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Chapter 8  Using a Hobby to Make the World a Better Place

Ciaran McHale, Reading: 20 March 2012

Dear Toby,
In various ways, I have been trying, on and off, to make the world a better place since I was a teenager. In this letter, I want to share with you some of the useful lessons I have learned, and show some examples of how I have applied them to my own life.

8.1  Lessons I have Learned

8.1.1  When There Is a Problem, There Is an Opportunity

I have met some people who say, “I would like to go into business for myself, but I cannot think of a product or service to sell”. Likewise, there are people who say, “I would like to do something to make the world a better place, but I can’t think what that something might be”. I have found that the following technique can help to overcome such inaction.

You should try playing a game that I call “When there is a problem, there is an opportunity”. I will illustrate this with an example. Let’s suppose you are travelling on the underground train service in London. Those trains can be extremely noisy, which you might consider to be a problem. So you try to think of different ways to solve that problem. From the top of my head, here are some:

You don’t have to actually implement any of the ideas you come up with. Rather, the game is just intended to be a mental challenge. I urge you to you get into the habit of playing this game with yourself whenever you feel irritated or frustrated with something annoying. If you do that, then every once in a while—perhaps as often as once per week—you will think of a potential solution that: (1) seems effective and affordable; and (2) would be fun for you to implement. Those are the opportunities of the game. They might be small opportunities for you to help yourself, such as using earplugs when travelling on a noisy train. Or they might be bigger opportunities, for example, to start a business, or to make the world a better place.

8.1.2  Use Your Hobby for a Good Cause

Most people have something that they are good at, and that they like doing on a regular basis. My advice is to figure out how to use that thing you love doing to benefit a cause you believe in. The singer Ani diFranco echoes this sentiment in her song IQ from her Puddle Dive album:

I sing sometimes for the war that I fight
’Cause every tool is a weapon—
If you hold it right.

Do you love gardening, sewing or cooking? Or something else? If so, search for a creative way you could use that hobby to benefit a good cause. If you love programming, then you might develop a software application or a website that could be used to help a good cause. If you can find a way to use your hobby to make the world a better place, then making the world a better place will not be a chore for you. Instead, it will be a pleasure.

8.1.3  Inconvenience is the Enemy of Good Intentions

If you cannot find a way to use a hobby to make the world a better place, then you may decide to use a non-hobby (and probably less enjoyable) activity instead to achieve the same goal. However, it is important to know that if you intend to do an activity on an ongoing basis, then you need to find a way to make it enjoyable, or at least ensure it is not inconvenient. For example, consider the following two people who want to maintain a reasonable level of fitness:

In summary, John’s plan for exercise is somewhat inconvenient, so he is unlikely to stick with it. In contrast, Fred has found a convenient way to incorporate exercise into his daily routine, so he is likely to continue his regular exercise.

The same principle applies to any activity you intend to do to make the world a better place. If the activity is inconvenient or is not enjoyable, then you are likely to view it as a chore and stop doing it. For example:

8.1.4  The “Use It or Lose It” Principle

The expression “use it or lose it” is commonly used to refer to physical fitness. If you are fit, but you stop regular physical activity, then your level of fitness will decrease. The same principle also applies to many other things in life. For example, if you become competent at speaking a foreign language, or playing a sport or musical instrument, then you must continue practising, or else your skill level will gradually decrease. Research suggests that the “use it or lose it” principle also applies to mental health: regularly exercising your mind appears to reduce the chances of a person going senile as they get older.

What many people don’t realise is that the “use it or lose it” principle also applies to making the world a better place. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, black people in America made significant progress in their campaigning to end racial discrimination. One of the people who became famous because of his successful campaigning was Martin Luther King, Jr. Sadly, he was assassinated in 1968. Many years later, his widow, Coretta Scott King, wrote:

[We] need to remember that the struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. That is what we have not taught young people, or older ones for that matter. You do not finally win a state of freedom that is protected forever. It doesn’t work that way.” 1

As you can see, when an oppressed minority successfully campaign to end (or, at least, reduce) their oppression, they cannot stop. Instead, they need to continue being vigilant; otherwise, they run the risk that the oppression will gradually return. Likewise, people who run a successful campaign to prevent environmental destruction of a local resource cannot stop once the campaign is complete: rather, they must continue to be on the lookout for future environmental threats.

My point is this. If you want to make the world a better place by campaigning to end something bad, then you should not adopt an attitude of, “I will contribute to this good cause for a few months until we win a victory, and then retire”. As Coretta Scott King points out, many such victories are only temporary. By all means, take frequent breaks. But realise that your goal of making (and keeping) the world a better place will be much more attainable if you can (somehow) find the stamina to work towards that goal for the rest of your life. If you can use an enjoyable hobby in your work to make the world a better place, then you may find you are having so much fun that you will never run out of stamina.

8.2  My Contribution to Making the World a Better Place

It took me many years to figure out how I could contribute effectively to making the world a better place. When I was in university, I tried to do activist work for some good causes, but I wasn’t very good at it. By the time I left university, I was suffering from burnout, so I stopped engaging in activism, though I continued to help by donating money to good causes.

When I left university, I focussed on my career for about a decade: I worked in the consultancy and training department of a software company. In hindsight, focussing on my work turned out to be for the best, because it enabled me to develop some skills that, eventually, I realised I could use to help make the world a better place. What were those skills?

Playing the “When there is a problem, there is an opportunity” game enabled me to identify some ways in which I could use the above skills to benefit good causes. I don’t want to bore you with a list of all the projects I have worked on, so instead I will focus on just two.

8.2.1  The Skills You Need to Change the World Training Course

Unfortunately, many people who want to make the world a better place lack the skills required to bring about change. This is hardly surprising, since such skills are rarely taught in schools or universities.

“No one had ever suggested to me how to go about removing the evils of racial prejudice, and I had to learn by trial and error.”
— Nelson Mandela

Some of the skills needed for changing the world can be found in books. However, the useful information is fragmented across a great many books.

I decided to read lots of books that I thought might provide insights into how to effect change, and then write a training course that summarised what I had learned. Many of the books I read were biographies of activists and entrepreneurs, but I also read some books about business and behavioural psychology. Occasionally, I rented or bought DVDs that I thought might be relevant.

When I started this project, I estimated it would take me about six months (working on it in my spare time) to complete. Actually, it took me four years. When the course was finished, I made it freely available from my website. My intention is that a person who wants to make the world a better place, but who lacks some of the skills required to do so, can read the training course in, say, a day, to gain an overview of relevant skills, and then read some of the books in the annotated bibliography if they want more details about a particular topic.

8.2.2  Canthology

An anthology is a collection of literature, typically written by different authors. For example, a textbook used in an English literature course might be an anthology of poetry or short stories. The collection of letters you are currently reading is an another example of an anthology.

From a typesetting point of view, an anthology is “just a book”, but with two additional complications. First the name of the author of each piece of work—and perhaps some information about the author, such as age, occupation or nationality—should appear near the chapter title. Second, the author’s name should appear in the table of contents alongside the title of the author’s chapter. Publishing companies employ professional typesetters who are able to handle such complexities in laying out the pages of a book. However, it is becoming increasingly common for authors to self-publish their work. Such authors may lack the skills required to typeset an anthology using a word processor. To bridge this skills gap, I decided to write an application called Canthology—the name is an abbreviation of “create anthology”—that makes it simple to create a professional-looking anthology.

You may be wondering, “How is Canthology relevant to making the world a better place?” The answer is that non-fiction anthologies are often created as a way to educate people about a topic. For example:

8.2.3  How I Applied The Lessons I learned

The two skills that I mentioned earlier—programming and the ability to explain a complex topic in a simple way—are not just skills of mine: they are also my hobbies. This is important because it means I obtain great satisfaction when I can use my hobbies in a project that has the potential to help make the world a better place. It would not have been possible for me to invest years of effort to research and write the Skills You Need to Change the World training course or the months of effort to develop Canthology if those projects had been tedious chores instead of enjoyable hobbies.

The main piece of equipment I need to work on my hobbies is a laptop computer, and such computers are small enough and light enough for me to carry one with me almost everywhere I go. For example, when I am commuting to work on a train, I can use the commuting time to work on my hobbies. Whenever a train is delayed, most commuters complain that they will get to their destination late, but I think, “Great, this gives me extra time to work on my hobby”. My career as a consultant meant that I travelled a lot on business. Staying in hotel rooms can be pretty boring, but I often entertained myself in the evenings and weekends by using my laptop to work on my hobbies. In such ways, my efforts to make the world a better place have not been an inconvenience for me. Instead, they have fitted into my daily life.

Occasionally, I have changed my daily life to free up more time to work on my hobbies. For example, part-way through researching and writing the Skills You Need to Change the World training course, I decided to give up watching television, so I could devote more time to the training course. In doing so, I found that I obtained much more satisfaction and enjoyment from reading biographies of people who have lead fascinating and inspiring lives, than I obtained from watching television programs. To an outsider, my giving up watching television might seem like a sacrifice. But, in reality, I was just replacing one pastime with a more enjoyable one.

*   *   *   *   *

That brings me to the end of my long letter. There’s just one last thing: don’t ever forget that your mother and I love you.

Your father

The quotation is from the preface in the 1993 edition of the book, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. by Coretta Scott King.

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