This was a useful phrase for me to hear at that moment. For the last few months I've been assessing the wall my own ladder leans against, so to speak. As a 37 year old white male software developer, I'm trying to account for the responsibility that comes with the socio-economic leverage I have in the world. Am I spending my privileges responsibly? How could I do more with my next 37 years?
These are questions without easy answers, but lead to other useful questions, I think. If I can use my skills to advance some ideological position in the world, why not work on that? What things should I be working on? How does what I actually am doing meaningfully address those specific problems.
Here is my recipe, written in the second-person, but not meant to be taken prescriptively.
Pick your Most Important Topic. Work on that. Keep it local, find your leverage close to home. This will take some time, expect progress to be slow. Keep your day job. Work in the morning. Find people who share an interest in the things you do. Find ways to help each other. Show up, every time. Be punctual. Learn to say no sometimes, but be willing to risk a stretch when it seems worthwhile. Apply for funding, fellowships, etc. if only to write proposals that will clarify your thinking. Create opportunities for others; offer an apprenticeship, hold office hours, be generous with your time. Celebrate your minor victories, they will carry you forward. Raise hell. Have fun. Thank your parents. (Thanks, Molly Ivins.)
For my part, I am interested in the intersection of two topics that qualify to me as Most Important.
Climate change: how can I write software that doesn't require tons of electricity, or the latest and greatest hardware? How can I make remote participation a viable alternative to expensive and carbon-intensive flights? Social inequality: what are ways to share what I know with those who haven't found the opportunities to become tech savvy? How can I be a better advocate for those with less socio-economic privileges?
Again, these are based on personal conviction, your own topics may vary greatly. Yours may sound more or less self-righteous, but for my part I am okay with embracing self-consciously righteous goals. It's not about guilt, or feeling superior, but being deliberate about what I do with my energy and productivity.