It was late at night, probably 2am, something like that. I was supposed to be preparing for an accounting workshop, which meant I was scrolling through Facebook, my accounting notes in front of me.
I watched the video again. And then again. Again. One more time. I don’t know how many times exactly, but it was enough that when I watch it today, I still remember all the words by heart, nine years later.
It was a clip by Scott Harrison, the founder of charity: water. He’d made a video about how he’d just been to Kenya, and visited a hospital which had no clean water. It was his birthday, so he went back home and asked everyone to donate $32, as he was turning 32. He returned to Kenya a few months later, and made a video of him digging a well, live, for all his donors to see.
That hit me in the soul. I’m not sure if you’ve had one of those moments where something really hits you in the soul. Like wow, I’m never going to forget this. But that’s what it did. Right in the soul. I wanted to fly to Africa, that moment, in the middle of the night. What if I could just drive to the airport, right now, get on a plane, save some lives. Maybe I could start being awesome like him.
Of course, that never happens.
I brushed my teeth, went to bed and showed up again for work the next day. But I promised myself: When my birthday came, I’d do a campaign, just like his one.
When my birthday finally arrived the following year, I hadn’t forgotten about Scott. I was turning 25, and was so pumped to get started I registered as a donor two months early. I needed to raise $5,000 to fund a water project.
Easy, I thought. If 200 people donate $25, we’re done! I had 500 friends on Facebook, 130 people at the office, I’ll throw in a few hundred myself. Plus, charity:water was so proactive with transparency, they GPS’d every project on Google Maps, gave 100% of proceeds to projects. How could people not want to be a part of something this awesome?
Then I started asking for money.
I messaged every friend I had on Facebook. Every single one. I was surgical with it. I put every name into a spreadsheet, categorised them into sports friends, school friends, work friends, I recorded dates, recorded their responses. If they said no, I blacked them out. Non believers. If they didn’t respond, I noted to ask again in a week. If they said yes, I noted to follow up in 3 days. I printed business cards with all the campaign details, handed them out to friends, workmates. It felt like the most important undertaking of my life. I didn’t care how much work was needed. I was going to raise the money.
Donations trickled in. My closest friends, my Mum, all the usual suspects. Happy birthday, they all wrote. Great cause. But for every person that said yes, five said no, five ignored me, one would say it was stupid. I needed to up my game.
I arranged a meeting with the CEO at work a few weeks later. It was the monthly company meeting that Friday, the entire firm was going to be gathered in the presentation room. Normally it was a meeting for the CEO and directors to talk about business stuff, but I asked if he’d give me ten minutes. Just ten minutes. To talk about the cause, to show everyone a video. I told him it was important to me.
He said yes.
I got up in front of the entire firm that Friday, screened my video, talked to everyone about the water crisis. 45,000 people will die this week because of no water. We just need $5,000. I really will go to Ethiopia to visit the project. I’ll show you all what we’ve done.
A few people looked at me confused. I watched a girl give an eye roll to the girl beside her. I’ve never forgotten it. These were the same people I watched drop a hundred dollars at the bar on Fridays like it was nothing. 130 people worked in that office, probably half were in the top tax bracket. Outside of my ‘office friends’, four people donated. The CEO wasn’t one of them.
That weekend, I went to dinner with four friends. They were friends I’d known a long time, although friends I didn’t see often.
“So I’m just gonna say it. What is UP with this water thing man?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like, what are you doing?”
“Raising money for charity.”
“But like, since when did you do this stuff? Just tell me, is it girls? You’re doing it to get girls?”
“It’s a good cause, it’s what I want to do.”
“But how do you even know it’s real? It just looks like a scam. How do you know it’s not a scam?”
“It’s not a scam.”
“It just looks stupid bro. It’s STUPID.”
“It does look scammy, Bren,” another girl said.
I looked around the table. The others were nodding.
I didn’t say anything.
“It’s okay bro, here, let me pour you some water.”
He picked up the jug and filled my glass.
“That’ll be $25 USD.”
The table laughed.
None of them donated.
I went even harder. I tapped everyone I knew. Made promises.
This is real bro. I’ll go to Africa one day. I’ll show you exactly where this money’s gone.
Some donated. Most didn’t.
My girlfriend was next.
“Really?” she asked me one day. “You really want to go to Africa?”
Two months later, I’d raised the money. $5,185. I thanked every person individually, publicly. Best birthday ever. Those people who donated, they’re the same people still in my corner today.
Eighteen months later, charity: water sent me the project report. The well was built. We’d provided clean water to a 1,000 person village in Ethiopia.
Twenty four months later, I boarded a plane to Ethiopia. I landed in Addis Ababa, travelled north to Axum, trekked five hours into the village in the middle of nowhere. The well was there. They’d even put my name on it. I made a video, uploaded it to Facebook, sent it to everyone. They all loved it. We did it. But I always knew we would. It was everyone else who needed convincing.
Two months after I finally quit that accounting job, I travelled to Tanzania. I stayed in a volunteers hostel with around 20 other people, each of us working on different non-profit projects around town. The first night at dinner, I sat next to a guy called Raul, a photographer who had travelled from America with a suitcase of disposable cameras, using them to teach photography to streetkids. Sitting on the other side of me was Jamie, a Dutch nurse who had just come from Malawi, where she told me how she’d just saved a kid’s life in a village where doctors were non-existent. Even though I’d known them for less than an hour, I felt more at home in those conversations than I ever did in that office.
It was during that trip a couple of Israeli guys from the hostel needed to raise some money. The orphanage they were working at needed school supplies. They asked everyone in the hostel if they’d give a little and they’d cook everyone an Israeli meal.
Life was never the same after that trip.
Question: Ever feel like people around you just don’t get you?
It’s because they don’t.
Ever feel like people around you are all the same?
It’s because they are.
That’s what happens when people are around each other for a long time. We become like each other. The place we grow up might be the most influential part of who we become, but the unfair thing about it is, we don’t get to choose it.
Another funny thing about homes is, they’re hard to leave, because we don’t know what else is out there.
So when we don’t fit in, we just accept that we don’t fit in. We don’t have as many friends as other people. Don’t like to do the same things as other people. Everyone’s watching rugby. Oh ok, I guess I’ll watch rugby. Nobody likes your idea. Oh I guess my idea was stupid.
Nah – it’s not stupid.
When I watched that girl roll her eyes during my speech, it told me what I already knew: I was in the wrong place. When my friend started making fun of my campaign, it told me what I already knew: These were the wrong people.
When I sat at dinner with those two volunteers, I knew that place would be different. Almost by accident, I’d found the right place, the right people. People that were travellers at heart. People that were givers at heart. Those were the people I needed to be around, to live the life I wanted.
I’ve spent my whole life in that community ever since.
While reading through the story above, it might sound like passing judgement on those people from my old life. I’m not. I really don’t care what they do with their life or their money. I hope they do whatever makes them happy.
The point of the story was, to be a champion, you need to be around people who champion the things you believe in. When you tell them about the things that excite you, it should excite them too. You shouldn’t be begging for donations, they should be asking how they can support you. Instead of spending all your energy trying to turn them into believers, they should be hyping you up so much you start to believe the impossible.
Maybe you want to ride your motorcycle across America.
People at home will poo poo that idea all day.
Oh yeah, but you need money to do that.
You can’t just quit your job!
It’s dangerous man. Let’s be realistic.
You share the same idea in a hostel at breakfast, you’ll probably have half the trip planned before lunchtime.
Sounds awesome, why don’t you start this month? It’s summer.
I met a guy who did that last year, want his number? He might even rent you his bike.
Why don’t you add in Mexico and Canada too? You’ll only need another month or two.
Usually, chasing our dreams isn’t even hard. It’s the people around us that hold us back. They don’t even need to say anything. They roll their eyes at you, change the subject, wince a few times. Maybe those are small things, but 18 years of those small things can kill anything.
Remember my girlfriend who said going to Africa was a dumb idea?
Compare that to someone you meet on the road.
I’ve never met anyone on the road who said going anywhere was a dumb idea.
North Korea? I’ve met people who’ve been to North Korea. Loved it. Afghanistan? I’ve met people who’ve been there too. Congo? Know tons of people who went to the Congo. Best trip ever, they said.
To the wrong people, everything’s dumb. To the right people, everything’s possible.
That Friday after giving my talk at the staff meeting, something interesting happened. I was approached by a young guy. He was a candidate for the following year’s graduate intake, and had been invited to join the meeting and mingle with staff after his interview.
I’d noticed him actually, while I was speaking. He stood out, the only face in the room I didn’t recognise.
“That was really cool man,” he said to me, shaking my hand. “It’s so cool people do that kind of stuff here!”
We talked for a short while, before he moved on to some of the higher ups.
“Make him feel at home,” my boss came and said to me, obviously having seen us talking. “He’s a rockstar. We really want him.”
A few weeks later, I saw him again, walking around the office with the HR lady. She walked him past my desk and stopped to introduce him.
“This is Daniel, he’s just signed a grad contract for next year.”
“Yeah we’ve met,” I told her, shaking his hand again. “Congratulations.”
“He was particularly excited to be joining your team,” she said, smiling.
“Your talk was awesome man. I’m looking forward to working with you.”
I glanced at the HR lady, who gave me a knowing stare behind her smile. I’d handed in my resignation weeks ago. She’d already arranged my exit interview. Obviously she hadn’t told him.
I should have pulled him to the side. Told him the truth. This isn’t the place for you. What you saw at the meeting, you’re not going to find it here. Tear up that contract, find yourself a place where people give a shit about these things, where people are inspired about the same things you are.
I turned back to him and smiled.
“Yeah man. Looking forward to it.”
But the things I couldn’t say to him that day, I can say to you now.
Never doubt the big ideas you have inside. If people don’t see what you see, it’s not you, it’s them. Find a different them. Even if it’s a random meetup on the internet, a Facebook group, a tiny forum on some weird website, make an effort to find the tribe that will never stop pushing you. Find the tribe that sees what you see. Find the tribe that will cheer like crazy when you get there.
Because every idea that lights you up is an awesome idea. Forget non believers. Find your people and ride, because we’re all cheering for you.
See you out here dreamer.