“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” – Frantz Fanon

When we think of poverty, both globally and locally, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed. Google “Poverty Non-profits” and you’ll be inundated with housing charities, food banks, shelter services, refugee organizations, micro-loan sites and more. Much like looking at an inbox full of email, or a project list that would take 100 years to finish, poverty is a great metaphor for the feeling many of us get as we look to our workloads and life balance.

It’s easy to look at poverty as a problem that cannot be solved, but at our latest MNovation conference we had the honor of speaking with three people trying to tackle poverty in different ways; Hamse Warfa, philanthropist and entrepreneur, is working to end poverty among refugee populations, Sondra Samuels is working to prepare children on the North Side of Minneapolis for four year colleges, and Lisa Burns, who is on the leadership team of Feed My Starving Children, and organization responsible for packing, shipping, and bringing meals to those in need around the world.

What can we learn from these three on being focused, driving results, and not burning out in the face of setbacks? Here are five key takeaways from their illuminating, inspiring panel at MNovation 3.0.

  1. Narrow your focus.

Hamse, Sondra, and Lisa all took specific populations and problems within poverty and set out with the idea that mission drift was not an option. Hamse wanted to address the fact that refugees operate within a “beneficiary” system where people were given things but not allowed to link information that would help them join the global economy, Sondra wanted to tackle the education deficit happening in Minneapolis, and Lisa joined an organization whose sole mission was to “feed hungry bodies and hungry spirits.” By narrowing focus, each has been able to serve populations in need, driving specific results that are accomplishing goals and changing lives. How to apply this lesson: Make a list of one thing you want to accomplish today – then go do it. Focus and finish this task before addressing any others. Then move to the next item.

  1. Gather information, and “Jump In” when you have enough to begin.

For Hamse, who grew up in a refugee camp, he knew how hard it was to live life as a number and then try and build a credit score or rental history. In fact, it takes a refugee an average of 15 years to build a credit score of 500, well below the average. Knowing information was helpful to him, but he jumped in with just enough to begin, using and bringing technology to help link systems and start driving a record of a person, not just a number. Lisa and Sondra both knew the populations they were serving, but only by starting out, realizing successes and failures, and adjusting in real time could they continue to drive successful results. How to apply this lesson: With your next project or idea you are tasked with, gather information, and when you feel like you have a start, jump in and begin. You will most likely have to shift, change, and communicate failures, but the lessons you learn along the way will lead to a more comprehensive and successful result.

  1. Let data drive your decisions.

After you have focused, and jumped in, you will need to gauge how you are doing and when to make a chance. For Sondra and Lisa, who specifically call out their data collection efforts on the panel, it has made decisions on direction much easy (and eliminates the “personal”). For Lisa and Feed My Starving Children, the question they ask each day is, “How many children did we feed today?” If the answer is more, they are doing the right things. For Sondra, who manages communication between many partners and people, she is able to use data to drive which partnerships are effective, which people are performing, and when something is working or not working. By keeping her meetings and reports data and results driven, she saves time, and is able to make the changes necessary to continue success on a tight time frame. How to apply this lesson: When you set out on a goal, what is the finish line? Is it 50 calls to prospects? Four blog entries? 100 items sold this week? Set a specific, numerical goal and check in on how it’s going before the deadline you set. Need to make a change? Let the data decide.

  1. Accept that you will fail, and get really good at apologizing.

When you jump in to projects, inevitably there are going to be failures along the way. Accept that, and move forward. Sondra and Hamse both speak of failures they have experienced, and both stress the same thing: learn from the failure, write it down or post it if necessary, apologize to those who are impacted and share what you have learned, and move on. “Being able to look funders in the face and telling them you failed, that you are sorry, but here’s what you learned from it, is huge,” said Sondra. Failure allows for lessons, and apologies allow you to build trust. How to apply this lesson: Think of a time you have failed recently in your professional life. Go back, write down the lesson you learned, and any people who may have been impacted by this failure. If you have not apologized, go and do so, sharing the lesson you learned.

  1. Change your mindset to stay the course.

Poverty is a huge problem that can often be very depressing. Dealing with systemic racism, children living in hunger, and the global refugee crisis brings to mind many tragic images, statistics, and stories. However, our panelists were some of the most optimistic people we have ever met. They attributed this to the mindset they have each day. Hamse made the suggestion of seeing people in need not as beneficiaries or recipient, but as a customer with an end goal. Lisa said the stories of the people they help lets her see each day the impact she is making, and Sondra shared her inspiration out of Dickens-era England, where a great philanthropist was said upon his death that he, “robbed the graves of their victims and the jails of their felons,” and that was her goal in life. How to apply this lesson: Look at your current mindset at work. Is there a shift or change you could make to motivate you more? Maybe your hardest client is just helping you create better systems in the long run. Maybe changing the way you refer to your co-workers or clients could help you see them in a new way. Whatever your biggest pain point in your job is, try to reframe it to appear positive, even for a minute, and watch how it impacts your work.

We are so grateful to have learned from these inspiring panelists, and wish them all the best in their missions. We are hopeful that you can take away the lessons they have taught us, and by narrowing your focus, jumping in, using data for your mission, accepting and benefiting from failure, and changing your mindset will help you be more effective, get more done, and hopefully be a bit happier, both at work and in life.