I believe that most people want to make a positive impact on the world. Faced with a clear choice between a selfish or a generous act, most would choose to give. Yet, in our daily lives it’s easy to focus on our own immediate self-interests. We tell ourselves that someday in the future well donate more, volunteer more or work on a social business idea. It generally takes a life threatening illness or a major disaster to bring out our good side. With all the wealth and abundance in developed countries, why is doing good such a minuscule portion of our lives and economies?
People are Fundamentally Good
Disasters and emergencies, often bring out the best in people. We’ve seen it over and over again, people happily step up to donate and volunteer for tsunamis, earthquakes, floods and other tragedies.
In fact, I think most people would risk their own lives to enter a burning building or jump in front of a moving vehicle in order to save another life.
Just raising children for 20 some years takes an incredible about of giving. All we expect is that our children do the same for their children. Clearly human beings are fundamentally generous.
We’re Good, Except When We’re Not
When the stakes are not so dire, we tend to act much more selfishly. We spend far more time watching TV or even shopping, than we do volunteering in our communities.
We’re much more inclined to spend $50,000 plus dollars on a ensuite spa bathroom, a mid-life crisis motorcycle or backyard patio, than give 10% of that amount to save dozens of lives in a foreign country.
Very few of us would let a neighbor’s child die for lack of a $5 vaccine or $20 for access to clean drinking water, yet we do very little when those problems are in distant countries.
We tell ourselves that someday we’ll be more generous and giving, but we need to take care of ourselves first. No matter how much money we make, how much we achieve or how much we acquire, we convince ourselves that there is always a little more we need before we can finally start taking action.
I think it makes sense. An $80,000 car impresses neighbours much more than buying a $50,000 one and giving $30,000 to charity. A 3000 square foot house is a much better indicator of your social standing than any amount of volunteer hours.
Fundamentally, we are still all animals, biologically programmed to try to attract mates, fend off competitors and accumulate resources for our own preservation. Our materialistic cultures are just manifestations of our most basic animal natures.
Yet, we live in a world of great wealth and opportunity. We’re no longer in the jungle fighting off saber tooth tigers for our very survival. Despite our abundance of material goods, we still act like wild animals fighting for a piece of meat.
What’s Wrong with Startups?
TechCrunch’s “Startups – The newest companies that could change the world” recently included such ‘world changing’ ventures as:
- a company that “stitch(es) together different user-generated YouTube clips of concerts or other events into multi-angle masterpieces.”
- a service that “helps users, mainly New Yorkers, find nearby sales, both at larger retailers and smaller boutiques”
- a company “trying to encourage better content with a new feature that actually scores the quality of ads.”
For the billions living on $2 per day, the tens of millions of refugees without a country around the world and the millions of human trafficking victims, how ‘world changing’ are these types of startups?
If your country suffered from an environmental calamity, civil war or other disruption that threatened countless lives and brought unimaginable hardships, how would you feel if the world’s richest, smartest and most talented minds were working on smartphone apps to make it easier to buy luxury goods?
I think we’re all capable of more.
There is Hope for the Future
There is a burgeoning social entrepreneurship sector, so all is not lost. However, it’s still very marginal.
Imagine what would happen if just 10% of our economies shifted to social good initiatives. Imagine if we consumed 10% less fossil fuels, lived in slightly smaller homes and reduced consumption of products that won’t degrade in landfills.
Even simply shifting 10% of our time in front of a TV every week to some community or volunteer activity would add hundreds of millions of socially beneficial hours every week in the US alone.
How long can we justify lifestyles that bring negative value to the world?
We all need to make enough money to provide a secure living and future for our families, so we can’t neglect to earn a living. It’s just that we’ve gone so far overboard with selfish consumption that it’s making us fat, stupid and lazy.
Each of us has a real opportunity to make a substantial difference in the world. We just have to stay away from our TVs and shopping malls long enough to make an impact.
The interesting part is that the people who are most generous tend to have more meaning, fulfillment and satisfaction with their lives. Perhaps even generosity is a selfish act.