With a little help from my friends

So we’ve embarked on this journey! Myrte and I have committed to work for at least a year on finding the answer to the question: “How can we make a difference?” We’ve got a good starting point; we know what we want. Now, we need to venture out into the world to find our answers. And although we would love to interview Al Gore, Naomi Klein and Leonardo di Caprio, we figured it would be better to start with the people close to us. Myrte started off by interviewing some of her best pals. Since I couldn’t stay behind I called some of my best friends for a short and solid interview about making a difference.

I started off with Philip, a mechanical engineering student focussing on robotics. While most of my friends have a social science background, Philip is really technical, and I was wondering if he could bring me some insights from a more down-to-earth point of view.

It was interesting to hear how he thought the only way to make a significant difference is to first gain power. And when I think about it, that’s exactly what Bill McKibben from 350.org said: you can’t make a difference on your own, you need a community. Maybe that’s what Philip meant by power.

Another friend of mine is Juul, a hyperactive, happy girl with a background in theater, currently studying languages in Antwerp and Innsbruck. We had an interesting conversation about intrinsic motivation. Do you really want to make a big difference, or a small one? It’s wise to consider this question before you indulge in activities which may not be in synch with your own goals.

Finally, I Interviewed my girlfriend, Marleen (see photo below). Marleen is a psychology and philosophy master’s student, determined to become a great psychologist. When I asked her how someone without power and money could make a difference, her answer surprised me. She told me that we could be more critical towards other people. “A lot of people today are using ‘freedom of speech’ to insult others or to spread ideas which shouldn’t be accepted. Racist or sexist remarks and ideas, for instance. Instead of just accepting things, or letting them slide, you should speak up, say what’s wrong with them from the perspective of your own values. If no one does that, this behaviour will continue and become normalised.” According to Marleen, there’s a big gap between the extremes of trying to push your

own values onto others and accepting everything other people say. “You should be somewhere in the middle, always adjusting to the different opinions you encounter, but never suppressing your own values and never accepting insulting remarks.”

In the end, editing the videos and going through my interviews, I was baffled at the amount of new thoughts and insights running through my mind. Philip taught me that in a lot of cases we need to gain a position of power to start making a difference. Juul put me back down to earth and made me wonder if there isn’t a majority of people who don’t actually want to make a big difference in the world. Am I projecting my own grandiose idealism onto others with this blog, then? And finally, my own girlfriend came up with the most practical advice: speak up to others. I remember nodding along sheepishly when a so-called friend of mine was talking about “foreigners”, I remember laughing along with racist jokes in a pub, I remember ignoring the drunk guy smoking in the subway. Next time I’ll try to make a difference and speak up. And for you guys reading, try to interview your friends one day, you might find a lot of unexpected wisdom.

Reading Sven’s draft for this article reminded me, Myrte, of a very funny short documentary (that Sven actually recommended to me) made by Max Joseph. It’s about assholes, and whether you need to be one or not to be a great leader. To have power, to make a change. Max’s conclusion is the same as Marleen’s: be in the middle of the two extremes of listening to others and sticking to your own ideas. You need an overlap of ideas!

This is how you can make a difference:

  • Philip: Research how your expertise or study can help in making a difference in the future.
  • Marleen: Next time a friend or family member – or anyone else, for that matter – makes a racist or sexist remark, stand up.
  • Juul: Change your own habits, laugh at strangers, help a friend out. The butterfly effect will work wonders.
  • Sven: Interview a friend about making a difference!