How to be of use

By Joern Fischer

Many of us socially or environmentally inclined wonder how to be of use. When so many of the problems are so big, how can we as individuals make a difference? Is it even sensible to try to make a difference? After all, each of us is only one 6th billion of people (getting less by the minute …), so presumably, each individual’s influence is very small. And perhaps that’s a good thing … who knows if what we think would be good actually would do even more harm! Anyway, I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts on this issue of how to be of use.

First, of course it’s stupid (and actually somewhat arrogant) to believe that you yourself are so important that therefore you should be able to single-handedly make a major difference. After all, you’re one of six billion people, and there’s bound to be millions of people much more powerful than you. And no matter how great you are, you’re probably not THAT great.

While a certain degree of un-important-ness characterizes most of us by definition (apart from the nobel prize winning few perhaps, and perhaps apart from the leaders of major nations and so on …), I find it somehow unsatisfying to therefore conclude we shouldn’t try to make a difference. So that’s my first view on this: even though we’re unlikely to be particularly successful, surely, if we believe some things are ‘wrong’ we ought to work to make them better  — but keeping expectations realistic about what we can achieve. Idea number one therefore: yes, do try to make a difference.

A second, related idea that I have found helpful is to try not to worry so much about whether one’s own actions make a difference. Rather, an understanding of oneself as likely unimportant means it’s more important to think about the bigger picture. That means identifying certain ‘waves of good stuff’ (yes, a very technical term, specifically created for the purpose…). Once you are pretty sure you have identified a wave of good stuff, join it! Depending on how your qualities then match up with that the needs of that wave, you will either become a large part of the wave, or remain a minor droplet. But that’s hard to know beforehand, and to think you ought to have a large influence is perhaps misguided (or even arrogant): what, after all, is so special about you that others don’t have? So there’s idea number two: find good waves and join them.

Finally, a third point: the social and ecological problems we now have are very complex. No person, research team, or even government can solve these problems on their own. Some have argued that we need major societal change. Whether that’s true or not, it’s clear that there are many facets that could do with ‘improvements’ in a sustainability sense, and so a third suggestion for how to be of use is to inspire others from a broad range of backgrounds – and ideally, get them talking to each other and join forces. So many individuals, organisations and institutions are working to do good, and they even mean roughly the same thing – but most of the efforts are not terribly united. I think it’s entirely possible that we could end up with lots of people in society wanting some kind of change, but still, no change coming about – for example, because the church groups don’t talk to the tree huggers, who don’t talk to those who cook soup for poor people, and so on. If only they talked, they’d be a much stronger coalition. So that’s suggestion three for how to be of use: get people inspired, and get them to connect.

So … number one: yes, do try to be of use, and make a difference.

Number two: jump on good waves, without expecting to be a major part of them.

Number three: inspire people from different backgrounds and get them to talk.

As always, there’s space for comments if you don’t agree … discussion is welcome!


5 thoughts on “How to be of use

  1. Perceiving our job (no matter which job that is) as a needed social function can be also ‘healthy’ approach possibly… It gives is some ‘extra’ responsibilities and may make us even more adaptive. I dont see such perceptions about jobs e.g. in RO.

  2. Very good stuff. I might add that simply doing something you think is important can provide you with a sense of wellbeing, even if that action makes very little difference in the scheme of things. Spending a day planting trees has probably given me more satisfaction then any paid work I have done, and yet it made very little difference to climate change or reforestation 🙂 So act on your beliefs for a sense of wellbeing.

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