I just couldn’t come up with anything–anything.

November 2nd, 2018 was the deadline to submit my senior quote for my school yearbook. Though in September I rummaged through my notes looking for the perfect yearbook quote that reflected me, everything I came across just felt cliche, overdone, syrupy. Call it overconfidence, but I somehow believed that the words would just come to me–so I waited.

And waited, and waited, and waited.

Why do so? Because I knew that I wanted the words to truly represent my personal journey from kindergarten to twelfth grade. But at 10 pm, two hours before the deadline, I had a moment of panic and beckoned my parents and my sister to the family room. I was desperate–desperate enough to show them 15 images of senior quotes I had found. But one after another, my parents and my sister knocked them down. I was frustrated. Yes, I was about to quote Elle Woods–but my mom saved me from going Legally Blonde.

My mother knew–yet again–just what I needed: so she went thematic. “Remember when you started swimming, or when you wanted to start Foundation For Girls, or when you began surfing, people told you that you couldn’t do it. But you kept on going and did what you believed in.” Yes, there it was. Time and again, whether it was disbelief or continued no’s, I trudged on.

I just kept swimming.

Every day, there are core beliefs that inform everything I do as a student, a changemaker, and a social entrepreneur.

I refuse to be anything other than myself

When I first started Foundation For Girls, my goal was simple: to give vulnerable girls what they needed to be financially aware, digitally capable, self-leading, and healthy in mind, body, and spirit. Yet everybody wanted me to focus on only one area–one. However, I was looking at the whole girl. After all, my mom didn’t send me to a banker to learn finance or to a computer specialist to become tech-savvy, she was my one main coach to guide me. Despite the naysayers who said that I couldn’t make an impact by focussing on more than one area, I stayed true to my core belief. And four years ago, when I talked to potential funders and supporters who initially refused to fund me because of my holistic approach, I didn’t give up.

I stayed true to myself and my vision.

I stay focused on what’s important

At swim practice, while sixth-grade me swam freestyle, I found myself continually distracted by my fellow teammates swimming in the lanes beside me. After a few weeks, my coach Jordon finally took me aside and gave me a keen piece of advice: “Keep your focus on your own lane and put your blinders on.” Yes, I gulped down Jordan’s advice, but what really solidified it was the outcome of a 400 medley relay I swam in, the first race of the season. I was last, swimming butterfly. Right after my teammate completed his 100 meters and touched the wall, I dived in for the final stretch. We were ahead of the other teams by a few meters, so I heard my teammates beginning to cheer, believing the race was ours to win. But when I finally broke the surface of the water after my flip turn, I was neck and neck with the swimmer in the next lane. Then at the last moment, I lost focus and looked at my opponent to the right. And without realizing, I’d fallen behind and lost the race by a few milliseconds.

I may have lost that race, but I won a great lesson and learned something incredibly important: to keep focused on the task before me.

I believe we’re all connected and we should make it better for everyone

During the summer of 2014, I began tutoring two survivors of sex trafficking: Ashley, a seventeen-year-old with a three-year-old son, and Alijah, a fifteen-year-old repeat runaway from foster-care abuse. Not only did they start to understand fractions, but they also gained confidence in themselves–because they felt intelligent, educated, capable, and supported. And I became hooked on helping them. So every Friday during the next school year, I continued working with them on math and English. After learning that Ashley wanted to be an architect and Aljiah wanted to be a fashion designer, I set up mentoring sessions with local professionals in their respective areas of interest. Months later, when they both earned their GEDs, Ashley enrolled at a community college to study architecture and Alijah to study fashion design.

Growing up, my parents stressed the importance of humanity–of not just embracing everyone around me, but also reaching out to those in need. I’ve come to realize that doing good and giving back is a way of thinking and a way of life.

I have seen that our small everyday acts have a big impact.

I know I have a lot of room to grow

So I’ll keep learning, exploring, and finding my path. But no matter what I’m doing, I’ll just keep swimming–one stroke at a time.

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