Unfortunately, many of us are beginning to resign ourselves to the belief that healing some of the great social ills of our time is impossible. But most who believe that haven’t yet gotten their hands dirty trying to help. So here’s three questions to ask oneself before saying “we’ve already tried and failed.”
1. Are you serious?
To be serious about solving a public problem means that you actually care about solving the problem. When helping to solve public problems, we are tempted to care more about personal things: mimicking the style and affect of an activist subculture, affirming our own innocence in opposition to social ills, or scoring points in the eyes of our peers. To be serious is to not give into these temptations. To be serious is to be strategic: thinking, experimenting, and analyzing about what needs to be done to solve the problem. Many times, being serious means being willing to do something uncomfortable, like thinking about what the “other side” values and speaking to them in their own language.
2. Are you ready to devote time?
Time is the currency of public problem solving. If enough people are not willing to devote enough time each week to help, the problem will not be solved. A good practice for getting involved in helping to solve a public problem is to start by committing to set aside a certain amount of hours per week (or per month) to the task. It’s even better if you routinize it — “Every Thursday night, I’m going to devote two hours” — because you will get into a rhythm and be less likely to go back on your commitment.
3. Are you ready to turn that time into a project?
The time you devote can be wasted if it is not organized into a project. At the beginning, it might be good to not have a project: taking that time to explore and learn and follow your curiosity will help you discover how you can be helpful. But, eventually, you have to transition away from always following your whims and towards laying out a direction and set of first steps you hope to accomplish.
If you start answering yes to these three questions, the hope starts pouring in. If you start thinking seriously about how to solve a public problem, you start reading the news differently: you start to have a proactive optimistic attitude instead of a reactive cynical one. If you start setting aside time for this work, whole new areas of your imagination are opened up during that time and tasks that seemed too out of reach start seeming doable. If you turn your work into a project, you start respecting your civic self more: you start believing that your ideas are worth listening to and might just be helpful; you start looking at your work and thinking “woah, this is real!”
So, before you give up hope about some public problem, give this a try for a while: get serious, carve out some time to work and start thinking about that work as a project. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the joy and civic hope that comes from it.