignite passion and commitment. Third the number-one resource for a great social sector organization is having enough of the right people willing to commit themselves to mission. The right people can often attract money, but money by itself can neve rattract the right people. Money is a commodity; talent is not. Time and talent can often compensate for lack of money, but money cannot ever compensate for lack of the right people.

So, if there are two kinds of people, well, I don’t know about you, but I, for one, will be the second kind.

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