You CAN change the world, you just don't know how.

Picture from Kaboompics.com

Picture from Kaboompics.com

Save the cheerleader, save the world

A few weeks ago, I had an interesting, short conversation with one of my housemates. I was having lunch in the kitchen and I think I had either organic milk or cheese or something like that out on the table, because it was him noticing this that sparked the conversation. (I promise there is an important point behind this story). What follows is not quite a verbatim account (my memory isn’t that good) but it captures the basic essence of our conversation nonetheless. Out of respect for his privacy, I’ll refer to him as James.

James: Organic huh? You’re such a healthy guy man.

Me: Yep, trying to be healthier and save the planet and all that. I guess that Di Caprio documentary is still in the back of my mind as well, so I’m trying to be a better human being you know. It’s a bit expensive though, so for now I just wanna see how it goes.

James: (Laughs) Trying to be a better human being?

Me: Haha, in all seriousness, that documentary did make me think about what my contribution to problems like climate change is. I don’t think I quite have what it takes to be a vegan, but I am trying little steps like buying organic products, not eating beef, and eating less meat in general to do my part in helping the problem.

James: That’s cool man, but come on you’re not going to solve the problem by yourself are you? What change is one guy going to make on the entire problem?

Me: True, I definitely won’t fix the problem by myself. But if everybody thinks like that “well nobody else is doing or going to do it so why should I do it then?” then the problem will absolutely never be fixed. Somebody has to make the first move otherwise we’ll for sure be stuck with it forever. So for as long as my bank account permits it, I’m going to keep doing it.

James: That’s impressive, although I just can’t see myself doing that. Look, I think what you’re doing is great but I just can’t see what difference or impact my behavior is going to make if millions of other people aren’t going to do it. I mean, one extra guy buying organic stuff, not eating beef, and doing all those things going won't fix the problem, unfortunately.

Just some innocent lunchtime banter; so what’s the point behind it then? It comes down to passing up the opportunity do so a small, good thing in the world just because you only measure its impact from your individual viewpoint instead of from the greater scheme of things. In James’ defense, he really didn’t mean anything he said in a condescending or demeaning way. Better yet, we had a good laugh about it and we get along really well in general. Regardless of that, the conversation stuck with me because it illustrated this extremely common issue – the way in which we neglect the scalable impact of our actions – in such an innocent way.

It can be useful and humane to think about the impact of your actions not as a single action but how they would scale up if ten times more people did what you did. Imagine if you pick up a piece of trash on the street and put it away. If ten times more people were to do that tomorrow, that would be a nice move.
— Merlin Mann (Back To Work, Episode 300)

Look, I completely understand it from a rational (and even economic) perspective: it costs you more effort/money to do this good thing which you don’t see the greater point of doing because it feels like you’re just one out of seven billion people in the world doing it. Still, you’re well aware that if we all do this small thing then the world would undoubtedly be a better place. But why bother doing it if it’s just going to cost you and is unlikely to fundamentally change the world, right? Well, all this leads nicely into my next topic…

Getting your hands dirty

You can’t change the world without getting your hands dirty.
— Lelouch Lamperouge (Code Geass)

I think it’s safe to assume that you, the reader, are just a regular everyday person. More likely than not, you’re not going to win a Nobel Prize, revolutionize an industry, or fix something like climate change through your work. Fair enough. So is that it then, you’re just going to throw in the towel and settle?

Before you dwell too much on that idea, let me again use the guys over at Fizzle to illustrate a point. To me, people like them are absolute heroes because of how they strive to make a change. They brought together a team of people who are experts in their respective fields – and have complementing skills – and let one question guide their work: how is our work going to help and impact the lives of people who want to start their own business? Will they be remembered with the same grandeur as Steve Jobs or go down in the history book for future generations to learn from? But did they abandon their lives and travel all the way to a poverty-stricken nation to do aid work there? No, they're in Portland, Oregon doing their thing.

The point is that they figured out a way to positively impact the lives of other people using their expertise within their line of work (without traveling half-way across the galaxy). I stress this last part because there’s probably an implicit belief that only certain professions really matter and impact the world. You know, people only truly remember the Albert Einsteins, Steve Jobs, and Henry Fords of the world. But what about those that designed games to help little kids learn to read and write or organized a platform to help new entrepreneurs have a community to support each other with? Whatever your line of work may be, you can make an impact with it; and you don't have to abandon your current lifestyle to do so.

It’s so easy to dismiss the opportunity to do something good because you’re hoping to do something great.
— Mark Bezos

Link

Then again, these people could have said screw it: we’re not capable of saving the world, people only idolize the scientists and superstar-businessmen of the world… Why bother then? Our line of work is not going to be globally acclaimed anyway. Yet think of all the lives that their work touched and inspired and how much worse off they would be. Who knows what that work has inspired them to do? Who knows how much that impact has scaled/compounded over time and, better yet, inspired yet more people further down the line?

This ain’t no place for no hero

What if, though, you never had or ever will have the ambition to become the Henry Ford or Elon Musk of your profession? You’re just a regular person with a regular life, right? In that case, I leave you with one simple request: always think about if and how your work is helping and serving people. And I mean helping people, not devising ingenious ways to fit a 12 megapixel instead of an 11 megapixel camera on the next iPhone. On the other hand, your work does not have to be as groundbreaking as interplanetary living*; instead the sweet spot, which is more sane and realistic, is simply where you think about the end-impact of your work and, quite frankly, give a shit about this final impact. Again, think about the impact of your actions not as a single action, but as a compounding force.

*Given how obsessed Musk is with his planet-hopping dream, I always wondered if he might not secretly be a fan of Cowboy Bebop as well. A show about the adventures of interplanetary bounty-hunters… A guy convinced that humanity’s future will be interplanetary… Can’t just be coincidence, can it?

To illustrate how this sweet spot can be perfectly attainable and doesn’t have to be horribly complicated, let’s take an example. Let's say you design websites. You love what you do, but you don’t see how you can change the world with it. You can volunteer a bit here and there, but maybe you’re not such a fan of soup kitchens. Well, instead of volunteering at a soup kitchen, how about you offer to design their website free of charge? It’s a win-win-win situation: the charity gets a free, quality website, you’re doing something you’re passionate about while serving the greater good, and it looks great on your CV.

What, didn’t expect that slightly-selfish last point? I added that to show that altruism doesn’t always have to be a one-way street; there can be something in it for you too if you’re simply strategic with how you do it. Look, companies love employees that care for the greater good but they also want to know that you’re capable at your job. With this project, you have something in your portfolio to show them plus you did it pro bono for charity, all in one job. Maybe as a bonus you can show them how much your work increased traffic or conversions, if you can get a hand on such data.

See that’s the thing, it really doesn’t need to be dramatically complicated stuff. Just think small in your actions, but big in the impact; then simply do your part. Imagine if every programmer at every company decided to volunteer a few hours per week of his/her spare time to teach kids how to code, imagine the absolutely monumental impact that would have on society.

TL;DR

If you can’t be arsed to read the entire post, then the condensed version simply boils down to these four points:

1.      Understand the scalable nature of good deeds. Stop thinking “but nobody else does it” and start thinking “if ten times more people were to do what I’m doing, that would be a nice move. Let me fulfill my obligation to do my part.” Then leave the rest up to other people and hope they do theirs. Whatever this may be, I’m sure you can think of something if you dig deep enough.

2.      Give a shit about the end-impact of your work.

3.      Don’t dismiss the value of your work just because it isn’t award-winning stuff. If people don't dedicate themselves to solving some kind of problem just because they think it won’t change the world, we’ll never fix a thing in our lives. However…

4.      Make your work about solving people’s real problems. Remember though, it doesn’t have to be a life-or-death problem, it can be much closer to home. On that note, it’s fine if at the start of your career you’re not necessarily in that job/position yet. I understand, you gotta pay the bills and the economy is still in a precarious state. In that case, simply make sure that every day you’re working towards that eventual position/goal that you do want to be in.

Most people probably aren’t going to change the world. But if, because of this, we walk away from our obligation to do good we’ll never do something great.

See you, Space Cowboy.