A few years ago, I had the privilege of attending a talk by this incredible woman, Marian Wright Edelman.
Edelman is the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, and she’s been awarded more than 65 (yes, 65!) honorary degrees. She was also the first black woman to be admitted to the Mississippi bar.
To say that she’s an impressive woman is an understatement!
The way that Edelman concluded her speech was exceptionally memorable.
“I cannot preach like Martin Luther King, Jr. or turn a poetic phrase like Maya Angelou…”
She proceeded to list a large number of distinguished people, and the characteristics they possessed that she did not.
What you can achieve when you care enough
Edelman went on to say:
“But I care and am willing to serve and raise my voice with others for children… I care and am willing to serve and sacrifice to build our children a better future.
“I care. I really, really care. You can change the world if you care enough.”
You can change the world if you care enough.
If that statement is true (I like to think that it is), it’s no surprise that a lot of advice you hear from career development gurus revolves around pursuing a line of work you care deeply about.
It’s entirely true that in today’s Information Age, it’s no longer enough just to be compliant, competent or even charismatic. You need to care.
In pursuit of excellence
Caring is the only way to become a person of excellence.
No great parent, teacher, athlete, mechanic, nurse, businessman or musician has attained greatness by chance. They cared enough to consciously pursue excellence.
After all, excellence can’t be forced down someone’s throat; it’s a deliberate decision.
“Care” is a simple word, but it’s a word that’s much easier said than felt, and much easier felt than demonstrated.
I’ve observed that a majority of people don’t genuinely care about what they do, whether it’s in their work, their academics, or in other areas of their life.
Most people do things because they have to, or because it’s expected of them, or because it’s what they’ve been doing out of habit for years.
The danger of not caring
I know from personal experience that it’s all too easy to go down this path of stability and comfort, but it comes at a high price.
When we choose not to care, we effectively choose mediocrity over excellence.
I recently asked myself: When it comes to the most important things in my life, how much do I care?
I came up with these five levels of “caring” so that I could perform an honest self-assessment. I trust that you’ll find this framework helpful, too.
Level 1: Invisible caring
At this lowest level of caring, you have a weak feeling about something, but you worry that other people might consider that “something” insignificant.
You feel embarrassed or shy about admitting that you care, and you don’t take any concrete steps to show it.
To everyone but you, your caring is invisible.
Level 2: Instinctive caring
Level 2 is where you care because you feel compelled to. Instinctive caring is usually motivated by fear.
Many people get stuck at this level. For example, an employee who cares about the quality of the report he’s writing only because he doesn’t want his boss to get upset is at Level 2.
A student who cares enough to complete her homework with the bare minimum effort—simply to avoid her teacher’s wrath—is also at Level 2.
Level 3: Incidental caring
Incidental caring usually just “happens,” but you can’t fully explain its origin. It’s like when you read your first poem and got hooked on poetry, or when you attended a football game and fell in love with the sport.
At Level 3, you care about something as far as you’re able to derive pleasure and satisfaction from it.
Level 4: Inconvenient caring
Level 4 is very different from Levels 1, 2 and 3. The first three levels are based on emotion, while Level 4 is based on a sense of purpose.
At Level 4, you care about something so much that you’re willing to inconvenience yourself, if that’s what it takes to demonstrate that you care. You might even be willing to make yourself uncomfortable.
I know people who care so much about poverty alleviation work that they gave up their extremely comfortable lives to move to places with few comforts to speak of.
I also know plenty of entrepreneurs who care so much about their businesses and about adding value to their customers that they sacrifice sleep and their social lives.
Inconvenient caring happens when you understand that one person really can make a difference.
Level 5: Infectious caring
Infectious caring is about caring to the extent that your overwhelming passion and love spread to the people around you. Infectious caring compels others to join you in fighting for your cause.
As I noted earlier, one person really can make a difference, but one person alone can’t change the world. You’ll need a group, a team, a community, a tribe in order to do that.
Level 5 is where your influence gets multiplied exponentially because of the following you build, but it’s not an easy level to reach. You’ll undoubtedly have to go through struggle, pain and disappointment in order to get there.
Level 5 is what happens when you care so much that it’s no longer just about what you think or feel; it’s about who you are.
I’m not so naïve to think that we have the time to care infectiously—or even inconveniently, for that matter—about numerous things. But I think we owe it to ourselves to find the few things where we can reach Level 5.
If you haven’t yet found that something, I encourage you to keep looking and exploring. I’m sure you’ll find it if you search hard enough and introspectively enough. 🙂
Life truly is too short for us not to care.
So let’s care infectiously. Let’s go change the world.