A snow-inspired inquiry into whether what we do matters

Yesterday I was walking through a gentle snowstorm with my dear friend and Berkana colleague Tenneson Woolf. We were on Mt. Timpanogos, a magical place in Sundance, Utah. Everything was quiet up here at 6500 feet, as we trudged slowly along the slippery path. And then Tenneson asked me if I ever wondered whether what we do matters.

I’ve struggled mightily with that question for years. When you take a long view of the world—and when you look at it from a systems perspective, as I’ve learned to do during nearly a decade with Berkana—things can look rather bleak. I’ve learned from Meg Wheatley that it’s nearly impossible to transform complex systems. Most of our efforts result in small, incremental changes that leave the system’s underlying properties essentially intact. And so it is that today, despite the efforts of so many changemakers, non-profits, foundations and activists, we still have schools that value testing over learning; a healthcare system that thrives on sickness rather than health; an economic system that reveres ownership and exploits workers; and so on. And if I’ve understood Meg Wheatley correctly, there’s very little we can do to fix these systems.

That can feel bleak indeed.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this impasse. Rather than working to fix the old system, pioneers step forward and begin to invent a new one. Some pioneers are inventing a new energy economy. Others are creating alternative currencies. And still others are toppling arrogant old regimes in hopes of creating more inclusive governments…

Over the past 10 years, I have met many pioneers all over the world who are working to build healthy and resilient communities. More often than not, their experiments are tiny, reaching only hundreds of people, occasionally thousands. It is all too easy to slip back into doubt about whether what we do matters. Often, our experiments won’t ever go to scale. But some of them will. We just don’t know which ones—and that’s where the leap of faith is required.

So this is my leap of faith: My intention for this blog is to make visible the people who are pioneering the world we wish for, to tell the stories of communities that are learning how to become healthy and resilient. Because if we can see one another, if we can inspire, support and connect to each other’s experiments, then we strengthen these experiments, invite more friends to come along, and eventually abandon the old systems, leaving them to dissolve into the path we’ve long since left behind.

9 replies
  1. mrode
    mrode says:

    This is a terrific post, and very thought-provoking. I often have a deep fear of asking the question “Does what I do matter?” Thank you for providing a framework for me to work through my thoughts and take my own leap of faith.

  2. Carole Schwinn
    Carole Schwinn says:

    Interesting to think about how I would know if my work mattered. If I assume that I can only truly change myself (and influence others by my presence), I’d have to ask what I learned from the experience, how it changed what I know, who I am, what I think, how I act, how I show up, what I would do differently next time. Am I more loving and compassionate for the experience? Then, maybe, did I create the space for others to be able to tell their stories, and to be seen, valued and appreciated for who they are. Would love to know what others think.

    • deborah
      deborah says:

      Sometimes we take actions that have a positive effect on someone else — and we never find out about it. And sometimes we take actions that we think are positive, and they affect someone in a negative way.

      So perhaps you’re right, Carole, in suggesting that my most reliable assessment of whether what I do matters is based on its impact on me.

      That makes sense to me. But then, how do we not slip into solipsism?

  3. Aerin Dunford
    Aerin Dunford says:

    Lately, I have been asking myself this question a lot. What I am learning is to just take things one step at a time, truly practicing patience and letting go of attachment to outcome. Because for the most part I don’t think that we see the results of our actions or efforts to make a difference in our lifetimes. I know that we are building new worlds and I know that sometimes they are hard to see and we become antsy and say: “But I want the new world NOW!” It’s all about practicing patience . . . and taking that leap. I remember that when I moved to Mexico, Deborah, you gave me a card. It said: “Leap and the net will appear.” So I say: “Leap, and the future will appear.”

  4. Roxanne
    Roxanne says:

    What a wonderful endeavor – I am so excited to follow this journey of questions. I have been asking myself questions of impact a lot and my answers range from “sometimes you do not even know how you affect people” to “we need solid, concrete data and anything short of that is not going to cut it.” Thank you for posing the questions so beautifully and for highlighting the power of role models and inspiration in shaping our own journeys.

  5. Gregg Sinner
    Gregg Sinner says:

    Love the Myron quote! Working to create conditions for systemic and sustainable transformation of learning and schooling, and finding that if I over-dwell on outcomes, I begin to narrow both my anywheres and everywheres. Coaching school change means I rarely get to see outcomes for kids, so I just keep on keeping on — inquiring and applying what I learned from Meg, Myron and other like-minded fellow travelers.

  6. biren shah
    biren shah says:

    thank you, deb…
    i have been asking this question – in a different form: ‘why don’t we see any change though there are so many individuals, organisations, NGOs working towards it?

    i concluded – and i now feel, may be wrongly – that we need change in the perspective… the window through which (how) we see the world… our ‘mental models’… before the changes can take root in reality.

    you have provided another point of view.
    and i am grateful – not only for giving me an alternate possibility, but maybe also becoz it fills me with more hope?


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