Twitter is a bustle with the #HowYouCouldHelpIn5Words hashtag today, with everyone doing their best to let everyone else know how to “help”. The inanity and futility of this hashtag gets under my skin. For one, this is a solution in search of a problem. “We don’t know what (or who) to help, but we’re going to do something!” It’s not that simple.
I remember being young, and excited about my programming skills. Seeing a non-profit struggle with an archaic and buggy inventory tracking system, I quickly offered to program them a replacement. Goodness, think how much more efficiently they could work with a modern replacement, custom tailored to their organization!
The director, who I have great respect for, gently declined my offer. “Tim, I’m sure you could make these computers sing and dance for us… but will you be able to support us for the next ten years? At least with our existing software, we have a support contract, and know how to fix it when it breaks.”
Since then, I’ve spent nearly a decade developing hardware and software. While I’ve had some successes, it’s shocking how many of my projects barely worked. A satellite that died on the launch pad, and orbited as a brick. A high resolution radio receiver that threw away half the data, and never received an actual radio signal. Today, I watched in horror as a progress bar on something I coded moved backwards. It slowly crept to -273%, and then crashed. I don’t know what went wrong. I don’t even know where to start.
I’m no Steve Jobs. It would have taken years to develop something that worked half as well as the software they’re likely still using. Even then, the director was right. I didn’t have the time to support them. The reality is this: My ideas likely would have hurt them more than they helped.
A Musical Interlude
Ska/Punk is an interesting genre. Imagine Bob Marley and the Wailers meets My Chemical Romance. It’s a bit much unless you’re into skateboarding or sky diving. Never the less, this song made its impression on me, some time in college.
I have an evil plan to save the world for every man
And I think it’s better than the way it’s being run
Oh the groundwork’s laid, no, don’t be afraid
I’m sure that I can fix it, when I figure out the physics
My evil plan to save the world
Just you wait ‘till it’s unfurled
It’ll go down in history
No, it’s not pathetic
I can’t believe I made it up myself
Doesn’t that summarize this hashtag in a nutshell? “I’m frustrated with the status quo, but I’ve got some half baked ideas that I’m sure will fix everything. Why has no one thought of this before?” The answer is simple: more than likely, your idea is not new. People have tried it before, and it didn’t work out the way they imagined it would.
But surely things are better. Look at our technology!
The world’s thousands of years old. Humanity still has the same problems since the dawn of time, and they haven’t gotten any better, despite what Steven Pinker and his ilk would try to tell you. Yes, infant mortality is down, and literacy is up. That’s all well and good, but it’s only half the picture. You can’t plot suffering on a graph, and I’m not convinced that’s improved, even with all our modern technology.
Ten years ago, Facebook was new and exciting. It served as a wonderful tool to keep in touch with friends, and share a corner of your life. Communication is a hard problem, how much better will the world be now that it’s that much closer?
Since then, Facebook has mutated into a monster, milking its users for every last marketing dollar, manipulating its users emotions, dubiously declaring what truth is, and censoring seemingly at random. Even those who work at Facebook doubt if it was a net good. Did social media just help us spread hate more efficiently? It only adds gravitas to Aldous Huxley’s statement:
We are living now, not in the delicious intoxication induced by the early successes of science, but in a rather grisly morning-after, when it has become apparent that what triumphant science has done hitherto is to improve the means for achieving unimproved or actually deteriorated ends.
A New Perspective on Lasting Change
Fixing real problems isn’t easy. You aren’t going to fit useful instructions in five words. But here’s a four thoughts that might help.
First, curb your enthusiasm. Positive, lasting change rarely happens in a day. Or in a week. Or in a year. It’s a slow grind that may take decades of focused and careful work. If you don’t plan, you’re likely to run out of resources, or burn out. One mistake could undo years of effort.
But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it? Otherwise, you might complete only the foundation before running out of money, and then everyone would laugh at you. They would say, “There’s the person who started that building and couldn’t afford to finish it!”
Limit the scope of your problem solving. Don’t try to change the world. Start with your local community. It’s hard when a little problem crops up that you could easily solve, but it’s outside your focus. Dare you expand your reach, only to drop every single ball you’re currently juggling, making both problems worse?
“Move fast and break things” is a terrible motto. Just because you’re covering ground at alarming speed doesn’t mean it’s the right direction. Being in the midst of the problem only makes it harder to see where you’re going. Listen to trusted outside sources that have a mile high view of your progress, and good intuition about your problems.
Get used to feelings of futility, disillusionment, and outright failure. Heck, I’m feeling it right now! My generation is hell bent on getting the change they want RIGHT NOW at any cost. It doesn’t even have to be good change, we just have to “do something about ________”. I’m no more than a mosquito in the path of the off-the-rails freight train that is “progress”, and yet, here I am shouting into the void.
I’m not sure my contributions in 30 years of existence amounts to much. I’ll be glad if 30 years later, I’m not looking back at my life’s work wondering if it was all a mistake. (The way things are going right now, I’d be happy to break even: simply keeping things from getting worse so someone else can pick up from where I left off.)
Why not give up and do nothing, then?
It may seem like I’m “pooh pooh-ing” any and all attempts at change. True, I do look at much of today’s progressive efforts as high risk gambles. Someone might say that every attempt at change is a gamble, and that what I’m really advocating for is “doing nothing”.
Jesus once told a parable about a master who trusted his servants with money, expecting them to turn a profit. One of the servants, paralyzed with fear of failure, buried it in the ground. Jesus didn’t look well on this behavior. If you want to read His response, you can find it in Matthew 25.
Somewhere between the extremes of “take your talent to Vegas and put it all on red” and “bury it in the ground” lies wise investment strategies. They aren’t glamorous, and they aren’t fast. But they work.
So for now, I’ll continue to take solace in Robert Frost.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.