“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”
Defining words by Gandhi, this quote acts as a mantra by which I live my life. A reminder everyday of the importance to act, not just talk. To rally and react, not just offer rhetoric, and to embody the best we can be.
Yet few times has this quote been so poignant, as this last week.
In Tunisia to speak at the global conference of the International Federation of Medical Student Associations (IFMSA, the worldwide body that represents doctors-in-training), I was surrounded by young health leaders ‘walking the walk’ towards a better world. Some 1000 young emerging visionaries from all over the planet, who came to a small, seaside town outside of Tunis to discuss humanity’s greatest challenges, connect to form a powerful new cohort of change and develop effective solutions for a healthier tomorrow.
Listening in and watching these remarkable young people, I wanted to share some reflections; some observations from the thousand-strong there - for all young people thirsty for change.
Four key lessons from these emerging leaders.
1. They’re inspired, not overwhelmed
Yes, there are some big global challenges ahead and there’s no doubt we’re against the clock. But being paralysed by fear or overwhelmed by the enormous tasks of mitigation is a waste of both time and energy. Cyclical conversations about the gravity of Climate Change or our major health issues will never lead us in the direction we must move and likely lead to less, rather than more action.
Keeping a clear head, and keeping an eye on what we all want - this is essential for achieving the movement we require in the time it must occur.
Something these young leaders seemed to knew all too well.
2. They’re focused on the future, not the past
Reflection is important; and reflecting on the decisions we and our leaders have made to this point in Global Health history is even more important. Taking the time to look back and digest the path we travelled, if only to avoid making the same mistakes and to inform the context of current challenges.
The danger is, that we spend too much time looking back, and not enough of our energy focusing on the future. That we focus only on the past, and lament the poor and sometimes reckless decisions that have lead us down the path of environmental and health peril, instead of looking at the opportunities we still have and the important cards we hold.
With a buzz of optimism in the Tunisian air - these young people had their sights firmly focused on the road ahead.
3. They’re not putting off until tomorrow what they can start today
Something I hear over and over, is the perception that things will be somehow easier or more opportune to tackle tomorrow. That the political, social or cultural context will somehow alter and correcting the course of our ‘Titanic’ will become simpler.
This is not going to happen. In fact, things are only likely to become harder. Looking at these emerging leaders - they were under no such illusions.
4. Simply starting the conversation is a respectable first step
Despite what I say, it’s not always easy to see the ‘end game’. Climate Change, for example, is a massive and complex problem - but like all problems, solutions must start with a simple conversation. The worst thing that can happen, is that issues such as the environment or rising social inequality become taboo topics and conversation-killers. Avoided rather than debated. Starting a conversation, whilst it may seem simple and a long way from an answer, is an essential beginning and a commendable, necessary move.
Never underestimate the power of social dialogue.
A duo of dares for the not so young.
For those with a little more experience on their side and years of wisdom under their belts, maybe the same advice doesn’t apply. But in the context of this inspiring group last week, I would make two pleas.
A duo of dares.
The first one relates to your years of experience. I hear over and over again, when I interview global and local leaders, that a major catalyst in their lives has been strong mentors. People who have taken the time to lend ongoing advice, shown interest and who ‘have their back’. Personally, this has been essential in my short career so far.
So my first urging to those with experience, wisdom and a little grey hair - reach out and mentor leaders in the ranks below.
The second call - rally behind young people such as these, who dare to stick their heads above the proverbial trenches. There were a lot of incredible young people there last week in Tunisia, and as someone who regularly gets to meet inspiring emerging leaders - I can say that we have a lot to be optimistic about. But the reality is that much of society’s wealth, power and decision-making rests with you. In 2014, as a new generation of visionaries put up their hands, be ready to throw your support behind them and catalyse some meaningful change.
Signing off from Tunisia.
In short, we all have a crucial role in social change for a healthier future. What was clear last week, is that these young leaders ‘got it’.
If we can spread this inspired thirst for change, and engage those in power to take this group seriously, we might just start to see the progress we so desire, on the big issues at hand, on a scale that is necessary.