Four World-Changing Questions

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what you're meant to do

12 THINGS YOU CAN DO TO MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE

It’s been awhile since I updated my article on “What You Can Do (to Save the World)”. The revisions depicted in the chart above reflect my recent disenchantment with idealism (which too often makes us inconsolable, inflexible, inattentive and intolerant), my realization that the world can’t be saved, only made better than what it is, and my recently-acquired preference for collective action over personal self-change. On this final point, I’m beginning to believe that we cannot be, or become, what we are not, but that, particularly if we organize with others, we can bring about significant change through collective, effective, considered and focused action, even without changing anyone’s mind, values or beliefs. So here’s a brief summary of the 12 things you can do to make a difference, to make the world a better place:

Knowing and Learning:

  1. Understand What’s Happening: Before you can engage others and act purposefully and effectively you need to understand how the world really works (not what they tell you in school or in the media about how it works). The world is complex, and understanding and embracing complexity is a challenge to our culture’s predilection for oversimplification and dichotomy. 
  2. Imagine What’s Possible: Next, you need to be able to imagine a better world, one that is not addicted to growth and consumption. If you can’t imagine it, you will never be able to decide how to achieve it.
  3. Be Pragmatic and Realistic: There are many things you can do, and many wonderful-sounding but unenforced, unenforceable and/or ineffective regulations and actions, so you need to learn what actions actually work. This takes a lot of time and energy, and to do it you need to stop doing some other things you are doing that are distracting you from learning these important truths. 
  4. Know Yourself: Then, to assess what you can do about all this, you need to know yourself, which means giving yourself the time and space to discover who you really are, what your true gifts, passions and purpose are, and therefore what you’re meant to do (see graphic above). 
  5. Build Personal Capacity: And finally, once you’ve learned all this, you need to discover and acquire the additional capacities you need to be effective at bringing about change in the world. This doesn’t entail changing yourself to be what you’re not, but just learning some new skills and abilities that will equip you to accomplish more with less effort.

Most of us never have the opportunity to do any of this, so we end up doing ill-informed, half-hearted, non-time-consuming, and largely ineffective things. We complain, we sign a few petitions, we feel guilty, but none of that gets us anywhere. We say we’re doing our best given the other commitments on our time, resources and energies, but are we? Until we have done these five knowing and learning steps, we can’t possibly know.

Teaching and Sharing:

  1. Converse and Tell Stories: Once we have learned these things, we can start to engage others. Conversation, discussion, talking, explaining, showing — these aren’t ‘doing’ actions, but they are essential. Until we engage others in meaningful dialogue, our efforts are atomized, fragmented, isolated. The purpose of conversation is not to persuade, but to inform. And people will only listen to you if you are knowledgable, articulate, reasonable, fearless (not afraid to bring up prickly, complex, messy, controversial subjects in any social environment), authentic, enthusiastic (energy and passion are contagious and without them we have limited credibility) and persistent. As I have explained elsewhere (and others have explained better than I can), stories are usually the most effective way to convey information, ideas, and perspectives. They are subversive in their power.
  2. Engage Obstructionists: There is little point arguing with people who are not yet ready to listen to you (as Daniel Quinn has explained). If you are talking with politicians or business people, you will often find that the best way to engage them is to show you care, but not get carried away by your emotions. In my experience, these people appreciate and relate to discussions that present them with new, objective information, framed in the context of sustainability (in the broader sense of ability to continue to exist without the need for constant effort to prop it up) and risk (what could go wrong). Proffering positive ideas to make our whole society more sustainable and to assess and address risks, will general garner attention and careful consideration by most people in the political and business arena, because this approach appeals to their self-interest and areas of competency, responsibility and authority. Trying to appeal to their moral sense is, in most cases, an unnecessarily more difficult tack. 

Doing:

  1. Be an Activist or Pioneer: Once the knowing and talking is done, it’s time for action. I recently wrote about what activism entails and why it’s important. Activism is intentional action designed to bring about political, social, economic, health care or educational reform. It generally entails confronting people (usually people with power) with information, ideas, proposals, challenges and/or demands. It is often a tactic when conversation and information-sharing (step 7 above) has proved fruitless. It is an expression of political power in the face of power, and hence almost always requires organization and force of numbers, though in some cases an individual or small group confrontation can actually galvanize others and produce the organization and numbers needed to demonstrate that the confrontation has popular support. Such individual or small group activism is a form of pioneering — showing people the way by experimentation and example.
  2. Create Responsible, Sustainable Enterprises: Most of us spend a large part of our waking hours working, and one of the most effective ways we can bring about change is in the decision about what work we choose to do. Years of experience and work have convinced me that rather than trying to make existing organizations more responsible or sustainable, it is more effective to create new ‘natural’ enterprises that allow us to do the work we are meant to do, and at the same time to stop supporting, with our labour and our tax dollars, unsustainable organizations and organizational practices.
  3. Be a Model: Ghandi famously said that we should be the change we want to see in the world, to model that behaviour. Good models for a better world are sufficient (they live comfortably but not extravagantly or wastefully), loving, tolerant, attentive (they listen more than they talk), responsible (no complaining, just doing), and sustainable. These models also recognize that having more than one child in this dreadfully overcrowded world is an irresponsible, unsustainable act.
  4. Create a Model Community: Likewise, we need to create collaborative communities that are models for others, alternatives to the wasteful, ineffective, alienating, isolating ‘neighbourhoods’ of wary strangers living near each other solely because of a mutual proximity to their place of work. The ‘development’ industry treats our communities’ land as an asset that has value only when it is razed, overbuilt and then liquidated. We must find better models of community, where people choose to live and work together and exercise collective stewardship of their land on behalf of all life on it and the future generations that will live there.
  5. Be Good to Yourself: Finally, it is essentially that we be good to ourselves and those we love. We cannot be effective if we allow ourselves to be consumed by guilt, or despair, or grief, or neglect our health and well-being. An essential element of making the world a better place is celebrating our achievements, our efforts, and the astonishing joy of life itself. We have to pace ourselves and look after ourselves, and each other, if we hope to continue to make a difference.

So, you say, all well and good. But how do we actually get started on these 12 steps? We’re sold — the current way we live is not sustainable, and has horrific consequences for many people and other creatures suffering because of it. But we’re still not doing anything, or, at least, not enough. There are all kinds of reasons for this: We have no time. We have obligations to family that take priority. We’re already exhausted by the end of the work-day, and we have to give ourselves some time to relax and recover. We may know what to do, in general terms, but we really have no idea how to do it. We elected our government to do these things — it’s their job, or at least it’s their job to show leadership and tell us specifically what we should do. Or we’re waiting for a better government, and focused on getting rid of this ineffective one.

Excuses, excuses. I’m not saying they aren’t good excuses. But how do we get past them? How do we just start?

As a terrible procrastinator myself, I have been giving this a lot of thought, and I’ve discovered that I can get some real answers to this ‘how do we start’ question by asking some underlying, positive, affirmational, excuse-challenging questions. I credit Patti Digh and David Robinson, who are currently offering a course on getting past the ‘blocks’ in our lives, for some of the impetus behind these questions.

Here are the four questions I asked myself:

1. Learning Action Challenge:

What one additional capacity or skill, more than any other, do you think you need to acquire or learn, to equip yourself to make the world a better place, and why?
What is the single best way for you to acquire or learn (or motivate yourself to learn) that additional capacity or skill? 
What’s really holding you back from doing so? What can you do to get past this block?

2. Personal Action Challenge:

What one additional action, more than any other, do you think you can take, personally, to make the world a better place, and why?
What’s really holding you back? What can you do to get past this block?

3. Community Action Challenge:

What one additional action, more than any other, do you think you can take, in your community, to make the world a better place, and why?
What’s really holding you back? What can you do to get past this block?

4. Workplace Action Challenge:

What one additional action, more than any other, do you think you can take, in your job or enterprise, to make the world a better place, and why?
What’s really holding you back? What can you do to get past this block?

Here are my answers. I am embarrased by them, frightened by them, ashamed of them, annoyed by them. But they are having an effect: I am edging closer to the edge of the ledge of inaction on which I sit, no longer satisfied pontificating about what I or others should do. Yikes. This is pretty raw, almost too honest to admit:

1. Learning Action Challenge:

What one additional capacity or skill, more than any other, do I think I need to acquire or learn, to equip myself to make the world a better place, and why?
Love (compassion, empathy, genuine caring) for all-life-on-Earth, to the point I can no longer bear the thought of the massive suffering that goes on, every day, needlessly, unchallenged, so that I have to do something.
What is the single best way for me to acquire or learn (or motivate myself to learn) that additional capacity or skill?
Witness the suffering that goes on in the world, in struggling nations, in hospitals and old age homes, in factory farms, in barbaric workplaces, in the homes of abused children and spouses, and in a thousand other places where, to conserve my sanity, I have largely choosen not to go. 
What’s really holding me back?
I’m afraid to do this, not sure I have the heart or stamina to deal with it. 
What can I do to get past this block?
I just have to go, do it, face it, witness it, confront that unspeakable horror and grief. And of course write about it. Into the buzzsaw.
2. Personal Action Challenge:

What one additional action, more than any other, do I think I can take, personally, to make the world a better place, and why?
Help the world imagine a better way to live, by writing about the world after the collapse of civilization late in this century.
What’s really holding me back?
Fear of failure. I’ve started writing this book so many times, and it’s just not anywhere good enough.
What can I do to get past this block?
Write the damn book. Just start. Decide on something I’m not going to do, and spend that time, every day, writing, one page at a time.
3. Community Action Challenge:

What one additional action, more than any other, do I think I can take, in my community, to make the world a better place, and why?
Organize. Anything I can do as an individual is multiplied when we can do it collaboratively, drawing on our numbers, diverse skills and self-support. 
What’s really holding me back?
I haven’t really found my community yet, a community that is informed and committed to take radical actions. 
What can I do to get past this block?
I have to get out and meet more people and invite them to commit to joining me in real community. If I remain selfish, I’m no model for anything.
4. Workplace Action Challenge:

What one additional action, more than any other, do I think I can take, in my job or enterprise, to make the world a better place, and why?
Quit, and create my own community-based cooperative, a small, autonomous, sustainable, responsible, connected, resilient, egalitarian enterprise that fills a real unmet need I care about. 
What’s really holding me back?
I’m too lazy to make the jump, and also somewhat committed to my current employer, who took a big chance with me. 
What can I do to get past this block?
I’m seriously thinking about what that enterprise will be, and about transitional arrangements at my workplace. So much for just retiring and writing.

Whew. Deep breath. This is heavy stuff. I’m looking myself right in the face and recognizing that my excuses for inaction are pretty feeble. Do I really want to make the world a better place? Unquestionably. Is there any logical reason I can’t and shouldn’t take the ‘What can I do to get past this block’ steps, right now? Uh, no. OK, then. Put it in your calendar, Dave. Make it happen. What’s really scary is that I can see, for each of these questions, the next thing I can do that would make a difference to the world, and what’s holding me back from doing each of those things, and the equally startling things I could and should do to get past those blocks. And so on.

OK, now it’s your turn, dear reader. Time to face what’s really holding you back, and what you can do about these blocks.

Here’s a blank form for you to fill in:

1. Learning Action Challenge:

What one additional capacity or skill, more than any other, do you think you need to acquire or learn, to equip yourself to make the world a better place, and why?
What is the single best way for you to acquire or learn (or motivate yourself to learn) that additional capacity or skill?
What’s really holding you back?
What can you do to get past this block?
2. Personal Action Challenge:

What one additional action, more than any other, do you think you can take, personally, to make the world a better place, and why?
What’s really holding you back?
What can you do to get past this block?
3. Community Action Challenge:

What one additional action, more than any other, do you think you can take, in your community, to make the world a better place, and why?
What’s really holding you back?
What can you do to get past this block?
4. Workplace Action Challenge:

What one additional action, more than any other, do you think you can take, in your job or enterprise, to make the world a better place, and why?
What’s really holding you back?
What can you do to get past this block?

Tell me how this works for you. Go. Just start.

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9 Responses to Four World-Changing Questions

  1. Sebastian says:

    You are doing a good job, particularly I like how do you express.Love is overvalued, people just think that it is the best thing this life can offer to us, personally I’m not the kind of people who lets a moment of weakness leaves me with a weight I don’t want to charge.Anyway, I already had the ideas on my mind, but they didn’t have shape, your updates are gradually molding them.What can I say to this?

  2. Steve Bean says:

    Love isn’t nearly so tenuous as we might think. When we strip away the confusion created by unexamined, untrue thoughts, we can find that we are love and the our actions are motivated by love.Byron Katie says to ask 4 (other) questions of our thoughts: Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it’s true? How do you react when you believe that thought? Who would you be without the thought?”Love is overvalued

  3. I feel as though, somewhere along the line, the artist known as Dave Pollard has been seamlessly replaced with another person using that name. It’s quite conceptual.Don’t get me wrong, I loved the old Dave Pollard. I love this new one too. A one-man Transition Town. :-)And as always, I admire your honesty and ability to cut through the bullshit and ask the hard questions (not sparing yourself — especially not yourself).Thank you.

  4. vera says:

    Say, Dave, I came across info about Sointula village off Vancouver Island, and I thought of you. Check it out! :-)

  5. Sebastian says:

    I know love isn’t that bad, the problem here and there and everywhere, is our weakness.People should make decisions without bearing in mind how are they feeling that day, or what happened to them that morning. Decisions should be influenced by thoughts and moments of reflexion.I’m talking about feelings in general, not only love.I’m running out of time, if you excuse me.PS: Forgive my bad typing.

  6. Jon Husband says:

    To (help) change the world, I can stay focused on one definition, and work where I can to make it happen ..“a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”The obstacles are many, I can’t do it by myself but I can help instantiate thinking and action where I go. I can stay focused and true to my vision and not give in to setbacks or rejection (lots of practice already). I can do this out of love for myself, those who are close to me and for all those who suffer from not having a voice, a place or any leverage.

  7. Paul says:

    I get hung up on item 4: “Know Yourself: … discover who you really are, what your true gifts, passions and purpose are, and therefore what you’re meant to do”Passions are tough to find, I think I must be damping them down. Purpose is terribly elusive, I often wonder if I have any purpose. Gifts are there, but almost as hard to identify, since I usually compare myself to others who are better.Activism used to be so much easier, when I believed in ideas about impending revolution. But now … this is so hard!

  8. vera says:

    This post has been on my mind a lot, and so I will say my say. I will paraphrase here from My Ishmael (Quinn), p178. The gorilla speaks: “I am afraid I don’t have much sympathy for the ‘more and more learning and writing and questioning’ approach to your problems, Julie. You are not lacking in knowledge and books and good questions. Six billion of you wake up each morning and start devouring the world. …. You can’t afford to fool around with ‘more and more learning and writing and questioning’ amongst yourselves. You’ve got to start living a different way, and you’ve got to do it very soon.”I think, Dave, in these latter days, there is only one question left: how will I live a radically different life a year or two years from now, the kind where I no longer wake up and start devouring the world? And only one action that truly matters: Starting on that path in earnest, now.

  9. Good post but really long. I think for some who haven’t looked at this issue in this way before it would be the same as taking a sip of water from a fire hose. Consider breaking it up into a few posts – I just did this as I was talking about moving from Corporate to Entrepreneur. I live and dream big – and you’re right: changing the world IS what it’s all about. Best to you, Vickyhttp://victoriatrabosh.com/blog

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