Lara Galinsky ’96, Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship Advisory Board Co-chair, is the senior vice president of Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that provides seed funding and technical assistance to emerging social entrepreneurs with ideas for social change. She is the co-author of Work on Purpose (2011) and Be Bold: Create a Career with Impact (2007).
In Lara’s latest Harvard Business Review post, she asks “What Problem Will You Own?” You can read the full post below or on HBR.org, watch Lara’s PCSE Workshop from April 2012 here, and learn about the Echoing Green Fellowship here (note: 2014 applications are due January 6).
What Problem Will You Own?
by Lara Galinsky | 9:00 AM November 13, 2013 | re-posted from HBR.org
On the days I’m smashed up against an assortment of characters on the New York City subway, I sometimes play a game.
I imagine someone yelling, “What’s your problem?!” It’s a question I’ve heard in this situation plenty of times before but instead of causing a kerfuffle, I picture a different reaction: An elderly gentleman across the aisle uses his cane to stand up and proudly declares, “I’ve dedicated my life to addressing poverty.” A young woman raises her hand, clears her throat, and announces, “I care about gender inequality.” A teenager pulls out his ear buds and says, “My problem is racial profiling.” Soon, everyone around me has announced a problem that they are personally dedicated to.
The world would look drastically different if we spent more time identifying a problem to own, rather than fighting for more space, more time, or more money in our own little part of the world.
At Echoing Green, a nonprofit organization that supports young people to dedicate their lives to improving the world, we’ve learned that if you want to make a difference, you need to own a problem. You must make it yours to solve.
There are three steps to doing this: identify your problem, prioritize it, and then work to solve it with the resources you have.
Of course, many of us care about multiple issues, and can’t pick just one. Problems, after all, are interconnected. But sometimes you have to dive deep into a specific one if you want to solve it.
How do you know what is your problem to own? The answer is, well, you just know. Your heart, not your mind helps you identify it. You feel it before you know it. You have a visceral reaction when witnessing the problem: Your skin crawls, your hair stands, your eyes twitch, or you feel unimaginable empathy for those affected. Or rage. Or elation when there’s progress. And you can’t let it go.
It creeps up on you when you’re daydreaming, or keeps coming up in conversations with friends.
Unfortunately, we haven’t been taught to spot these moments of connection so, more often than not, we let them go by.
But that wouldn’t happen in a world where we all own a problem.
If you’re not sure, try filling in this simple sentence: _____ is what matters. Think of the moments when you feel great emotion experiencing, learning about, or witnessing a particular problem. Fill it in with just one problem: Education. Sanitation. Prison reform. Gender equity. One that matters the most to you.
To truly own a problem—you need to prioritize it. After all, saying “yes” to what matters most always means saying “no” to other things. For instance, if you want to make a real difference in the lives of homeless youth, you may need to make some tough choices — cutting out weekend activities so you can volunteer or upsetting your boss when you tell her that you have to leave work on time to attend a fundraiser. Owning a problem means it’s part of who you are and it’s what you do. It doesn’t need to be a full-time job. It just has to have significance in your life.
To fully own a problem, you can’t just care about it and prioritize it. You have to do something about it.
If you don’t know what role you might play in solving something as big as gender inequity or poverty, you can start by asking yourself: What resources do I have access to that can help solve this problem?
The way in which you own a particular issue can evolve over the years; in fact, it should.
Take Raj Panjabi, CEO of Last Mile Health. The problem that really matters to him is health inequality in his home country of Liberia. Here’s how he came to own this issue.
He experienced a moment of obligation when he was a child. As Liberian rebels neared his town, his mother, his sister, and he rushed to a plane and escaped, but he watched as many of Liberia’s poor, including mothers with children on their back, were fought back by soldiers as they tried to get on the plane. This image of those left behind — almost certain to die — stuck with him. He knew this was his problem to own.
As the war raged in Liberia for 14 years, he worked hard, trained as a doctor, and ultimately joined the faculty of Harvard Medical School. He could have led a comfortable, successful life, totally disconnected from Liberia. But he knew he had go back to his home country — now desperately trying to heal post conflict — to address the inequality he saw as a young boy. So he gave up the life of a high-achieving doctor and returned.
Of course he saw many problems when he arrived but there was one that he had the resources and the know-how to address — health. There were only 51 doctors to care for the entire country. If you got sick in a city, you stood a chance. But if you got sick in a remote village, hundreds of miles from the nearest clinic, you could die anonymously. He felt his expertise in health and his empathy from knowing the problem could help solve this particular aspect of the inequality. So he worked with local experts to create Last Mile Health, which gives village health workers the training, equipment, and support they need to save lives. These workers have carried out over 100,000 patient visits bringing health care to rural Liberians in the most remote villages — the majority of whom would not get care if Raj hadn’t owned this problem.
Next time you’re squeezed in between strangers on public transportation try playing your own game. Imagine who on the bus will own which problem and what impact that may have on your city, your country, the world. And don’t forget to ask yourself one key question: What will you say when you stand?