I won't change the world, so why bother trying?

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As I prepare to publish my book in two weeks, I’ve been thinking about important concerns people might have with respect to its most pertinent topics: social change and community development.

Specifically, I thought about questions and issues that may make people reluctant to buy my book. Hence, I decided to address the most important ones in two blog posts (one today and another next week). Today, I address issues related to the following:

I probably won’t change the world, so why bother doing anything at all?

This is a very, very, very common concern. Many people think that their individual contributions will make no difference in the greater scheme of things, so they throw their hands in the air and say “what’s the point then?” Related to that, they also believe that they have to fix one huge problem for the entire world (e.g. global warming or the water crisis), and if they don’t succeed then they’re a failure and everything they did was completely worthless.

These beliefs are extremely flawed, and in this blog post I’ll tell you why you should get rid of them immediately.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma: why bother doing anything at all?

If nobody bothers doing anything because we think our contributions are too small to change the world, then guess what will happen? Nothing. To illustrate this point more accurately, I’ll borrow the well-known economic concept called 'the Prisoner's Dilemma' (this short video explains it nicely). The Dilemma is most commonly used to explain the fundamentals of Game Theory, which you might know about if you've seen the movie "A Beautiful Mind".

The concept is so fascinating because it accurately depicts how often we do things that are not optimal for “the group” and society at large — like choosing not to volunteer, donate money to a good cause, or recycle — because we think that others won't do the same and that, as a result, our individual contribution is meaningless.

It's cliché, but it's true: if every person created incremental, positive change in their communities, a tremendous number of communities would be helped. Now that would change the world. But if every person thinks that their work is insignificant in the greater scheme of things, then change never happens. Worse even, we'll just spend our entire lives waiting for a hero to save us; some day, somehow, even though he or she will probably never come.

To use the language of the Prisoner’s Dilemma (make sure to watch the video linked earlier), if we all think like that and do nothing, we end up "betraying" society and "going to jail" for much longer than we really should. Clearly, then, the socially-optimal solution is for all of us to do our little bit in improving our respective communities. It pains me, though, that we erroneously think that these contributions don’t matter in the greater scheme of things, which is why I’m glad that the Prisoner’s Dilemma dispels this belief.

You think your contributions won’t change the world? Well how’s doing nothing working out for you?

the big problems

Another common fallacy people believe in is that they have to fix one huge problem for the entire world (e.g. global warming or poverty), but if they don’t succeed then they’re a failure and that, as a result, their work was entirely worthless. It’s essentially an all-or-nothing approach to social impact and community development: if you don’t perfectly fix the problem for the entire world, then you’re a failure.

This is completely nonsensical.

I know that people are obsessed with the grandiose visions of changing the world because these are the sexy dreams that capture all the headlines, but how do we expect to change the world if we can’t even change our own communities?

This is why I advocate a focused and incremental approach to social change and impact. Forget about all this touchy-feely “change the world” or “change the country” stuff that you’re always told. Change starts with action, and the quickest and easiest action can be found right here in your own community. Focus on problems that you can see and touch in your own backyard and fix them one by one before you look at the national and global issues.

Since it’s on a smaller scale, achieving impact in your community is much easier as well, meaning that you’re far less likely to hit dead-ends and will be more encouraged to continue your work. On the other hand, changing the world requires an enormous amount of time, resources, and, crucially, breaking through an endless amount of bureaucratic hurdles.

People glorify all sorts of bravery except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbors.
— George Eliot/Mary Anne Evans

Look, you’re not special, you’re not the chosen one, and you probably won’t win a Nobel Prize. You’re just another person out of the 7.5 billion of us in this world. Moreover, it’s extremely likely that you won’t entirely solve the social problem you’re trying to solve during your lifetime.

I know that these statements will scare and upset many people because this isn’t what all those inspirational speeches about “following your dreams” and “changing the world” tell us, right? Well, you can search elsewhere if you’re looking for warm-and-fuzzy hashtags to use for your Instagram or Twitter account. My website is not, and never will be, the place for that.

That said, if you think that what I’m saying is nonsense, short-sighted, and defeatist, fair enough. Don’t let me hold you back on trying to change the world. Seriously. But if you succeed in changing your community instead of the world — and thereby “beat” the Prisoner’s Dilemma — then I can assure you that your work was not worthless or in vain, and you definitely are not failure.

Change the world? How about you change your community first.

Honor

If I don’t solve the problem during my lifetime, then I’m a failure.

Yet another damaging thought that stops us from achieving social impact in our communities (and the world in general). I always address this concern with one word: honor.

As I said earlier, it’s very likely that you won’t solve the bigger societal problems during your lifetime. If they were that easy to fix, someone else would have already done it. You can only do so much to achieve as much progress as possible while you’re alive.

And that’s exactly the thing.

On the day you die, don’t you want to be able to tell your loved ones that you gave every ounce of energy you had to something more important and bigger than yourself in your community, regardless of whether you fixed everyone’s problems or not? That you stood for something, fought for something, and gave your life in service to your community? Is there not immense honor to that?

This is a mentality that you need to adopt — a mentality of divorcing the process from the outcome — because there truly is honor to be had in giving everything you have to a cause that is greater than yourself, even if you don’t succeed in your mission. It reminds me of the distinction that James Clear once made between a “goals-first” and a “systems-first” mentality. People with the “goals-first” mentality will tend to say things like “I’ll only be happy if I have a girlfriend or “My work will only be worth it if I fully solve the problem during my lifetime.

As you can see, it’s a mentality that tells us that the outcome is the only thing that matters. However, a “systems-first” mentality focuses on the process: “I want to be the type of person that dedicates his life to the process and work of community development, regardless of if I fully fix a particular social problem during my lifetime or not.

So who do you want to be: a systems-first or a goals-first person?

The choice is yours.

It doesn’t matter if you work on Wall Street or at a charity distributing medicine to the poor. It doesn’t matter if you are at the top of the income scale or at the bottom. There are heroes and schmucks in all worlds. The most important thing is whether you are willing to engage in moral struggle against yourself.
— David Brooks (from page 12-13 of his book "The Road to Character")

See you, Space Cowboy.