When I was a kid; my sisters and I completed the World Vision 40 Hour Famine for the first time. There was no option to give up technology or any other substitute. There weren't all-nighters or tent cities, the kind of youth group gimmicks used to keep us interested these days.
My mother fastidiously guarded the fruit juice and boiled candies we were allowed. Before it was cool to be sugar-free, we were restricted to a single cup of juice and two sweets to replace each meal.
We were hungry. Really hungry. Listless and without energy, just the nasty lethargy of tiny sugar rushes and crashes every few hours. At least we had a countdown clock to watch. I couldn't imagine going any longer or not knowing when it would end. Empathy is what my first Famine experiences gave me.
Yes, we raised money by knocking on all the doors in our neighbourhood, talking to teachers, family and friends asking for sponsorship. We fastidiously collected the money as passionately as Mum had guarded the barley sugar candies, feeling the twinge of pride as we counted out dollar bills and coins to tally the totals. How much of a difference we were going to make is what we were really counting. We were ambitious because we wanted to make a difference.
Within a couple of years, we started to make the Famine 'more interesting'. We built tent cities, we slept outdoors, we ran Famine film festivals and all-nighters; we did anything we could to distract ourselves from the hunger we felt. We wanted to change the world, but we wanted to minimise our discomfort in doing so.
We raised lots more money. More entertainment equals more students participating. But our Famine mission also became more about our ambition to raise more money than other groups or more than we raised the previous year. It became about us, not the hunger we were trying to abate in poor children around the world. It was about our sense of achievement, rather than the problem-solving we were contributing to.
Our ability to be distracted from what's uncomfortable is remarkable. But I only learned empathy when I was without distraction. The first time I did the Famine, I knew what it was like to be hungry and tired.
Empathy is how we change the world effectively. Empathy is what helps us solve the problems that matter most because we can directly understand what impact these problems have on people. We understand that hunger can slowly steal your life moment by moment, until you're unable to fend for yourself even given the chance.
Empathy is a more powerful force than ambition, every time, because empathy makes the problems human and real. A human problem is a problem we can understand and relate to. Problems we relate to are the ones that get solved.
Get hungry again. Suffer again. Learn what problems the world needs you to solve.
Tash McGill wants to change the world by helping people to think differently. Sometimes described as courageous by her friends, she frequently says aloud what no-one else is brave or stupid enough to say. She also finds writing third-person biographies uncomfortable.
Tash McGill's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/tash-mcgill.html