What I learned from talking to my friends about making a difference

Diving into a new experiment always takes a bit of courage and effort. At the outset of this project of mine, a one-year-long exploration of the ways in which a single person can change the world, I tried to minimize the initial difficulties by starting close to home: with friends. I’ve set quite a big goal, after all! Simply talking to the people around me left me with many interesting insights and a lot of worthwhile conversations, however. It goes to show that all you need to do is start by looking from your own perspective.

Several questions came up. For instance: How to deal with moments of despair?

One friend, Hannah, had been on a quest to find people around her who were changing the world already. “I found it quite difficult to constantly see problems around me and reconcile them with my own actions,” she said. “Like watching bad stuff on the news and then spending my money on a new laptop, and such. I wanted to change my despair into deeds. On my journey I learned that two things are most important to not be pulled down by despair: hope and a group of likeminded people around you. Exchanging positive energy with others keeps you going.”

Hannah’s ideas reminded me of something the Dalai Lama once said: “Choose to be optimistic. It feels better.” Emboldened, I went to bother other friends with my questions. We talked about what ‘making a difference’ actually is, we talked about who we wanted to make a difference for. For ourselves or for others? “It’s a stupid question,” said Joey. And so, we had a conversation about whether we should even discuss this question in the first place. 

“If you want to change something, you should just try it. Try and fuck up. And improve the next time. Spending too much time thinking about it before even doing something – that’s a waste of time,” Joey told me.

This, in turn, took me back to the conversation that Sven and I had before launching this website. It went something like this:

Me: “Why are we doing this? We should DEEPLY research that first before doing anything.”

Sven: “No, cut the crap! That’ll just lead us to not do anything. We came here to do something. Let’s go and fail forward. Better to try, fall and improve, than to be numbed by not starting in the first place.”

I mostly agree with another friend who framed it like this: “Do it, but have the deeper questions as a simultaneous side-project. Ten percent of your mental ‘space’ should be used for questioning why you are doing what you’re doing. Use the rest to actually do it.”   

Another new insight that most of my friends agreed on was that everything we do is partially selfish. Even a good deed is somewhat selfish: you do it because it makes you feel good. My friend Charlotte pointed out that even Phoebe has difficulty finding a truly selfless act:

OK, so getting stung by bees won’t help anyone, but is it a problem that every act on the road to pursuing positive change is selfish in essence? No! Have fun! I am happy that doing good makes you feel good, otherwise the world would be a sad place. Another friend, Judith, had looked into how design can change the world and found out much the same. “It is important to have fun! Enthusiasm is contagious.”

“There are plenty of people that want to solve a problem but don’t know how,” she went on. “Involving these people in a process allows them to make a change themselves and feel responsible for it. It empowers people, it makes them proud and it motivates them to take initiative in solving other, future issues as well.” (And those aren’t Judith’s only worthwhile insights – in this article, I discuss her manifesto.)

Finally, an answer I got from another friend reminded me that if you truly want to achieve change, you have to look critically at yourself, too.

“I think that if you want to change anything, the first step is to be convinced for yourself. You need to be dedicated, you should really want make a change. It takes small steps. You cannot change the whole world at once. Once your mind is made up, get together with people who want the same things to make a bigger impact. And get the message out to the institution/thing you want to change by supplying them with concrete ideas.” – Chris

Even though many friends told me many different things, the bottom line wasn’t all that different: you need your friends to change the world.