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A Letter to Incoming Students: It’s Time to Redefine Success

Dear Students,

This isn’t how you imagined starting your first year of higher education—online, and unsure about future internships and job prospects. You’re coming of age at a time when our society still defines success in the shallowest of terms: the dollars in your bank account, the number of your Instagram followers, and perhaps little else.

Your opportunity? Now is the time to rethink how we have built this world and how we define success individually and collectively. 

Let this be both a reckoning and an awakening. 

Real and meaningful success is about doing unrelenting good in the world, measured against only one metric: a balance sheet of real and positive impact. At Solve, we’re thrilled to welcome our new Solver class—35 innovators tackling world challenges head-on—and prioritizing impact as a metric for success. 

For those of you just entering college, it's tempting to adhere to systems that dictate that we plot our lives by emulating the Elon Musks of the world or launching the next Airbnb. And sure, that path might help build rockets for the one percent (to relocate to Mars after we’ve made Earth uninhabitable). For too long, we’ve allowed the titans of Wall Street and Silicon Valley to co-opt the language of impact by falsely telling us that their success is about solving problems that matter, not about their own billions. Mark Zuckerberg made exactly that (false) claim to a Y-Combinator audience in 2016

Airbnb—fresh off of filing for its IPO—may be solving a “problem” for those who don’t want to pay $300 a night for a San Francisco hotel. But don’t be blinded by their claims of “authentic experiences”—Airbnb misses the real problem: the long-term affordable housing crisis. And while they do offer some services during disasters, Airbnb has been widely derided for contributing to and accelerating the lack of affordable housing in urban centers, frequently affecting and displacing communities of color. This is all in favor of professional Airbnb hosts, many of whose apartments sit shamefully empty during the Covid-19 pandemic—a number of whom have been accused of racial discrimination to boot.

As you start this journey during an unprecedented time, amid a pandemic and a renewed racial justice movement, keep former U.S. Representative John Lewis’s urging to engage in “good trouble” top-of-mind. The systems on which we have built this world should enrage you, just as they enrage Greta Thunberg. Let that rage inspire your time as a student and beyond.

Seek to understand why the systems we’ve set up are unjust, exploitative, and extractive for the majority of the planet and how you can change them. 

Dedicate these years to laying the foundation for a life of impact. Resist the urge to follow the crowd by defining success in terms of the size of your first paycheck.

This may not be a “normal” start to your college experience, but you can use this reckoning to finally change the game—instead of playing by its unfair rules.

We need you.

We need all hands on deck to solve the big, systemic challenges that affect the most marginalized communities, instead of solving the marginal headaches of the most fortunate individuals. 

What gives me hope is that many of you already want to lead a life of purpose, more than any other generation. And if MIT’s incoming Class of 2024 is any indication, you’re a historically diverse class, brimming with potential to bring real change. You join protests, make donations, and boycott brands that don’t align with your values. 

Those tactics are a good start, but we need more. The solutions ahead are not easy and will take work. But, with success properly defined, we can collectively be a systemic change for good. 

Here’s my advice as you embark on this journey. Use your time over the next few years to search for your purpose: focus on the real problems that affect millions of historically marginalized people rather than fleeting passions or the next glitzy app. Lean into your superpowers: what makes you uniquely qualified in terms of your skills and experience to help solve a particular problem? And finally, recognize your biases, shortcomings, and privileges: be humble, listen, learn, and find co-travelers who complement those shortcomings. Only then you can truly use your superpowers to change your community and the world. 

What are you waiting for? As MIT President L. Rafael Reif declared: “Everybody should have a place at the problem-solving table.” 

We call you Generation Z but please embrace who you really are: Generation Solve.

Learn more about the new Solver class, and check out my advice to lead a life of impact through my website and newsletter.

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