Do good things, don't worry about scale, don't let systemic issues stop you

Do good things, don't worry about scale, don't let systemic issues stop you
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Here’s something worth thinking about: you don’t have to worry about the systematic issues. You can make change as a single person. Often when I want to help somebody out, I’m overwhelmed by the scale of the issues I will need to fix. And it’s true for otheres too. Most people, when they want to do good and be involved in social activities for other people’s welfare become quite cynical. After a year or two as an activist they start falling into the trap of thinking that the systematic issues are so big and overwhelming that their contributions won’t make a difference. They give up.

I will propose that it’s not the right way to think about things. Let me relate a story.

When I was in high school, my friend and I started an after-school support program for middle school students from a different community school. The students of this school were children of carpet factory laborers. They came from very poor families. There wasn’t much enthusiasm or support for their education in their homes. They were doing lots of manual labor in their houses, despite being in their early teens.

Most of their issues were systematic. It wasn’t that they were lazy or unmotivated or uninspired. It’s that circumstances had conspired against them. There wasn’t enough funding for the school, the students were poor. We were teenagers, and in a big-picture sense we would likely not make a big difference. Because on the face of overwhelming opposition from all those systematic factors, what change could we possibly bring about?

That’s what most people get wrong.

The one thing people often forget to consider is the human factor. We were there, person to person, showing up every day, making a difference for every person we were interacting with. We organized a bunch of library classes – we setup ‘remote library’– reading and play activities. And the joy that brought to those kids made a difference regardless of all the other systematic issues that existed. No we didn’t change the world, we didn’t change the system. It’s possible we didn’t change the trajectory of a single life. But we made those days better for those students.

The reason I tend to fall into the cynical trap is because I tend to think of scale right from the start. How well is this activity going to scale up? How can we bring about the positive changes to everybody, at a sustainable rate? Oh, this activity won’t scale up, how about I pick up something that does? And so forth.

I’ve only recently discovered, a decade-and-half alter, that it doesn’t matter.

In the age of Facebook and Google and Instagram and TikTok, we are trained to think about everything at a global scale. But that doesn’t matter. If you’re supporting 10 kids in your neighborhood or helping people out with their careers, then you don’t need to be supporting 10,000 people at the same pace. You’ll never need to even scale out from one to two people or five people. You can only be mentoring one person at a time or the same person for the rest of your life.

Screw scale, screw skill. These are technicalities, if you want to bring about positive change. Do things, right now. Seeriously, screw scale, if that’s what’s stopping you from doing good.

If you were an owner of a company that would ideally one day be profitable, you might be find that bothersome. “Screw scale” like that doesn’t sound right. To which I’ll ask: do you cook in your kitchen?

How many people can you cook for on any given day? And how often do you cook? Do your cooking activities scale up? Can you serve 200 people over a year? How about a weekend? If not, what’s the point of you even cooking? The point I’m trying to make is, if everybody only did things that scaled up, there would be overcapacity of resources and skills, wasted potential. Why would you EVER need to be prepared to host a small wedding at a moment’s notice if that’s not your vocation? That would be a misallocation of resources.

What we need to do at our own level is fulfill the needs, the immediate needs that are around us, whether that be product needs, charity needs, or social needs. And that is the way to get things done. Do things at a human scale.

Look at problems not from the macro perspective unless you absolutely need to, unless that’s your job. Look at them from a human-centered perspective, see the people who are suffering. Do things that can’t scale if that helps out people because that’s what makes the change: helping people one person at a time.

Shirish Pokharel, Innovation Engineer, Mentor

This is where all my quirky comments will go.