Please Stop trying to change the world

I just finished Vivian Gornick’s wonderful book on how to write personal narrative, called The Situation and the Story. In it, Gornick explains how crafting personal stories with broad appeal—rather than boring personal anecdotes (the “I guess you had to be there” stories)—requires detachment. Only by putting some distance between ourselves and our own personal drama can we gain the perspective we need to tell our stories clearly.

It’s an interesting concept that applies far beyond the intimacy of the personal essay. For example, detachment (perspective) is what Israel and Hamas do not have right now. Or any country (including ours) that is busy bombing another. It’s what the sobbing Argentinians didn’t have at the World Cup final. It’s what we lack when we get an annoying email and succumb to the short-term satisfaction of a snotty answer rather than long-term understanding of the damage we might cause. In fact, detachment is what almost no one in power is able to sustain for fear of facing a reality too different from the one they portray.

We social innovators worship the power of stories. We tell stories of our origins, of our missions, of the people we want to help and the dynamics we want to change. And we have a tendency to sound as if we’re the first ones ever to try to make the world a better place.

We need some detachment.

I was talking to a young interaction designer recently who bemoaned the fact that every startup she encounters has the obligatory “we’re going to change the world” portion of its mission statement, whether the mission is to make potholders or a new app for parking or an innovation that ends poverty.

Saying that doesn’t help. It’s too generic a problem to solve, too lofty a goal to ever know is reached. It’s added fluff in a space already filled with hot air, where anybody can say anything and, by virtue of having said it, believe it to be true. It’s the polar opposite of the scientific process, in only things that can be tested are accepted as true.

But the scientific process is not solely responsible for human progress. Our advancement has been due in equal measure to dreamers who have the courage to say that something is coming when it has not yet, and the agency to make the things they say will happen come true. That requires detachment.

We are told to find our passion and follow our bliss. We’re told that commitment and intention are as important as experience. We’d be wise to remember as well that whatever we can think of, someone has likely thought of before. I am humbled by that, and by the difficulty of changing even one person’s life, let alone everyone’s.

It’s easy to see when others need detachment from the things that possess them, but a revelation when we see it in ourselves. I have spent my life struggling to accomplish things – only to misplace myself among the things I accomplished. I’m not trying to change the world, only to find a place to contribute in it.