We're not all (nor can we all be) cardiothoracic surgeons, human rights lawyers, or Mother Theresa. That leaves the rest of us critical thinkers scratching our heads about what it is we last did for mankind. (And, no, signing that online petition in support of that teenager in Ohio who wants to wear all eight of his facial piercings to his school prom does not count.)
Without commencing an extremely nihilistic digression on the absolute worth of a majority of mortal actions, I will state that, as I've written about previously, I am constantly amazed by the innovations -- both large and small -- I see everyday.
I'm also amazed by honest, hard working people, whatever their profession or declared "purpose" in life may be. Like my great-grandmother, a Slovakian woman who left home to clean houses in America at the tender age of 16, never to see her native country or own mother again. Her granddaughter (my mother) is now training the next generation of nurses for one of the largest healthcare systems in the U.S. Or my father, who arrived without a word of English nor the opportunity to pursue a university degree, but who has sacrificed everything he had to create such a privileged life for my sister and me.
And here is where I'm going to introduce the "immigrant complex." Or, in my case, the "immigrant child complex," an idea I've honed over many a dinner conversation with my roommate (an immigrant herself). People whose families or who themselves have come from similar backgrounds see harmony in thrift and discord in waste. It's not so much a subject of wealth, for it is a common paradox that the stingiest people are often those who have the most. But for those who are accustomed to creating a lot from a little, or having to advance in limiting circumstances, it is inconceivable to justify reckless use of resources. Plus, as Da Vinci put it, "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
Catherine Bracy wrote a clever blog post about what she describes as "Silicon Valley's Problem":
Silicon Valley... becomes a much less interesting place for world-changing ideas. The well-documented lack of diversity in the Valley would be comical if it wasn't so harmful. It feels like, and often is, a bunch of Stanford guys making tools to fix their own problems. Sometimes they stumble into a groundbreaking new app that has a more far-reaching impact (see: Twitter) and sometimes they try and shoehorn a social good mission into their business plan (see: a thousand other companies). Barely any of them start from an entrenched social problem and work backwards from there. Very few of them are really fundamentally improving society. They're making widgets or iterating on things that already exist. Their goal is to make themselves as appealing -- or threatening -- to a big player as possible so they can get bought out for a few hundred million dollars and then devote the rest of their lives to a) building Burning Man installations, b) investing in other people's widgets, or c) both. They really don't care that much about making the world a better place, mostly because they feel like they don't have to live in it.
I would have led a great life if I can say, when it's my time to bite the dust, that I have made people's lives easier, however ambitious a goal that may be. That also leaves substantial room for interpretation, which is the point. To be honest, I'm not one prone to three, five, or 10-year plans. I'm a typical hedonistic, Generation Y-20-something millennial following ideas, concepts, fields, and people that interest me in the moment and recognizing the beauty in seeing where these criss-crossing paths ultimately take me later.
Maybe due to my background, or the fact that I come from a generation inundated with "the next biggest thing" every 24 hours, I am generally drawn to projects and people which are able to create something out of virtually nothing. Like the 13-year-old Kenyan boy who saves both his father's livestock and endangered lions with pieces from his mom's household radio. This is innovation. And when the underlying purpose of something simple and scalable is inherently entrenched in a social good, I believe those are the most incredible products or projects of them all. This simple, scalable, social trifecta is rare, yes, and perhaps not as impressive as a 3,000 Diet Coke can pyramid or a wave machine at a techie Christmas party to some. But don't you think the talent, vigor and intuitive inquisitiveness inherent in today's young, creative/tech/science/business scene would be so much more beneficial if the core focus of operations was slightly more skewed towards something beyond the benjamins? Wishful thinking, possibly, but I will contest that it's not too far-flung an idea. Twenty years ago, one would have laughed to hear that, one day, millionaires would be showing up to the office in the now familiar coder-hoodie ensemble or women would be building baby nurseries next to their executive offices. Maybe the increasing allure social business has on my generation is not too absurd after all.
I don't actually intend to answer the "what makes the world a better place" question; mea culpa! It's too hypothetical and any serious responses would be far too idealistic to match the misanthropic tone I tried to set in the beginning of this piece (joking). In general, I think it is becoming apparent that a shift is necessary in what we, as the collective, deem valuable. We need sharp investors and business leaders who are primarily focused on increasing profits and generating revenue for our, sometimes, volatile economy, just as much as we need nurses, electricians, teachers, and garbage collectors. What we need less of are useless re-inventions of the wheel, shameless waste - from profits to talent to natural resources - and, particularly, less of our society's tendency to glorify some of these hyped-up themes. Perhaps reflect on that the next time you're thinking of funding those intergalactic playing cards or anime-style Google Street View. Just a thought.