People who successfully tackle big social, environmental, and economic problems are driven by what I call a moment of obligation — a specific time in their life when they felt compelled to act. These moments become their North Star; they keep them going in a positive direction when everything seems dark. The obligation is not only to the world but also to themselves

Activists or social entrepreneurs aren't the only ones who are moved this way. We all have experiences that deeply inform who we are and what we are supposed to do. But only if we allow them to. As a leader at Echoing Green, a social change organization that has supported nearly 550 social entrepreneurs through a fellowship program, I've heard countless stories of these moments. 

For 2012 fellow Rachel Armstrong, it was when she was forced to give up her childhood dream to become a farmer in rural Minnesota due to crippling cultural and environmental poverty and a growing lack of connections between rural neighbors, urban eaters, and farmland.

For 2006 fellow Andrew Youn, the moment came was when he went to Bungoma, Kenya and visited the home of a widow who only had enough to serve her hungry children one meal of flour and water that day because her crops were failing. 

Here are a few tips for recognizing your own moments of obligation:

  • They're strong. You can recognize the moment by the intense feelings it invokes. The moment itself doesn't necessarily need to be dramatic, but what it brings up in you is.
  • They keep showing up. Sometimes, the experiences will reoccur. You'll notice an issue again and again. Patterns will emerge and you will see that, for whatever reason, you are drawn to delve deeper into this particular issue.
  • They're personal. The moments are very often personally meaningful. They are connected to your own experiences, or the experiences of people you care most about.
  • They take hold. Finally, they just won't let you go. They scream for your attention, creeping into your mind when you are minding your own business — sitting on the couch, watching TV, or trying to get a good night's sleep.

Everyone is moved this way from time to time, but what sets those who help solve the world's biggest problems apart is the decision to turn that feeling into action. They say, "Someone has to take responsibility for this problem. And that someone is me." 

Will you recognize your moment of obligation, or let it pass you by? 

Lara Galinsky is the senior vice president of Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that provides seed funding and technical assistance to emerging social entrepreneurs with ideas for social change. She is the co-author of Work on Purpose (2011) and Be Bold: Create a Career with Impact (2007). Adapted from her blog post on HBR.org.