Changing the World

I spent some quality time with my oldest daughter over the holiday break. She’s home from school and we decided to head out for some hiking with our two yellow labs.  So, we loaded up the truck and the dogs and drove four hours to Brevard, North Carolina. Brevard, land of the Pisgah Forest, the Dupont State Park and, most importantly, waterfall after waterfall. In two days of hiking, we saw six beautiful winter waterfalls and some spectacular views from Looking Glass Rock. If you have never been to the Brevard area, take some time Friends, take some time and go. Black Balsam Bald and Shinning Rock are spectacular, not to mention you can take a walk into the history books and climb Cold Mountain.

And so, Emilee and I and our two dogs, Georgia and Indy, got some good miles in, put challenging steps behind us as we spent some time with the sounds and sights of wintry and icy waterfalls. We took time to Drift and Hum.  This was, and is, the good stuff.

At one point in our hike, Emilee and Indy yelled from the rear, “So, Dad, what ya doing up there?” This made Georgia and I stop and pause for a couple of reasons. The first was I realized I was walking ten feet in front of Emilee. I was in my own little world, with my daughter, but not truly with her. I was once again ruminating in my thoughts, hiking at my own pace, forging ahead to the destination while missing the journey. A classic case of mind full as opposed to mindful. I was reminded of the comments I get from my family when we travel together. As we flow through Atlanta airport to make a connection, my family just tells me they will meet me at the next gate as I walk twenty feet ahead of them, clearly on some mission to get to the next gate before anybody else. And every time, I stop and let them catch up and then I explain that normally I am on my own, travelling for work and, therefore, I am hardwired to go fast. They will then tell me that this trip is not work and that I can slow down. I smile and say, “You’re right,” and then I attempt to walk with them, which lasts about three minutes and eventually I am thirty feet ahead. Becoming mindful is not easy. How do you change habits that have had 25 years to be firmly planted in the subsystems of your mind and your physical being?

Slowing down is not easy. But I am committed, in my view, that it is necessary. I guess it just takes practice.

Anyway, back on the trail, I thought about Emilee’s question, “So, Dad, what ya doing up there?” What she was really asking was, “What ya thinking about, Dad?” So, I slowed down and we started what would turn into a very rewarding conversation.

I told Emilee that I was thinking about a conversation I had watched on the news channel that morning prior to hitting the Blue Ridge. The young person being interviewed was in the tech industry and was inventing an app. Apparently, the app is going to ‘change the world’.  The interviewer asked, “What does that mean – to change the world?”

The young person said, “You know, change the world, change how we communicate, change how we get around, change how we make decisions, change how we interact with each other and, ultimately, change how we think.” “Wow,” the interviewer said, “that’s ambitious.”  “Oh ya,” the young person replied, “we have millions raised to fund it. We are going to be the next big thing. We are going to change the world.” Then the interviewer asked a


very interesting question. She asked the young person, “I understand you are going to change the world but, in doing so, are you also going to make the world a better place?”

There was a pause, and the young person replied, “What’s the difference?”

That was all I heard, as at that point, the mountains were calling and I needed to go, and so I turned off the television, and Emilee and the dogs and I headed for the trails and waterfalls.

Now, fast forward back to the trail when Emilee shook me out of my reverie and we hiked and talked about what it means to change the world and, most importantly, what it means to make the world a better place.

Now, stop here for a minute, and in the spirit of complete transparency, and at the risk of you not listening any further, I will readily admit we struggled to come up with any definitive or absolute answers. But I do think we made progress. And I suspect any progress is good progress when we are talking about making the world a better place.

If you do high-level research on ‘what it means to change the world’, it’s surprising how little help there is with the question. There are lots of lists – Top 10, Top 25 – of things you can do to change the world, but I cannot find one definition that describes ‘what it means to change the world’. This does not surprise me, as Emilee and I struggled with defining it as well. And so, as we trekked up our trail, our hearts working hard in multiple ways, we made a list of easy stuff that probably has, in fact, changed the world. We focused mostly on inventions because we figured we would end up in a dark hole if we listed people who may, or may not have, changed the world with their actions. Our small list of big inventions that changed the world (in no particular chronology) is as follows:  the compass, gun powder, steel, the printing press, the wheel and the resulting boats, planes, trains and automobiles, penicillin and antibiotics, electricity and the light bulb, the internet, computers and, of course, telephones and the resulting cell phone, the camera and good old social media platforms. I know we missed a bunch of important things, but the fully completed list is probably infinite and we were searching for waterfalls at the time of the conversation. Feel free to add to the list for us.

And so, with this mental list intact, we then asked the most important question of the day – Sure these inventions may have changed the world, but did they make the world a better place? Once again, and as you can imagine, we really struggled with a definitive answer. Let’s face it, absolutes are never absolute because virtually every event in life suffers from the power of dualities. The Yin and the Yang. That concept that without dark, there is no light; that without off, there is no on; that without hate, there is no love. While I personally struggle with the principle of dualities in the world, as I do believe you can have love without hate, I do comprehend the principle that virtually every pivot point in our history came with unintended consequences. Is this not what dualities actually are? That when we do something positive there always seems to be some unintended negative consequence to balance out the good?  For example, have the cell phone and social media made the world a better place? I suspect the answer will depend on whether you are talking to a YouTube star as opposed to a young person who has been cyber bullied. So, the question that I’m not sure will ever have an answer is – considering the dualities of this world, and a long list of unintended consequences with so many decisions we make, how do we ever know if our actions are making the world a better place?

If you do a little research on how to make the world a better place, as opposed to changing the world, two themes do jump out right away. These two themes clearly focus on the planet and humanity. That is, you are making the world a better place if you are making a positive contribution to the health of the planet or the health of humanity. Which could be argued that really, we are left with making contributions to humanity because one day the planet will be just fine without humans.  So therefore, any contribution we make to helping the planet is really about making the planet a better place for human existence, and therefore, takes us back to making the world a better place for humanity. In this case, humanity simply means the human race, all of us collectively – yip, the whole bunch of us regardless of race, religion or nationality; a motley crew to be sure.

So, we are back to our question, what does it mean to make the world a better place for humanity? Not to mention there does not seem to be clear and obvious connections between humanity and the list of inventions we came up with as world game changers. In other words, I’m not sure the inventors of many of the big inventions had humanity on their minds while making their original designs.

Back to the hike with Emilee. Emilee educated me a little bit about some of her reading and conversations she is having at school. In particular, we talked about the philanthropic foundations that are doing amazing work to, in fact, attempt to make the world a better place. These sincere and benevolent foundations are guided by the belief that every life has equal value, that those that have should help those that have not, that we need to help all people lead healthy and more productive lives. For example, in developing countries, as well as in the United States, many foundations focus on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty in addition to ensuring access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. What’s puzzling about this is the fact that our foundations are doing this work when it would be very easy to wonder why our governments are not driving these priorities. What’s even more puzzling, and very sad really, is that there is not a lot of evidence that we are trying to stop war, hate, and bigotry. It seems as if our work to make the world a better place simply resigns itself in working around the fact that humanity will never fix the one true problem – the problem of hate, corruption, and resulting violence against people that have no way of defending themselves.

Anyway, as we dig deeper, relative to many foundations, we learn that no matter what they are trying to do, or where they are trying to do it, there is a foundational theme with many foundations – the theme of education.

And so, this led to one small conclusion. That changing the world and making the world a better place is rooted in activities that surround education.  With this, Emilee and I thought we were making progress, and in our optimism driven by being in nature, we thought we may come up with a single definition of what it means to make the world a better place.

Then we ran into our next challenge, a challenge defined in a set of questions – Who do we educate, where do we educate, when do we educate, and what do we educate on? And how would we ever get universal alignment on answers to these questions?  In other words, considering most of us don’t have an organized foundation to help with our quest to make the world a better place, we need to define some scope we can get our arms around. This lead to a conversation around perspectives and timing. That is, macro versus micro perspectives. And long-term versus short-term thinking. Most philanthropic foundations clearly have a macro perspective. And they are working for short-term results while also trying to embed long-term solutions. That is, they are trying to make the world a better place, and when they say world, they mean the whole world.

But can we all take such a world view? Which brings me back to my research on how a single individual can make the world a better place. Interestingly, the themes you see are not just about solving world hunger or eradicating disease or cleaning up the environment, but rather the themes are about being kind, showing respect, having grace and empathy, volunteering, embracing diversity, and most importantly, teaching and influencing others to do these things. And when it comes to a macro versus micro perspective, the perspective is decidedly micro. That is, we make the world a better place by being kind and emphatic, and showing respect and teaching these characteristics in our homes, in our neighborhoods, and in our immediate communities.

So, maybe Emilee and I were getting close to an answer?

Unfortunately for Emilee and me, we came to the end of our hiking trip before we could complete our work. I was disappointed too, because the end of the hike came just as I was going to ask Emilee a few follow-up questions.

The first is, what does it mean to be kind and empathic?

The second is, what does it mean to be respectful and show grace?

And the last question, and for me, the most important one of all is, Emilee, have I taught you the importance of these character traits and will you live them and teach them going forward?

In other words, in some small way, have I made the world a better place, and in doing so, have I taught her to do the same.

As you can imagine, I look forward to my next hike with her. I look forward to taking some time with her to Drift and Hum.