Questioning the “Perfect” Timeline
When I graduated from college I expected–like many of my peers–that I would do meaningful work for a few years, go to graduate school, and then move around from one very exciting role to another every couple of years.
In my youthful logic of liking things in tidy boxes, I had decided that my twenties would be dedicated to exploring several organizations. My goal would be to build up a series of transferrable skills while contributing to making the world better by finding the bite-sized and solvable problems. In tandem, I’d figure out what kind of issue I was most interested in, where my place in the world really was, what sector, industry and organization was the right fit. Basically biding my time until I found my passion.
Yet here I am. I’m more than nine years out of college: working at the same organization, on the same issue. What happened? Through a combination of luck and timing, I found my passion earlier than expected.
The timing part was that after a couple years at Ashoka I was given a chance to co-found an organization. The lucky part was that the organization was focused on the exact things I had been interested in up to that point. However, it took a series of turning points to help me realize that my original timeline and path needed to be adjusted: The opportunity to do something powerful and meaningful had come into my path and couldn’t be accomplished in a year, or two, or even three.
It was very uncomfortable for me to change the original “plan” that had taken hold in my mind by the time I graduated from college, but I am so glad that things have turned out the way they did. The opportunity to go deep and see change within a given sector is an opportunity that few people have. I feel very grateful that this opportunity came so early in a career path.
The Ashoka U Experience: Shifting time from “College Time” to “Real World Time” to “Impact Time”
Pivot 1: From “College Time” to “Real World Time”
When Erin Krampetz and I co-founded Ashoka U in 2008, we were fresh out of our undergraduate and graduate student leadership experiences, which focused on building up a culture related to social innovation for students across our university. We had found rapid uptake of our ideas at our school so we became used to thinking of an idea and then implementing it within a semester, or at maximum, within a year.
When we launched Ashoka U we wanted to see this concept take root at colleges around the world–we knew that students demanded the skillsets of entrepreneurship, social impact and meaning in their college experience. Since we had only experienced “college time”, we thought that we were signing up for a 2-3 year commitment.
Boy, were we wrong.
It turns out that when you get to the real world, there’s a lot more complexity, more resistance to change, and more barriers to overcome. Somehow the world didn’t operate on semester-time anymore. Our assumptions of what we could do within a certain time frame needed radical updating from our college days.
Pivot 2: From “Real World Time” to “Impact Time”
In those first three years we experienced a steep learning curve. We experienced the challenges and lessons of leading a team and an organization attempting to change the status quo. We had to develop organizational skills, like how to hire and manage a team. We had to build and iterate Ashoka U’s vision and gain industry-specific expertise, like how to create a valuable institutional change process and understand the specific needs of higher education leaders. We were learning as fast as we could.
Despite an incredible amount of growth and many 80-hour weeks in the early years, “transforming higher education” was a goal still very far away.
It turns out that sophisticated, systemic, long-term change is harder to achieve than we initially–and naively–thought. Why aren’t we taught how long it takes to truly make a mark on the world? Why isn’t a sense of time contextualized earlier on? Yes, change efforts are happening all around us in lots of ways. But to achieve change that actually matters over the long term, we need to be thinking in decades rather than months or years.
Systems Change Takes a Decade (at least!)
A few conversations with mentors changed the way we thought about our work and leadership. They gave us a reality check on how much time and effort it takes to achieve real impact.
Two years into Ashoka U we met with Jed Emerson, a leader who has played a major role in shaping sector-level conversations in the worlds of social entrepreneurship, strategic philanthropy and impact investing. With characteristic directness, he told us that we were crazy to think we could achieve our vision in three years. I remember him telling us, “your real measure of success is if the changes you’re trying to make now are completely mainstream within a decade or two.”
A decade or two?!
Right out of college, I struggled to commit more than a year at a time… and here he was talking in double-digit years! Like most recent college graduates, that was nearly as long as I had been alive. His comments made me question my career path. I had to adjust the timeline to account for true impact at a sector-level.
Today, almost seven years into Ashoka U, we are finally seeing traction in terms of changing higher education. We achieved our initial goal of selecting 30 Changemaker Campuses in various regions of the world. These campuses are building social innovation and social impact into the DNA of their institutions in myriad ways. The Ashoka U Exchange, our annual convening for social entrepreneurship in higher education, brings together more than 650 participants every year representing 150 colleges and universities from 30 countries. While we have hit some of the initial metrics we outlined for ourselves at the start of Ashoka U, I now realize that meeting those metrics does not mean that we have had our ultimate impact.
If you want to do the work of systems change, know that it is hard. Major systems like education, healthcare or the environment are not something you can “fix” in one or two or even three years.
How to Live a “Choose Your Own Adventure” Life
I love dating analogies. In this case, I think of the twenties as a “dating” phase of life in terms of career. For the most part it’s important to see what type of role, organization or sector feels right; what leverages your talents; what challenges you to be your best self; and what feels like a good fit for the longer-term. In my case, mid-way through my twenties I found that Ashoka U was very much a “marriage” fit for me. It was earlier than I expected to find a long-term fit, but I am so grateful that I seized the opportunity when it arose.
If my life’s experiences are relevant to you, here’s what I hope you leave with:
- Be open to finding your passion at any time –ahead of schedule, on time with your life timeline, or behind schedule.
- Be open to changing your timeline based on reality and on opportunities that come your way.
- And finally, serious impact takes serious time. Once you find your “thing” hang on through the challenges and stay long enough to make sure you’ve given it your all.
Marina Kim co-founded Ashoka U in 2008, and has been working to not only catalyze social innovation at college campuses around the world, but also to re-envision co-leadership and collaborative team values, cultures, and structures that empower creative professionals over the long-term.