If you register the temperature and don’t try to do something about it when it is too hot or too cold, you are only a thermometer—you can record the situation but not change it. If you are a thermostat, on the other hand, you can call for heat or call for cool air when you sense that the temperature is not optimal. “I heard this admonition when I was growing up,” said a recent autobiographer talking about his childhood. Being a thermostat, his dad always taught, is the goal of life. It seems that Harvard University agrees with this criterion. See their recent discussion of what makes a good candidate (“Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions,” 1/20/16) .
Being a thermostat, not just a thermometer takes the kind of confidence that not many 16-year-olds have, however. For most of their lives they have been working hard to fit in, to first learn and then uphold standards—at school, in their families, on athletic teams and in their friend-groups. Asking a 16-year-old to look outside herself, identify an issue that needs fixing and become a change-agent is challenging.
But sometimes it happens. One of my student clients decided to help children who had to undergo chemotherapy. She saw, because of her hospital volunteering, that often these kids lost their hair and felt embarrassed. So she set to work collecting hats for the children. She asked sports teams like the Yankees and she asked celebrities to donate a hat. Then she asked everyone in her high school to donate one hat. Soon she was filling boxes and delivering them to local hospitals. And the National Cancer Society gave her an award.
A student, who lived in Massachusetts, spent time going to beaches on cold nights in October and November to search for sea turtles. Sea turtles on the East coast travel north for the summer to feed; then swimming south, many get stuck in Cape Cod Bay. Then the cold water causes their muscles to freeze. In the timeline of their species, the glacial creation of Cape Cod is recent. So, when their instincts tell them to swim north to feed, and then south for winter to reproduce, they get disoriented around the relatively new peninsula of Cape Cod. Working with the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and the Gulf of Maine Institute, this student with others made and launched wind-floats to help track the ocean currents in order to predict where the turtles would wash up on shore at night.
More recently a student worked on an issue about which she wanted to know more and about which she could see many students in her high school needed guidance—the issue of teens not getting enough sleep. This student began an independent study to learn as much as possible about deterrents--such as, coffee, TV and computer screens, late-night eating--that hinder healthy sleep. She also did a survey in her school to see how many of her peers, unaware of sleep deterrents, were using them and getting less than optimal sleep. Finally when she made her presentation of the findings from the survey and research, she invited not only the independent study committee, but the high school teachers who teach health courses and the vice-principal in charge of curriculum. In the end the health teachers agreed to include her findings in a unit the following year on how to get optimal sleep.
Each of these students was exceptional in his or her ability to see and affect issues outside his or her own circle of life. Each was successful in bettering the common good. However, each of them did these things because of a developed interest in an area. If you are looking to explore areas where you might become a change-agent, start with your natural interests and look for projects there, look outside your circle of life, but not too far.. Do something like my varsity baseball player who painted all of the little league dugouts in his town. And good luck!