How To Solve All The World's Problems
The Best Answer We've Found So Far (A few humble tips for world-changers)
article by LiveReal Agents Grace and Blake
Let's start with a really interesting (and true) story.
Once upon a time, there was a very smart, very earnest guy who wanted to change the world.
He wanted to cure poverty in Africa.
"The debate is over...We know how to end poverty in our lifetime" he said. He was no dreamy-eyed, bong-banging hippie: a Harvard professor, director of Earth Institute at Columbia, worked with the UN, credential salad, etc.
He believed that poverty was a problem that could be solved. And was willing to solve it himself.
He was given $120 million dollars.
How did it turn out?
Well, you can read the full story in The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk, which tells the story in some detail.
The Cliffs Notes version?
It didn't go so well. According to Munk, at least, his efforts "left people even worse off than before." [*]
Why are we telling this story?
Because we think it illustrates a good point.
Wanting to change the world isn't enough.
Being sincere, earnest, and having good intentions isn't enough.
Being "smart" isn't enough.
Having tons of money and resources at your disposal isn't enough.
So then, if all this isn't enough...what is?
How do you really change the world in a way that's truly effective, and that doesn't just make a bigger mess of things?
The world has problems.
Let's start there. This is our premise.
These problems range from big to small, near to far, high to low.
We can rattle off some real unbearables pretty easily: war, famine, cancer, poison ivy, tyranny, corruption, oppression, death, famous people who are famous because they're famous, daytime television, the heat death of the universe...and so on. Just to name a few.
Naturally, anyone with a bit of spunk in them becomes aware of these problems and wants to solve them.
At this point, much of the time, folks will dash off with the best of intentions and proceed to create a flood of new problems.
But some don't.
Those with a certain degree of smarts in them stop for a minute or two and ask the key question:
"How do I solve the world's problems?"
Of course, there are plenty of other forks in the road we could take here. For example, the “why?” question - as in “Why do you want to solve all the world’s problems?" Or the responsibility question: “Is it really your responsibility to solve all of the world’s problems?" And of course, there's the good old "it's impossible" angle, and plenty more.
At this point, we're just going to skip by those & keep traveling the trail we're on. (If we need temporary "working hypotheses" to keep us moving, for now, we can just not assume the worst. Meaning, we'll assume for the "why" question, the "because we want to" is good enough. For the responsibility question, we'll assume that, sure, it really is up to us; and for the good old "impossible" question, we'll just assume a certain amount of the "spunk" factor in that we won't assume at this point that it can't be done. We'll revisit these questions later...but for now, on to the "how.")
So...how to solve all the world's problems?
Well, one thing we can also be pretty sure of: it's going to be difficult.
It might even be really difficult. It might even be harder than giving up sugar or watching daytime television. It might even be so difficult that it tests us to the very core of our being.
So if it's going to be that difficult, we're going to have to get in shape.
Not just physical shape. We're going to have to be mentally and emotionally strong. We're going to need to be able to handle stress. We're going to need to understand happiness (we can't really make the rest of the world happy if we're miserable ourselves, right?) - and, if we're really serious about it, we'll probably want to look into "antifragile happiness." We're going to need a lot of virtues - courage, for example, and fortitude - so we're going to have to become a certain kind of "character." Probably more of a "character" than we are right now.
We're also going to need to be sane. After all, if we set about fixing all the world's problems while being a little crazy ourselves -like many of the rest of the folks who have attempted this feat before - then we're likely to do more harm than good. (And that, exactly, has been the result of all those others who have attempted this before us. More on this to come.)
In a few words: we'll need to know ourselves.
A lot of folks skip this part.
After all, we study the universe, but we often forget to study the mind that we're using to study the universe with.
Which is to say, most folks forget to study themselves first.
Jiddu Krishnamurti said it well:
"What will bring peace is inward transformation, which will lead to outward action. Inward transformation is not isolation, is not withdrawal from outward action. On the contrary, there can be right action only when there is right thinking and there is no right thinking when there is no self-knowledge. Without knowing yourself, there is no peace..."
So, coming even this far in the problem is good progress. At the very least, we've quite possibly dodged a few misadventures.
After all, a person who knows themselves, is basically sane, is physically, mentally, and emotionally strong, and even - to dust off an old-fashioned yarn-spinner - "virtuous" - well, chances are that person is already doing the world some good, in ways small and unnoticed or big and well-known, wherever they go.
But it isn't solving all the world's problems yet. So we'll keep going.
"Everyone thinks of changing the world,
but no one thinks of changing himself."
- Leo Tolstoy
Part of being "sane," it seems, means this: we can't base our personal happiness on the results - the outcome - of this endeavor.
After all, if this effort is going to be even moderately difficult or more, and if plenty of people have attempted this before and failed...then it's likely, at the very least, going to take some time.
And if we've based our happiness on the outcome, on succeeding...well, that means we probably aren't going to be very happy until we've solved all the world's problems.
And that would be bad for us. Which is a problem. (After all, we'd be unhappy.) Which would mean that we actually haven't solved all the world's problems.
But also, it also makes us less likely to succeed. After all, the idea of some unhappy person who is trying to fix the world, but is a mess themselves, is not entirely unfamiliar. And probably never ends well.
In other words, this seems like a good idea: don't try to cover the world in leather; put on shoes.
"Wanting to reform the world
without discovering one's true self
is like trying to cover the world with leather
to avoid the pain of walking on stones and thorns.
It is much simpler to wear shoes."
- Ramana Maharshi
So we need to base our happiness on something other than our success at this endeavor.
But what should we base our happiness on, if not that? This is something else we'll have to investigate.
This makes intuitive sense: if we try to "fix the world" without being "fixed" ourselves, we could well be going about it backwards.
For example, one way of looking at this - using religious phraseology - is to say that "trying to fix the world" is something along the lines of trying to create some kind of "heaven" on earth.
To use some religious language for a moment, as Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov says, "divine order" or "heaven" "...cannot be imposed from the outside. Only once the kingdom of God is established within us, will it also come about in the world. Therefore, it is our responsibility to work and establish within ourselves the order and harmony from above."
A lot of signs point in this direction. Work on ourselves first; then work on "the world."
“When we talk about settling the world's problems,
we're barking up the wrong tree.
The world is perfect. It's a mess.
It has always been a mess.
We are not going to change it.
Our job is to straighten out our own lives.”
- Joseph Campbell
In the meantime, one other thing is pretty certain:
if we're going to even have any chance of success in this, we're going to have to understand how the world really works.
More specifically, we're going to have to understand two things: 1) getting things done through other people; and 2) unintended consequences.
In regards to getting things done through other people...well, we can assume that we aren't going to be able to do this ourselves. After all, the world is full of people. So we'll have to be pretty good at relationships to get much of anything done. And in regards to being pretty good at relationships, we know it's not enough to just walk out and start bossing people around. You have to go deeper.
Ken Wilber said it well:
"...They think that in order to fix the world's problems we need to do something in the exterior world - we need to stop polluting the atmosphere, we need to control guns, we need to stop nuclear testing, we need to move to solar power, we need to...always something to fix in the exterior world.
Those are all important, but the real problems are on the interior - we need to help consciousness evolve from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric, or else people won't want to fix all those things in the exterior world to begin with!"
“To put the world in order,
we must first put the nation in order;
to put the nation in order,
we must first put the family in order;
to put the family in order;
we must first cultivate our personal life;
we must first set our hearts right.”
In regards to the second aspect of understanding how the world really works before rushing out to save it: we have to understand unintended consequences.
By "unintended consequences," we mean the simple scenario: "I have good intentions; I tried to make X happen, but it turns out that Y happened instead."
The world is full of examples of folks with good intentions (especially ones who aren't all that happy or aren't totally sane) rushing out to change the world for the better...and creating a total disaster. More often than not, they even wind up hurting the very people they were trying to help.
If only it were all so simple!
If only there were evil people somewhere
insidiously committing evil deeds,
and it were necessary only to separate them
from the rest of us and destroy them.
But the line dividing good and evil
cuts through the heart of every human being.
And who is willing to destroy
a piece of his own heart?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
A few examples are in order.
A politician promises "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage" while running for office; seven months after taking office, we got hit with the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. (The politician was Herbert Hoover).
Another idealistic politician promises farmers a bright future where his citizens/voters will have pork to eat every day (good intention). Not long after, somewhere between 15 and 45 million people die of famine (The Great Chinese Famine of 1959-1961). (Bad result).
But let's try something smaller and more simple. Some folks simply want bicyclists to be safer (good intention), so required them to wear helmets. As a result of that, after a certain period of time, more bicyclists actually began dying. (Bad result). Why? It turns out that didn't want to wear helmets, so they stopped riding bikes, so became less healthy & more disease-prone.
A group of folks became concerned about the number of poisonous snakes in the area, and wanted to help (good intention). So they offered reward money for every dead snake. This seemed to work for a while. But then, some folks started breeding snakes just so they could turn them in for the reward money. Once everyone realized what was happening, they stopped giving the rewards for snakes. At that point, all the snake-breeders turned their snakes loose...and there were more snakes than before. (Bad result.)
A different group of folks saw the number of automobile accidents caused by texting and driving. So they decided to pass a law against texting while driving. (Good intention). What they discovered eventually was that the number of automobile accidents actually increased. (Bad result). Why? People still texted while driving, but since there were laws against it, they had to hide their phones and hold them lower, which resulted in them focusing even less on the road. More crashes ensued.
The moral of all this is something along these lines: everything is more complicated than we think it is.
At least, it's a good rule of thumb to assume that everything is always more complicated than we think it is.
It's also good to assume that things don't ever turn out the way we expect them to. In other words, "expect the unexpected." Things won't go as planned. Plan for that.
"I'm still more frightened by
the fearless power in the eyes of my fellow psychiatrists
than by the powerless fear in the eyes of their patients."
- R. D. Laing
We also can't assume that good intentions are all that matters, or that good intentions will create good results in the real world. As shown in the examples above, good intentions can create a lot of unnecessary suffering.
But when we persist even in spite of this happening, it becomes a case of "moral narcissism," where the important thing is how the do-gooder feels about themselves, not how much the victim of all this goodness is harmed by it.
And anyone who winds up inflicting the world with their moral narcissism, especially if they don't have a good grasp on what's really, actually happening out there in the world as a result of their actions, can paradoxically turn them into someone who is actually creating more problems in the world. All the more reason why sanity is mandatory.
"Of all tyrannies,
a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims
may be the most oppressive.
It would be better to live under robber barons
than under omnipotent moral busybodies.
The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep,
his cupidity may at some point be satiated;
but those who torment us for our own good
will torment us without end
for they do so with the approval
of their own conscience."
- C. S. Lewis
So, let's back up a bit more.
What we're really saying is, first we need to understand the world.
In order to "understand the world," we need to understand the nature of the world.
To understand "the nature of the world" means truly, deeply understanding what the world is, where it came from, why it came to be (if there is anything that could be described as a "reason why"), and what our place is in it.
"Seek first to understand,
then to be understood."
- Stephen Covey
Because of course, we are part of "the world."
So before we rush out to try to rearrange and remake everything, that means we need to understand who we are, why we're here, what our place is, what suffering is and what the right thing to do about it is, and who or what, if anything, created this whole crazy scene. In other words, we have to really, truly, deeply understand The Big Picture.
At this point, all of the paths we've explored merge.
We need to be mentally and emotionally strong; we need to be sane; we need to have some kind of happiness that's based on something solid; we need to understand how the world really works, which means understanding the nature of the world, which means understanding ourselves, which means understanding who we are, where we came from, where we're going, why we're here, what we should be doing while we're here, and so on...in other words, "The Big Picture."
It seems to us that once we figure all that out, then the rest of the questions we touched on earlier - is the world really fixable, whose responsibility it is to fix it, whether we should "fix it" at all, and if so, why - all of those questions and answers, and more, should become clear as a result.
Of course, figuring out "The Big Picture" is no small feat. It might be even tougher than solving all the world's problems. It would require a lot of character and a lot of experiments.
And in the end - who knows - it might even turn out to be more valuable.
"The one who has conquered himself
is a far greater hero
than he who has defeated
a thousand times a thousand men."
- The Dhammapada
"...Yours is the earth, and everything that's in it.
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son."
- Rudyard Kipling
Once you get to this point...then when it comes to "solving all the world's problems," (assuming you still see that as worth doing), then it becomes a matter of getting your "to do" list together, and prioritize.
And once you do that, you pick the top priority, and you do the "journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" thing.