One of the worst feelings on earth is helplessness. And in the wake of the U.S. presidential election results, and subsequent reports of hundreds of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic hate crimes, this week has felt like a terrible exercise in wanting to do something to help but not knowing what. I mean, how do you take on a system that appears to eclipse everything? How do you make an impact when the issues seem infinite? How do you turn your feelings and fears into something tangible; something you know is making a difference? And how do you not just curl up and shut down?
First, know that taking a time-out to regroup and re-collect is an important way of taking care of yourself. Time away from the news, social media, or even from other people are more than valid ways of building your armor back up and giving your brain and heart a break.
Then when you’re ready, you can combat helplessness by tapping into your own gifts and using what you’re good at to help anybody who needs it. Which can be daunting, I know. “What you’re good at” may not sound like a way to ensure women’s reproductive rights; or fight against racism, xenophobia, or homophobia; or even to make a friend or family member feel less alone. But “helping” doesn’t need to look a certain way, and your talents can help in infinite ways. Your artwork may articulate the feelings of someone who’d felt completely misunderstood. Your writing may ignite a fire in someone who’d been feeling apathetic. Your math skills may lend themselves to a tutoring program, which could evolve into a safe space for more students to share their time and ideas. Your pop culture knowledge may morph into a trivia night where you donate the proceeds to a charity.
You have gifts, and they are valuable. And whether they lead to social change in a larger sense, touch the heart of a person who needs it, or provide an avenue through which you can express yourself, those gifts can change the world. Here are a few ways I’ve learned to tap into my own gifts that I hope can help you embrace and use yours.
Acknowledge your gifts. “Gifts” don’t necessarily need to be limited to what you’re good at. For years, I took piano lessons and I did well, but I also hated it and don’t consider it a gift to anybody (especially me). Although others thought I was talented, I knew that using the piano to help people would quickly make me feel terrible. If this sounds familiar, try thinking about what brings you joy. What gives you a sense of purpose? What do you take solace in? What are you proud of?
Answering these questions can be difficult. So if you’re feeling stuck, get down to the basics. Make a list of what you love, what you’re good at, and what you’d like to do. Are there parallels? Did your gut feeling kick in as soon as you wrote something down? Did you immediately not want to do something?
You can also talk to your best friends about what they think you’re great at—or if they’d like to work on something together if you’re uneasy about going it alone. Or, you can take your time and dabble in what you’d like to do before committing. There’s no rush.
Remove the self-doubt. Remember: You are good at things. You have gifts and you have talent. That’s important to keep in mind when self-doubt looms. It’s easy (and human) to think that what we do is too small; that compared to the scale of world issues, what we put out there isn’t going to count. And that’s a lie. We have no idea what our actions could do or the people they can reach. So, I like to think of this step as abolishing the “gift hierarchy”—the idea that some efforts are better or more meaningful than others. Everybody’s gifts matter if they’re being used to make a difference.
Find your people. Never underestimate the power of like minds. Even seemingly solitary activities, like writing or art, can lead to friendships or communities (hello, Twitter and Tumblr) that go on to do great work together. After all, there’s strength in numbers—even if you may have to compromise your gift a bit. (For instance: If you have a particular style of writing, you may have to adapt it a bit to suit a publication’s goals or voice.)
Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls was formed by musicians who use their gifts to teach music, while Ladies Learning Code was created in response to a need for more women and teens to learn HTML. Podcasts and websites can develop into comedy and storytelling nights, or you can attend a protest and lend your voice, finding pals in the process.
While you’re looking for new collaborators, you may discover that you already know some like-minded people. It took me years to realize some of “my people” weren’t the over-romanticized notion of grown-up friends I’d planned to meet in my twenties. Instead, they were my childhood friends I’d chosen not to engage with in a politically or socially aware way because I hadn’t given them credit. So first, make sure you’re not overlooking the family you have. Then reach out. Find the people you look up to on Twitter and follow them. Email those whose work you admire, telling them just that. Show up at a workshop, a class, a public event—even a town hall meeting. Attend an art crawl and bring a friend from work or school, or use it as an excuse to hang out with someone you’d been meaning to for a while. You don’t have to gift alone—unless you want to.
Keep yourself in check. If you’re doing what feels like exciting, praiseworthy work, it can be easy to forget why you’re doing it and instead focus on its reception. That’s where your own check-based system comes in: Ask why you’re doing any of this. If it’s only for recognition and praise, you may need to take a step back and revisit the cause that brought you here. And you can do that by going back to the start: What was the moment that made you realize you wanted to contribute to something bigger? Why did you decide on this specific path? Was it upon joining forces with friends to make a difference? Did seeing this gift on your list give you a sense of purpose? Do you still have the same feelings you had when you began contributing in the first place? Realign yourself by writing these questions out and answering them. Try doing this every time you start feel yourself teeter.
This brings me to another important point: You don’t have to advertise your gifts if you’re not comfortable with that. Sometimes gifts can be as understated as writing an email to your senator or attending a city hall meeting. Your gift may be an ability to see and to act. And that’s enough.
Be open to criticism. Ah, criticism—an important and sometimes terrible-feeling thing. Along your journey, there could be a misstep. Your heart may be in the right place, but because you’re so psyched about what you’re up to, you may not stop to think about the message it’s sending, or what or whom you’ve included or excluded. It happens, and it can feel terrible. But criticism could help you improve, provided it’s constructive.
Unlike negative criticism (name-calling, cruelty, or rudely putting down an idea without offering a solution), constructive criticism can bruise our egos, but its goal is not to hurt us. This criticism is survivable (our own embarrassment aside), and usually comes in the form of helpful insight. It serves to explain why an act or statement was ineffective, regardless of whether or not someone was trying their best. Most of us have been on the receiving end of this at school, via friends, or even on Twitter, and it can feel terrible every time. It’s also a way we grow and learn and educate the people around us.
The most important life lessons are sometimes bred from making mistakes, especially if you can dismiss your defense mechanisms. Listen to constructive criticism, understand where it comes from, and be receptive to constructive critiques. Apologize, if necessary. And then move on and work with those criticisms in mind, remembering that you are not defined by your missteps but by the way you’ve chosen to go forward.
Seek out advice. If you ever need some guidance, reach out to the people and organizations you admire. Be honest about what you’re trying to do and how you feel about it. “How do I help?” is a completely valid question. But for every question, make sure to listen to its answer—even if it’s not very glamorous. You may hear that an organization you’d like to help would rather have your time or donations than your art. This doesn’t mean it’s the end of your road; parlay your gifts into means of assistance. Sell your prints and donate the funds. Take some time to read the books and articles your contact recommended. Sometimes our gifts may need a little dose of reality.
Allow your gifts to change. You are not fixed, and neither are your gifts. In the immortal words of Mean Girls, “The limit does not exist.” Your gifts are endless and could continue to reveal themselves, especially as you find yourself exploring the paths they create. What may have started as a few blog posts could blossom into a writers’ collective that evolves into helping run a publication. Your new band could form the foundation of what grows into a music festival or fundraiser. Your knack for baking could lead you to teaching a weekly class. Your attendance at a protest could be the inspiration you needed to apply to law school.
Try saying yes to things. If you’re asked to take on a bigger role or more responsibilities, provided you can swing it school/time-wise (and that you want to), trust that you can do it and that those around you think so, too. If you’re in one arena and begin to feel pulled toward another, follow that feeling and see where it takes you. Being into something now doesn’t mean you will only ever be good at That One Thing™. And if you’re starting to feel like there’s more you want to do and you’re not sure how, go back to writing that list, talking to your support system, and dabbling in what you’ve always been interested in all over again.
There is always something you can to do help, and your gifts are valuable. Who you are and the gifts you bring can make big, beautiful waves to change the world—and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. ♦