Last week, I received an intriguing email in response to Walk Out Walk On. A 28-year-old owner of a U.K.-based Internet marketing firm wrote this:
You have convinced me that my plan to amass wealth and give it to those in need is going to make things worse because it’s not ultimately sustainable. So as a wealthy westerner, what CAN I do to help?
He was referring, I suspect, to chapters in the book that challenge our assumptions about the value of intervention (especially when it comes to well-intentioned Global Northerners “fixing” impoverished Southerners) and our über-focus on money as the solution to the world’s problems.
Giving wealth to people in need is not in and of itself a problem. Nor will it inherently make things worse. The thing to question is our underlying beliefs about how we solve problems, what counts as a problem, who gets to define both the problem and the solution—and, perhaps most important, what gifts we’re withholding because they’re overshadowed by money. What makes us believe that money is the best solution to our world’s challenges? What other gifts are present in abundance that we can’t see when we fixate on amassing wealth, even if for the purpose of re-distributing it equitably?
I had a chance to follow up with this Internet marketer by Skype a few days after he sent his inquiry. He shared that he’d been reflecting on the question and had come up with an answer for himself. He was reminded of a story he learned from Stephen Covey, who writes about the trim tab, the tiny second rudder on big ships that when moved, pulls the big rudder which directs the ship’s course. The trim tab is a tiny fraction of the ship’s size and weight, and yet has the capacity to maneuver the entire ship.
We seem to have such a hard time trusting that small actions can effect large change. And yet, there are examples of this all around us—we see them in science and techology, in biology and ecosystems. When it comes to human systems, however, we seem to get stuck in the belief that to create change, we need to “go big or go home.” We should build hundreds of schools, supply thousands of hospitals, feed millions of people, distribute billions of dollars. No wonder we feel overwhelmed and often helpless when it comes to creating change!
At the end of our conversation, we landed on a simple practice that we thought might help us each continue to unlearn our attachment to large actions and embrace our trim-tab nature. We agreed on a daily basis to notice the small actions, the simple disciplines we’re already engaged in; and we also agreed to notice the moments when an impulse to make a difference comes up—especially one that we think we can’t fulfill (for lack of resources, knowledge or influence)—and to explore what new gifts are being called forth.
How’s that going for you?