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99 tips for a better world: can i change the world?

A great fixation of mine – which reminds me just how “Gen Y” I am – is how I can “make a difference”. I am desperate for my life to feel meaningful, to know I’m making my mark. I ponder this every time I donate $5 to a campaign, recycle, buy Fairtrade coffee, or make decisions about my career.

On the bright side it means I take my actions seriously and have a strong sense of personal responsibility. On the darker side of my moon-sized ego, I crave the sense that I’m doing something important. It would be unbearable to admit my insignificance in the scheme of things.

I find it hard to accept that even if I dedicate every waking moment to “making a difference” my contribution is a drop in the ocean. I waver between trying to beat myself at my own game – work harder, go bigger, make more impact – or just exaggerate the impact I am having to make myself feel better. ‘I donate to Amnesty, so I’m really making a difference!’

I rarely buy my own hype.

I suspect we are facing an epidemic of well-intentioned people who exaggerate their impact. Everywhere you look there is someone changing the world for the better because they’ve started a tiny NGO or signed up for a fun run. But will they end poverty? Will they find a cure? Do they really believe what they’re saying?

Chris Guillebeau, a popular blogger based in the US (whom I regularly read), talks about taking control of your life, travelling the globe, starting businesses and changing the world in the process. (His book is called The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World). I’m wholly supportive of people taking control of their lives, but this “changing the world” bit jars with me. We throw it around so casually. Change your life, sure. Make the world a better place for having another happy person in it, excellent. But change the world? Change the gross inequity we see within and between countries? Change the economic systems that depend on many getting poorer in order for some to get richer? Change the structures that allow us to enjoy air-conditioning like it’s a birth right, while the polar ice caps disappear? No matter how successful your blog or your start-up is, you’re not changing any of that. This seems to be the core of my particular existential crisis.

When I was younger and worked for a United Nations agency, I was eternally frustrated in my work that I could not do more. I wanted to fix the disadvantage I could see right in front of me. I understood why I couldn’t (I wasn’t that silly) but my powerlessness in the situation drove me crazy.

A few years and some mellowing out later, I am more accepting that part of this whole project of humans on earth is that no one person can make the world a better place on their own. Even great achievements by individuals throughout history like Gandhi and Mandela were not achieved alone and didn’t settle problems for good. Millions of people carry on their legacies, making incremental gains, losing ground, pushing on.

With the wisdom of my advancing years, I’ve decided to accept the smallness of my life. Will I stop aiming high? Hell no, my ego wouldn’t allow it even if I tried. Does it mean I’m going to stop trying to make the world a better place in my own small, insignificant way? Nope. I’m just going to accept with a little more grace that even a gargantuan personal effort will still only be a bit part in this epic drama that is life on earth. And that’s OK. I look forward to sleeping a little better at night knowing the world’s fate doesn’t rest on my shoulders.

Last week I watched Waste Land (2010), a documentary by Lucy Walker about Vik Muniz, Brazilian-born contemporary artist. They travelled to Jardim Gramacho, the largest garbage dump in Rio de Janiero to meet a community of catadores – garbage pickers – who pluck recyclable material from mountains of rubbish.

Valter, an old man who had been picking since he was a child explains the value of recycling: ‘One single can is of great importance because 99 is not 100, and that single one will make the difference.’

With this column, I am going to accept the value of one single can and celebrate the small things we can do in our daily lives to make the world a better place.

In honour of Valter’s wisdom, I will commit to finding 99 tips for a better world. I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

(Image credit)


2 thoughts on “99 tips for a better world: can i change the world?

  1. I think for myself I find solace in the knowledge that every drop in the ocean where I am putting back, wasn’t there before, and is added to all the other drops that people are putting in – even as we seek to empty out the muck. So I can appreciate that juxtaposed insignificance, that sense of being tiny in the scheme of things (and considering space and the galaxies far reaching and seemingly infinite is enough to remind me of thi), but also appreciate that I am still making a difference, by contributing. I could choose not to, and instead I choose to.

    Also, as you say none of the greater achievements we in our egoism seek to match the standard of happened without other people, or lots of tiny acts. I also like to think of things in ripples. The conversations I have, the conversations others go on to have… sometimes it is cumulative and sometimes you do see a shift in a specific way, maybe in your family, friends group or social community… but you can see the difference. It’s not all encompassing… but I find the way the ripples happen to be comforting.

    A good general example of this would be the whole ‘destroying the joint’ response – that joyful and affirmative declaration that ‘Yes. Yes we are destroying the joint (and in my head ‘the joint’ is ‘the status quo’).

  2. Ju, I think this wisdom comes more easily to you than me.

    I love the imagery of ripples. Alas, sometimes I don’t trust the ripples – I want to SEE the impact for myself RIGHT NOW. I think I’ll try meditating on the ripples for comfort.

    I take such joy from ‘Destroy the Joint’ because we get to see so readily and enjoy the fruits of hundreds of thousands of tiny acts.

    Thank you for your wise words.

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