Saving the World in Just Six Months

Photo Credit: Private Collection
8/19/2013 9:23 AM
Category: Opinion

"Hey, I'm thinking of starting an eco-cafe in Tartu. What do you think?” “No, we should instead start some kind of social company, you know, like a start-up." "I think I would actually rather volunteer somewhere for a year, even just half a year."

It is completely natural for my friend's eight-year-old child to re-plan his future each day, but it is a bit worrisome that my friend, who is obtaining his first higher education degree, is jumping around in the same manner.

My generation has lived its entire conscious life in free Estonia. For us, 2+2 has always equaled 4. There are two kinds of people in my generation: the ones who have already discovered civil society, and the ones who have not.

The first ones are more aware of their surroundings, interested in what is going on in the country, and bothered by one or another social problem. Whatever it may be, I am happy for those who think above just the micro level: democracy is more about us than me and you.

Two decades ago, Ernest Gellner described the modular man, who no longer has to carry out rituals involving blood oaths, and is instead free to change his beliefs and affiliations at random and according to his own will, without being deemed a traitor or being cast out of the community. If you want, you can spend your time fixing Estonia and the world for a while and then decide you no longer want to do that and instead give managing a cafe a shot. Discovering that this is not your cup of tea either, you decide instead to leave your home country and teach children in Mali.

And why not? Gellner believes that a person who is not bound by decisions is the foundation of modern civil society. My more enlightened friends are living examples of Gellner's modular man. With regard to freedom, anyway.

For example, various youth exchange organizations let you explore a new country and give you the opportunity to make a difference. Or at least the opportunity to discuss making a difference. Enticing, is it not? But freedom does not mean responsibility. The ability to do something new after every six months does not mean one should necessarily do it. The need to succeed also demands patience. Want to change the world? Great! But what happens after the first wave of inspiration fades away?

On the Memokraat blog, Daniel Vaarik once wrote a letter to a skeptic who happened to be a Bruce Willis fan. Vaarik's point was that change does not come in explosions.

Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers" discusses the 10,000-hour rule. Those 10,000 hours of practice are critical for attaining a professional level in a field. Be it music, sports or IT. Neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs was born a genius, and behind their success was not change or blind luck. There success cost them (among other things) 10,000 hours of practice. Great people and great events do not emerge in one day. Take Rome for example.

But my generation is restless. We want to seize every opportunity; we want to do everything and do it all at once - without realizing that we won't change anything in this way. We have significantly more options than our parents in their youth. For the young and rebellious who have a desire to change the world, dealing with some social issue for six months in Africa seems just the right amount of time for reforming the world. After the initial rush and disappointing realization that you won't become the next Gandhi after all, it is easy to abandon your first goal. Especially if there are five new opportunities waiting behind the door, at least three of which will even be paid for by the European Union.

The civic sector is not a decathlon, where the world record of each individual field is still held by someone who is focused only on that field. It's no wonder that the phrase “world reformer” has a sarcastic tone, often describing the those "decathletes" who want to do everything at once but in the end don't do anything at all.

What happens after those ten fields? After you have sowed your wild oats and have discovered yourself? Next, one should start thinking about what to really do in life. Whether to finish that law degree or go to work for a bank. But what happened to those dreams from long ago? After all, they were not just a trend; it was not easy to jump on the bandwagon and it is not easy to forget. The altruistic and somewhat naïve dreams of our youth can in time become a real profession.

One of my friends has for years been involved in world education and development cooperation. Now she runs a cafe in Uganda, which offers a first-time job experience to young people with special needs. It is not hard to see that she is of more use to them than a half-year adventurer who, in the best case scenario, distributes condoms and believes that is the entirety of AIDS prevention. Wouldn't it be nice if that young reformer's first step does not remain his last, but is instead the beginning of a much more strategic journey?

A little bit of stability helps us - for whom the 2+2 equation has never had to equal 3 or 5 - to take advantage of the immense opportunities we have. Go try it out, and then stay a while longer, and suddenly you will find yourself on the doorstep of something big. Really.

Martin Meitern is a representative of the Network of Estonian Nonprofit Organizations. The opinion article was published in connection with the Arvamusfestival (Opinion Festival) in Paide on August 16 and 17.

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