What Was Your Moment of Obligation?

Your life can be traced by your Moments of Obligation—those times in your life in which you were compelled to take action for the greater good and made a commitment to see your work through. However small. However big. We all have many moments like this.

Here's some inspiration from David Lewis, founder of Free at Last.

“Everyone is imprisoned in some way—by bad habits, inertia, lack of confidence and so on—and people can use their difficult experiences as preparation for facing Moments of Obligation. Taking a hard look at yourself, asking difficult questions, and committing to the service of other requires building intestinal fortitude. When we recognize Moments of Obligation, we must tap into this strength.”

What are some of your Moments of Obligation?

Photo: Keo Kiseu

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My name is Alejandro and I spent the last two years teaching 1st grade in one of Philadelphia’s most impoverished neighborhoods. With limited access to books and parents unsure how to help, my students—and 30 million like them—face chronic summertime reading losses. By 8th grade, these losses accumulate to a 2-year wedge between low and higher-income kids, and account for two-thirds of the achievement gap in high school.

I founded Springboard Collaborative to transform the summer from a barrier into a springboard for financially disadvantaged students and families. By training parents and teachers to share the role of educator, Springboard catapults students to and beyond grade-level expectations by 4th grade. All children deserve the opportunity to learn, regardless of whether they are at a school desk or the kitchen table, regardless of whether the calendar reads January or July.

Below, Mom teaches Jayona a new reading strategy during a teacher-led workshop. In just 4 weeks, Jayona learned more than she had the previous year.

Answered over 2 years ago springboardphl 16 from United States


Two weeks after my daughter Melia was born and I realized that I needed to be able to look her in the eyes – when she is a young adult – and tell her that I did everything that I could to make the world a better place.

Answered over 2 years ago dave room 12 from United States


In 3 years of working in the music and documentary film industries, I was involved with just one project that had potential to create social change that reached a wide audience. The pace of the work was fast, the pace of the impact was not. Realizing that this wasn’t my “dream job” was my most recent moment of obligation.

A few months later I saw a job opening that looked as if it was written specifically for me – I fought for the job, and now I feel connected to social impact every day, not just once every three years.

(Image by Brad Vetter, http://bradvetterdesign.com/)
Answered over 2 years ago liza 95 1 from United States
over 2 years ago jay g said:

Love this picture.


After 16 years of “traditional schooling”, I set out to explore the world. In my time as a wanderer, I realized how valuable hands-on, experiential learning could be. I also realized what a void there was in the educational sector when it came to understanding we we are as unique humans and how we can apply that to the world. These experiences culminated when I was living in Cuba as a photojournalist writing a story on the underground arts scene. I realized that we, as individuals, are incredibly diverse, but also that we share a common story. And if we can realize that common story while embracing our uniqueness, we can do amazing things together. 

So I dedicated my life to creating a space for others who are looking to explore their passions and bring them to life. 

Answered over 2 years ago matthew abrams 14 from United States
over 2 years ago jay g said:

This sounds really interesting. What’s the space? Is it an actual place, or is it virtual? Would love to hear more.

over 2 years ago matthew abrams said:

@jay g It’s an actual learning center located in Asheville, NC – You can find out more info at www.myceliumschool.org — Thanks for your comment!

over 2 years ago linda kay klein said:

Thanks for this Matthew! I’ll add your program to our resources list. In the meantime, did you see the conversation from about a month ago on the purpose of higher education today? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the question – http://workonpurpose.echoinggreen.org/questions/what-is-and-what-could-be-the-purpose-of-higher-education-today


My moment of obligation happened in NYC over 15 years ago when I saw, first-hand, a group of people finding/discovering their purpose in life. They all had that moment of awakening ~ of themselves and the value they can bring to the world.  Since that moment, I have been assisting people in discovering their passions/purpose at the lowest end of the socio-economic and educational spectrums, at the highest end and hundreds in-between. 

Not all of us know and can articulate our passions and purpose, therefore, it is imperative we give people the tools to explore and discover their unique gifts, passions and purpose AND connect these with opportunities in the workplace (or assistance in starting a company).  This combination of the internal fire with external value creation will create a great transformation in us individually, within our communities and globally.

Answered over 2 years ago janice gjertsen-caillet 8 from United States
over 2 years ago matthew abrams said:

Hey Janice! Good to see you in this space. Love the istartup logo!


When I started college, I wanted to be an international lawyer.  Working with the UN at the time, I saw myself having this incredible future as a bright-eyed globe-trotting attorney.  When my eighteen year old brother aged-out of the group home system, he was shot and killed months later behind our old elementary school.  That was when I decided to shift my life’s work to innovating education and transforming children’s lives – especially under-served kids.  Since then I’ve gone on to head two education startups, my latest being a game discovery platform for high school students.

Answered over 2 years ago kapriforce 11 from United States
over 2 years ago lara galinsky said:

Out of tragedy often comes a clarity of purpose. Thank you for sharing this story.

over 2 years ago kapriforce said:

@lara galinsky Thank you Lara!


I feel like my Moment of Obligation was when I realized how much work it took for my grandmother to help raise me. I realized how important it is to take care of older people and listen to them. 

Answered over 2 years ago tallybower 289 3 from United States


I think my Moments of Obligation happen not when I see injustice and am moved to act, but rather when I see moments of ‘justice’ or others doing good. In college, I was often moved by how far a welcoming face could go in bringing others into a community. Each time I saw a student leader make a difference for a peer, I was inspired to emulate those actions and attitudes. In their own way, these were moments of obligation and they compelled me to make a commitment and be a leader in my community.

Answered over 2 years ago rebecca.kaufman03 45 3 from United States


My moment of obligation?  When I sat inside of a jail cell for 340 days, on false charges.  That 340 days i realized that I was meant to be inside of a jail cell, regardless of the circumstances.  Judge Ross Cioppa, has violated his code of conduct as a judge in my area, Braddock, PA.  He has been taken away from his position as magistrate.  He has wronged hundreds of citizens over the years and changed all of our lives for the worse.  Once i realized the injustices that were occuring, I knew it was a great power of awarness, and with great power comes greater responsibilty.

Answered over 2 years ago wakk loc 6 from United States
over 2 years ago lara galinsky said:

Wow. Thanks for sharing this. This is very powerful.


When I became a mother, I realized that I wanted my son to learn by my actions. I never had any idea how committed this would make me to helping others believe in their innate talents and finding their voice in a conflicted and often cruel world. Part and parcel to that is allowing their hearts and souls to find a pathway to being. At the center of this is how we all find our creative abilities and capacities and find others that can become a family of sorts. I suspect if more children were built up rather than broken down, our world would be much different. To me, creativity and pursuing and living dreams are very much a component of being complete. I can’t say I have had any one moment of obligation but many over the years that have built up. But it was meeting my son that made me start acting.

Answered over 2 years ago rori knudtson 6 from United States


Love that I now have a name for these moments…

And there have been many, far too many to list here but one of my favorites can be summed up with one word, whispered by a woman who served during the Vietnam War, after she crossed road barriers to join our small group of women veterans marching in the NYC Veterans Day Parade – “Finally.” In the 90ish-year history of the country’s largest and oldest Veterans' Day Parade, never had a women’s organization marched.

I have heard that word so many times since then, used in the same context. “Finally” an organization honoring the legacy and devoted to the women who have always volunteered (never drafted) to serve in our nation’s conflicts to defend the freedom and opportunities that Americans cherish and sometimes take for granted… and that foreigners risk their lives to give to their children.

“Finally…” women who have for decades hidden their military service or who have served and even suffered in silence, do so no more.

In fact – I think that this post just inspired a new tagline for American Women Veterans! :)

Answered over 2 years ago genevieve chase 32 from United States


My moment of Obligation was realizing that saying “Never Again” was not enough!

Answered over 2 years ago jsempowerchange 12 from United States


My business school application essays were about the power of social enterprise and my personal passion for social impact, but until then I had always been in the commercial space and volunteering on the side. When I was looking for jobs (and falling victim to the allure of the private sector), the best advice I ever got was to follow what I wrote. In hindsight, it really was a heart + head moment. I made a commitment to doing, not just talking about it. 

Answered over 2 years ago ericajadelock 16 from United States


My moment of obligation was when I saw the effect of drugs and pre-marital sex in my neighborhood. It was pathetic and wanted to help my peers by informing them of the dangers of drugs and unsafe sex. I considered my upbringing and being raised by a single mother; the struggling to get educated and fighting to survive despite the high poverty rate. I had no choice but to help other poor and vulnerable children. 

Answered over 2 years ago charles 'mentor' omofomwan 4 from Nigeria


I remember my Moment of Obligation regularly.  In a moment of splendid isolation, looking out to sea right at the edge of the island, I was really happy in the shoes I was in and began to reflect about the unsatisfactory situation in the country.  Business could and would bridge this divide, I knew it might disrupt the status quo.  When I turned round I saw where I had come from upside down and inside out.  It was cathartic.  My purpose aligned with who I knew I could be, with genuine un-limiting beliefs, generating immediate ideas about what to do and how and the final stage was being genuinely interested in this place, its diversity and potential of the people who had already inspired me.  I was happy and would be happy here.  Never having had all those things align in quite that way before, how could I know this was not a once in a lifetime opportunity?  So I didn’t take that risk and this obligation has become the ultimate expression of who I am. 

Answered over 2 years ago rjcatherall 3


I’ve had a progression of moments of obligation to legal literacy:  the first occurred several years ago after I was sued by a creditor, following a court ordered arbitration proceeding in which the creditor had insufficient proof of the debt but won anyway.  More recently, I recommitted to delivering legal literacy when I left a tenured government career in order to launch my business as a social entrepreneur, despite the lack of a guarantee of any degree of success.

Answered over 2 years ago marcyesque 4 from United States
over 2 years ago liza said:

Legal literacy is so important – keep fighting the good fight!


It was August 2011, I and some of my friends were thinking of doing something for greater good of society. We were trying to start a social project on dry fish in a remote area of Bangladesh. Then to collect primary information we Google the things up and got nothing literally, then we searched for help and support from some organization but found out that things are not in favor of young and small entrepreneurs here. Then we decided to start www.futurestartup.com to give young and small entrepreneurs a voice and help them by proving required support to start a business and also to promote entrepreneurship in Bangladesh which is less than 2% here.

Answered over 2 years ago romel122 4 from Bangladesh


Sports is filled with great moments, stories of overcoming obstacles and unthinkable comebacks. But at the heart of it all, sport isn’t about wins and losses, or medals and trophies. It’s about people and their will to succeed, to accomplish their goals and to push themselves beyond perceived limitations.

When I see this power of the human spirit being channeled to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges – poverty, inequality, disease, human rights, disaster relief – my instinct is to form a “team.” A group of like minded individuals, with complimentary skills, all working towards a common goal.

I’m obligated because I see solutions, I see what’s possible and I know I can do something about it. And in this race, if I win, everyone wins. 

Answered over 2 years ago sportsandchange 4 from United States


My Moment of Obligation is when I saw the silencing affect HIV/AIDS had on the  African American community in the south.  I even looked at my life and remembered how own my diagonsis once silenced me at the age of 19.  At that moment I remembered not only the facts and the numbers but I remembered te faces and the names of people I knew who had lost the fight because of stigm-afraid of what people were going to say.  I realized work must be done in my city and the South to make individuals aware about this 100% preventable disease.

I decided to start a grassroots non-profit to address HIV in my community, http://www.trdfmemphis.com

Answered over 2 years ago marvellous2thet 4 from United States


My ‘moment of obligation’ came I the form of a slight sixth grader named Anthony over fifteen years ago. He was what every untested, green teacher dreams of: a motivated kid hungry to learn. But it was I who learned from him. After completion of my masters program, I entered the classroom with little more than theories under my belt. I didn’t know how to address the rampant discipline issues, the disengagement of children conditioned to ‘learn’ from worksheets or children like Anthony – kids reading several grades behind. 

If it were not for Anthony, I may have continued on with my career as an educator believing the myth that kids who fail academically, chose to fail – that they do not want to learn. 

Due to Anthony’s zeal, I made a commitment to create a learning environment responsive to the needs of leathers and not one which expects learners to be conditioned to the sterile conditions of the typical classroom. I thank him for that.
Answered over 2 years ago ayaacademy 4 from United States


As a creative, I always searched for the best way to use my talents for the benefit of others, especially in the areas of environment and social issues. In 2009 after I left a senior design position at a reputable and conscious company, I spent a lot of time meditating on my next step. I wanted to blend design, environment and social development in the Amazon. That year in June, there was a terrible massacre in Bagua (Perú), after a peaceful protest ~ over an extractive mega-project ~ took the lives of innocent people. I felt compelled to do something and after transcribing many hours of video footage of the Bagua incident for an organization I support, I knew that the time had come. It lead me to travel to the Amazon and begin my work with indigenous Amazon artisans in 2010. You can learn more about my work in the Amazon and the beautiful artistry these cultures possess at http://www.orgbyvio.com.

Answered over 2 years ago violeta villacorta 4 from United States


My Moment of Obligation was back in 2006, when I realized I could make a difference. I could change the perspectives of the world about Pakistan through my high moral conduct and best attitude towards the humanity and by keeping a positive approach to the attitudes of life.

I was a student ambassador. I traveled to another world where people were not mine. This lead to some drastic changes in my life later on, in 2010 when I further realized I did not want to be an aeronautical engineer after doing my pre-engineering. My passion was rather influenced by a stronger power, a vast exposure and an undefined change in the state of mind. I switched to Media Studies. I realized I would rather hold the camera, capture the most beautiful things the earth possesses, the pretty faces of the people and everything that influenced me.

That was the best moment ever.

Answered over 2 years ago umerrida 4 from Pakistan


I was in the field with my microfinance field staff one evening, sitting with women and men and talking about their life in general. It was pitch dark because there were no lights in the area, and I made a comment about it – saying “don’t you find it hard to be awake in darkness? What do you do?” They looked at me, and smiled, “God has taught us to compromise and accept all hardships, so darkness is the way for us to live.” Then a few minutes later, I heard a mother scream really loudly … we all jumped up to see what happened, and walked to her (couldn’t run because we were afraid of falling since we couldn’t see anything) … when we finally reached, we saw her holding her burnt 3 year old child sobbing, and in the background, her small shack was burning. I literally ran to local neighbors to get water, and fell on my face because there was a rock I didn’t see…. When I finally found water, and brought back, it was too late. The house was burnt, and the child was dead. I asked her neighors what hapepend. She said the mother left her child for 2 minutes to get water in the house, and tere was a kerosene lantern lit for some lighting so the child doesn’t wander or get scared by himself in the dark, the lantern fell, shattering the glass, and burning half of his body with the hot kerosene, and a fire catch with the dried glass, and burned down the house. All in 5 minutes.  Those 5 minutes ruined this woman’s life… I was so upset, and angry, and asked these villagers why they leave kerosene lamps in their homes, or near their kids, and they said to me “what choice do we have?” … and then 2 minutes later the same group I was sitting with asked, “now do you know why darkness is the way of life for us? Atleast we live, we do not want to be this woman.” After this instant, I promised myself that the lives of these households, all households would not be risked for light, and they would have the opportunity to be in light. And I would help make it happen. I then pursued solar energy as a way to bring reliable lighting to households in the dark, but costing was an issue, and my scalability was an issue. I was determined to find a solution, to really make sure kerosene and darkness are out of their lives. Eventually, after testing models and rallying people, I started Frontier Markets. 

Answered over 2 years ago ajaita_shah 4 from unknown


“In America, do you have clouds?” Mohammad asked me, picking absentmindedly at a stick of olive wood, and watching as his goats grazed lazily. “Like sometimes it’s sunny, but sometimes its cold, and it changes?”

“Sure,” I said. “Same as here.”

For the two years I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nageb Ad-Dabour, Jordan, Mohammad and I were neighbors. One spring afternoon I decided to walk with him down the mountain as he took his small flock to graze. Not entirely sure why I’d come along, but seeing this as his big chance to get to the bottom of some things, this sixth-grade shepherd began to question me in earnest:

“In America, do you have oceans?”

“Yes—a lot more than here. There are two big oceans on either side of my country, and we have lots of rivers and lakes inside the country, too,” I explained in broken Arabic.

“Do you have pigeons in America?” he asked, gaining confidence with each new question.

“Yes. Mostly in cities, and they don’t live on the roof like here. In America, they just live outside. But pigeons are prettier here because they’re all different colors—brown, white…”

“What color are they in America?”

“Like that,” I answered, not knowing the Arabic word for grey, but pointing to his light grey sweatshirt.

“Oh. Black,” he said.

“Sure…black,” I responded.

“When you came to Jordan, did you come in a car or in a plane?”

“On a plane. You have to come by plane because there’s a big ocean between America and Jordan.”

Mohammad picked up a stone and threw it at the feet of one of the sheep who had started wandering away, scaring it back up the mountain. “How long did it take you in the plane?” he continued.

“Eleven hours,” I said.

“A lot!” he replied, amazed.

“How long do you spend out here everyday?” I asked, taking my turn as the inquisitor.

He counted on his fingers, folding them toward his palm one by one, thoughtfully.  “Four hours and a half,” he said.

“A lot,” I responded.

“My grandpa takes them out in the morning, and I just take them out after school,” he said. “If it’s cold I make a fire,” he added, reassuringly.

“So do you want to go to University when you’re older?” I asked.

“I still have seventh and eighth and ninth and tenth and eleventh and twelfth before University,” he responded, wondering how I could be a teacher and fail to understand such an obvious fact.

“I know, I know. But later, you know, do you want to go when you’ve finished school?”

He paused, taking a moment to think carefully about his answer.

“No. I don’t want to go to University,” he said, finally.

“Why not?” I wondered.

“I don’t know,” he said, tentatively. “I guess because…I can’t read."

For me, this impromptu conversation on the side of a mountain in a far-off country became a moment of obligation because I realized, perhaps for the first time, just how much I value my own education—and how education opens the world to our understanding, in a way that almost nothing else can.  As Paolo Freire famously wrote, education is "the practice of freedom," freedom to wonder, freedom to explore, and freedom to know. Finding ways to open that freedom to others is how my obligation, in some small way, will be fulfilled.

Answered over 2 years ago think unlimited 4


5 years ago, when I was two years into work, I suddenly realized that I won’t die of hunger for this life. Back then, I was surprised by how late this realization came to me, and sneered about how trivial this thought was. But as I looked back, that was my moment of obligation.

This realization is incredibly personal. Born in a small rural town in midland China, my life has been restless and insecure as I was migrating along the Yangtze River with my parents, among hundreds of millions of rural migrant families struggling in this turbulent age. I was never really hungry, but that insecure mental state of “not knowing what tomorrow is like” haunts me, and I am sure it haunts millions of migrant workers leaving their rural homes to work in modern sweat shops; it haunts their children left unattended and uneducated, and not knowing where they should fit in; it haunts old men and women in the dying villages, gambling all day long without the tiniest attention from others, and recognition of what their legacies were. Like my parents, the rural Chinese are the most humble, tenacious and hardworking people I have ever known, but they have struggled with a life without security, ownership and pride.

If my precious and wild life is not constrained by the basic needs (food, drink, and shelter) any more, I feel obliged to bring the sense of security, ownership and pride back to my beloved rural communities. I want to help people to reinvent their lives, to be proud of themselves, to go back to their hometown, and to rebuild their languishing villages.

Answered over 2 years ago yingchen 4 from United States