Engagement: the missing ingredient that is now spreading like a virus

I realized I never published this essay that I wrote last March (2010) for the What’s Next Project: 25 Big Ideas from 25 people under 25, organized by Crystal Yan and Jason Shen. The project was inspired by Seth Godin’s What Matters Now. The idea was to gather perspectives from 25 young people about the emerging trends they see changing the world over the next decade. I picked picked Engagement. My friend and prolific blogger Nathaniel Whittemore recently arrived at the same conclusion, so you know it’s for real :-)


I have news for you: The world’s biggest problem is probably not on your radar. It’s not disease, poverty or climate change.

The world’s biggest problem is that not enough people are working on the world’s biggest problems.

Human drive and ingenuity is the lever that moves the world, but the complexity of the challenges we face has grown, and we need a longer lever.

But increasing the number of people working on solving the world’s most important problems is no easy task. Even the most developed societies are pervaded by apathy and escapism.

I think escapism is our unconscious response to dissatisfaction with life in the status quo, when people are unaware of any options for improvement. This rampant disengagement in workplaces and educational institutions is characterized by two primary symptoms: 1) people doing work they don’t care about just to pay the bills or get a good grade and 2) hating Mondays because they live from weekend to weekend. The culprit is immersion in organizations that haven’t adapted to the 21st century, engendering learned helplessness by putting impressionable people in roles that systematically stamp out inspiration, creativity and passion. The urgency of solving disengagement is such that we cannot wait for incremental change. Rather than trying to improve old systems our best bet is to make something new that makes them obsolete.

The solution to disengagement lies in the cultivation of entrepreneurship and encouragement of entrepreneurial lifestyles. Entrepreneurs can create highly idiosyncratic, meaningful lives, by making an impact on problems that matter to them. Additionally, entrepreneurs aren’t dependent on bureaucratic approval, so new organizations can be erected quickly and thrive in any place where there is a big enough need.

Entrepreneurship in a broad sense is the process of seeing a problem in the world, coming up with an idea about how to solve it and turning that idea into reality. Problems can be solved through technology, organizations or even a piece of art that triggers reflection. What’s important is working on something that matters to you, because then you have motivation, then you want to learn, then you enjoy putting in the hours so that you can become all you can be, to contribute all that you can.

To solve the complex problems of our era we need more people to embark on this life path. In our highly interconnected world the impact of an influx of engaged individuals will create exponential not linear change, because projects can feed off each other creating network effects that accelerate the exploration of uncharted territory and the solutions that exist there.

Awareness of this life path is the first step. And culture is shifting to meet this need, with the future already here on the fringes. I know an extraordinarily high number of people in technology and social entrepreneurship sectors working on something amazing, yet amongst these people there is no feeling of isolation or self-congratulation; trying to change the world is just the norm. And that energy is contagious.

As a growing number of individuals who take the initiative to design lives suited to their strengths and interests are highlighted and rewarded, an entrepreneurial culture will be collectively fostered that will cascade across social circles, sweeping up those with latent aspirations and dropping them on the other side of the status quo; ready to begin the first day of their new life when all hours of the day are looked forward to.

An awakening is on the horizon as a critical mass of young people turn off autopilot and decide for themselves what matters to them and how they want to live their lives. It’s not the majority yet, but the momentum on the ground is palpable.

The cultural shift that is happening now is provoking many to at least begin pondering opting out of the status quo to focus their energy on things they love, solve problems they care about and sidestep the drudgery of antiquated institutions. But we need engagement to start snowballing across society now, and to have that happen we must consistently make the dream for this entrepreneurial lifestyle a reality.

Our task is to create systems that capture people’s inspiration and provide the tools and resources to turn their energy into high leverage actions that are directed towards solving important problems.

Humanity has never possessed more power nor faced more complex problems. If we build new organizational structures to accelerate engagement, we can tip the scales in our favor. Major problems will be eradicated, individual fulfillment will be found and the abundance of the information age will ripple throughout the world.

A new societal golden age is within our grasps. Let’s not miss this opportunity.

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  • Em

    I could not agree with you more. I do have to admit that I am still part of the “autopilot” group but I’m beginning to look for ways to break out of this rut. I just started reading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand recently for no other reason than it’s one of those books I’d always heard was great but hadn’t read it yet for myself – it’s eerie how timely the message of the book is today especially with the current economic situation. I think most of the world is dissatisfied but there’s only two ways to fix this: throw up your hands and say “oh well” or strive to change the situation.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=623782587 Elizabeth Platt

      Oh, heavens. Read Atlas Shrugged if you must, but with a critical eye. Ayn Rand created a cult of selfishness that has informed much of the modern business community with the unfortunate misperception that it’s OK to ignore the needs of your society. And this is the underpinning of many of the economic issues we now face. Why is Congress willing to give tax breaks to the wealthy while it cuts services to the needy? Because the Ayn Rand ethos says it’s OK. But she was so very wrong about so many things, and ultimately, this me-first perspective is what is bringing our democracy to the point of collapse. So after you read Ayn Rand, I recommend you then read the works of the Dalai Lama, to counterbalance the message Rand offers with a discussion of the value of compassion.

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