33. On Proactivity

It strikes me that most of the people I have met in my life, even those who profess themselves forward-thinkers or problem-solvers, seem to consider the laws of their world immutable. For example, suburban living in the United States is a fairly new phenomenon—that is, the notion of having a house with a two-car garage, a spouse, between two and three kids, roughly one dog, between one and two careers, and an utterly useless lawn of grass only cropped up in the 1800’s. Even relative to the minuscule window of time in which humans have populated Earth, that’s not a very long stretch of history.

Yet we consider the modern lifestyle a standard that is not to be deviated from. Similarly, we complain about many of the unreasonable expenses involved in living in the United States, but do little to try and solve those problems. Many of us complain that “they” charge too much for housing, transportation, education, healthcare, or taxes, but almost no one tries to solve those problems. “They” are also “working on” some incredible scientific advancement, incredible new technologies, or new systems for how our lives should operate. “We” are never reasonably expected to accomplish these tasks, only some nameless group that is smarter than us.

This could all just be an anecdotal observation about my particular life experience here in Northern Colorado, but I suspect that it is not. I suspect that most people reading this recognize the type of mindlessly-re-parroted groupthink I am referring to here. The strange thing is that, barring some mental handicaps and a few exceptions, I think that most people could contribute to these societal problems if they truly applied themselves to the task, which is to say that they are smart enough and capable enough to do so.

For example, I recently started a business called Novum Opus, which will have the mission of eliminating the $1.5 trillion of student loan debt in the United States that less-than-wealthy kids have accumulated for having the audacity of wanting an education. It is a daunting task, to be sure, but it is how I want to approach actually solving one of the problems our culture can’t stop complaining about. Or, if I don’t solve it alone, I want to push the ball forward. I want to start solving problems instead of sitting and watching them continue to get worse.

There are some meaningful obstacles I have observed to taking this initiative. A lot of the people who are hurt the most by problems like crippling student loan or healthcare debt are so busy trying to pay bills on time that they have a hard time imagining picking up an extra, income-free grind outside of their day job to start a small business that is not off the ground yet. Life is structured around having exactly one job, most of the time, and coming home to “unwind” can be an immediate productivity killer.

Humans are not machines, and it is totally reasonable for people to pause their careers to spend time with their loved ones or do unproductive things they enjoy (I certainly play enough video games). But I wish I saw more people finding problems in the world and taking a more proactive stance to try and resolve them than complaining about it to their friends can generally accomplish.

People often underestimate themselves. Sometimes a parent, a teacher, a school bully, or someone in their lives told them they were worthless, or they sucked at math, and they believe that until the day they die. An individual’s eccentricities are squashed out of them because our school system and conveyor-belt-bullshit jobs (the retail and food jobs that mostly require warm bodies and make everyone involved miserable) encourage you to stay still, shut up, and do as you’re told. While each person’s quirks can hurt them in certain situations—an introvert may have a hard time making friends, a disorganized person may lose their keys more often than their peers—it is also those quirks that are our greatest strengths. They can provide us meaningful insight into how we learn, grow, problem-solve, and operate in general.

This is terribly unfortunate. While it is useful to know one’s limitations, it is also important to remember that people can change, learn, and improve over time in just about every measurable metric. Again, humans are not machines—our default behavior is to learn and grow, it does not have to be programmed into us. In fact, given that memories fade over time, if you are not constantly learning, you are in all likelihood going backwards.

And that only makes it harder to get engaged in resolving a problem that requires knowledge in physics, electrical engineering, computer science, or some other technical skill that most people think they’re “too dumb” to understand. You’re not too dumb. You have not applied yourself. There is a vast gulf of difference.

I struggle with these issues as much as anyone. I have a hard time buckling down and learning new software concepts sometimes, even though I work at a software consultancy. I wish I wrote more consistently, read books more consistently, and exercised more consistently. I do all of these things sometimes, but if I’m a decent writer now, I can only imagine how good I could be if I practiced more.

What I hope to get people thinking about is the notion that they can make change. People like you, dear reader, can improve themselves and the world around them. If you already have a list of excuses in your head about why you have not tried to create change where you know it needs to happen, you need to recognize those excuses for exactly what they are. Everyone around you needs your unique view of the world to improve it.