As best I can tell, satisfaction comes from accomplishing something we regard as useful and meaningful. That seems to be true, whether you are a scientist, entrepreneur, gardener, or Mafia hit man. Most of us want to make a difference. We want to believe we’ve altered something for what we regard as the better. To assert our importance, we erect large monuments in graveyards—words set in stone to claim the deceased was worth remembering. However, unlike previous times (or political myths about ourselves) Americans now feel powerless, feel the individual can’t make a difference.
Yes, a few people made enduring changes. Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and Betsy Ross made the first American flag. We haven’t forgotten that Nero burned Rome, but we might not now remember what the last President or Pope accomplished. We now have more knowledge and more powerful tools than ever before. If previous people made enduring marks during their lifetimes (regardless of their gravestones), why can’t more of us make a difference now?
It’s the increasing complexity. The complexity of our society has exploded in the time since my daddy was a boy. Now, the difference you make has become less likely to be the difference you intended.
Remember: complexity means the emergent (self-organized) characteristics of a complex system. A complex system is a set of many actors (things, persons) that alter their actions in response to each other. Investors in the market. Drivers on a crowded freeway. Cells and chemicals in your body. Schooling fish. The emergent behavior of a complex system is different from the behavior of any single actor in the system. That’s complexity.
Why are you and I almost powerless?
The number of actors—the world population—has increased from 1600 million when my daddy was born in 1890 to about 7400 million today, a factor of 4.6. But the capability for each person to interact with others has grown many thousand-fold. Now, a poke at your iPhone you buys wine from Korea, tweets a potentate’s peccadilloes, or tweaks the stock market. At maximum traffic on the freeway, you interact with a thousand other drivers, whereas my daddy interacted with his mule. Complexity grows not in proportion to the number of actors, but increases much faster. Thus it is, our world is not 4 times more complex than daddy’s, but hundreds to millions of times more complex. I just clicked “wine” on Google, and got 573 million hits. I have 573 million things to consider if I want to buy, sell, make, or taste wine.
Unlike plowing with a mule, it’s harder to make an intended difference on the ground around you. You can make a different event, but it won’t alter the system. Just jam on your brakes at 70 mph on a crowded freeway and you’ll see an event, but tomorrow’s traffic will be unchanged. To make a lasting, significant difference you have to alter a rule for interaction within the system. Change the zoning laws, change the curriculum of schools, change the social myth that hard work leads to financial wealth and happiness. If you adjust the right rules, you can even save the climate or make politics real. Of course, no one will remember that you did it, but then even marble headstones wash away. Headstones have no influence, but good (or bad) rules can affect the future.
If you are frustrated, if you feel powerless, just do something small, something good, to change a legal rule or cultural expectation within the system.
Maybe it will grow. Google did. Changed the notion of information. And shopping. And rulemaking.