How Nature Changed My Life

By Ollie Riley-Smith
United Kingdom


I never grasped the importance of conserving and protecting nature and wildlife, but six months was all it took to turn my indifference into a passion that has altered the trajectory of my life.
One year ago, I was lost and troubled by an anxiety that crippled my ability to do anything, let alone the things I loved. I felt like a storm cloud hung over me. For almost a year I struggled on, constantly staring at this unsurmountable wall that faced me. My perfectionist tendencies were the main root of this: I had this drive to be perfect and the best at whatever I did, which obviously in life is not possible but it consumed me. My perfectionism has always been with me and spending the first part of my schooling at a small prep school made it easy to rise to the top. Upon entering a bigger high school, though, this quest for perfection was far from obtainable.  
Perfectionism in small amounts is brilliant, however in overwhelming doses it can be debilitating.

One day, I attended a talk from author and conservationist Grant Fowlds at my high school. His presentation not only awed and inspired me, but it helped emerge an inner desire to do something that made a difference in the world. I was one of the students on the Eton College Environmental Society Committee that joined a pre-presentation dinner with him and that smaller setting, coupled with this newly found passion, allowed me to slowly build up my courage to speak one-on-one with him – an idea that seemed completely impossible. This first contact was where my story began.


Ollie presents in front of the crowd at the World Youth Wildlife Summit. 
4 months later in September, Grant invited me to attend the World Youth Wildlife Summit in South Africa. Looking back, I now see that this would be the first in a series of timely opportunities that my old self would have let pass, but that this new and more confident Ollie enthusiastically seized. Shortly after receiving the World Youth Wildlife Summit invitation, an application to join the Youth For Our Planet and UK Youth For Nature groups was sent around through my high school. I decided to commit to completing the applications, and soon I was a part of a growing global team of young people working to protect nature and creating climate solutions. Each of these new steps continued to grow my confidence, and I was steamrolling my way into this new world I didn’t know existed a few weeks earlier.
September 21-24, 2019, I found myself in the middle of Kruger National Park in South Africa, surrounded by 200+ fellow conservationists. I was chosen as a group leader for the Summit, meaning I had to look after and facilitate the learning of a group of ten young environmentalists. Over the following days felt my self worth grow exponentially. What one learns when you are surrounded by wildlife conservationists is that they are not out to get you – they are all caring, kind souls who wish to help.
They are unlike any other community, even the most influential environmentalists are down to earth and without egos.

Three months is all it took to go from a lost soul to an aspiring, enthusiastic, and ambitious young conservationist…and it continues! I have joined the Steering Group for Youth For Our Planet as their mobiliser for Europe and the Middle East and I am one of the first Youth Ambassadors for WWF UK. I have stepped into the role of the head of environment action at my high school, and through this have delivered speeches to about 1,000 students at my high school, to various other Prep Schools, to State Representatives in my region, and many more. I have also begun to develop two global initiatives with the help of WWF, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Project Rhino and many more with the goal of revolutionising the way young people can help the environment. There is much more to come but I need to get school out the way first!

Ollie talks with his team at the World Wildlife Youth Summit.


I am writing this just 6 months since my journey began in July 2019 and I’ve realized that my biggest obstacle this whole time was myself. It was that voice in the back of my head telling me that one phrase that has stopped so many great people from reaching their potential: I can’t. 


You have the potential and the solution within you, and sometimes it takes you pushing aside your doubts, insecurities, and the unknowns to truly find out what you are capable of.

It took perseverance, serious hard work, and a whole lot of passion to get where I am now. They say good things come to those who wait, I say ignore that, grab every opportunity with everything you have and be impatient, as nature does not require our patience, it requires our action.
I share my story with you as proof that those cheesy quotes you have seen over the years are true: you will end up at the right destination so long as you look beyond the problems. Get out there and start making a difference, because if you don’t, who will?
Ollie Riley-Smith

Ollie Riley-Smith

Ollie is a student in his last year of high school in the United Kingdom. When he’s not in the classroom, he is a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Youth Ambassador, is the European Mobiliser and Steering Committee Member with Youth For Our Planet, and is developing a youth organisation to support environmental initiatives.

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