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Why Bother?

My sister-in-law’s Starbucks order is something like “Venti non-fat decaf low-foam not-too-hot lactose free artificially sweetened latte.” I’ll concede that we all have different reasons for doing what we do, but I’m sure Starbucks could simplify things by adding a drink to the menu dubbed the “Why Bother?” I can visualize a whole new line of products – starting with decaf coffee, non-fat ice cream and non-alcoholic beer – the “Why Bother” brand. It’s sure to sell in our WB world, but I don’t see the point.

But this is about more than just product marketing. Most of us have deeper concerns that extend beyond that cup of coffee in our hand. If you scrape the web for the issues that most concern people, topics like poverty, climate change, food insecurity, refugee rights, recent and future pandemics, healthcare, human rights, disinformation, foreign conflicts and voting integrity will come flooding in. Lately foreign conflicts are featured in the news – before long, voting integrity will take over the top position.

As individual as our coffee preference is our ranking of key topics like these. Ask 10 people for their top three issues, and it’s likely you will get 10 different answers. Each of us has unique interests, talents, and “hot buttons”. When it comes to actually getting things done as a society, this has served us well in some ways.

In The Wealth of Nations, moral philosopher Adam Smith reasoned that it a division of labor is what gives rise to our prosperity, and that it is driven by market systems founded on self-interest. Specialization based on our unique skills and interests enables doctors to doctor, accountants to account, and engineers to engineer. While we sharpen our skills in our chosen specialty, we are also shaping our global outlook. In a complex world, being really good at one thing is the foundation for a successful career, as well as a benefit to all the other specialists out there who can now concentrate on their own field. A brain surgeon doesn’t have to worry about a leaky faucet – there are plumbers for that.

This heightened focus on a single specialty, however, is not without its consequences. When we immerse ourselves in our own stuff, we lose connection between what we do and the work of others outside our field. The bigger picture of society as a whole is often lost as well. We naturally base our small daily decisions on our own needs and wants. When it comes to broader, more far-reaching choices, it’s customary to say, “that’s above my pay grade” and continue on our own path.

Writer Wendell Berry sees this as the cause of the “why bother?” conundrum. According to Berry, we are responsible for one thing at work, yet we consume many things from other “experts” the rest of the time. It becomes hard for us to imagine anyone but a specialist doing something outside of our field. We come to expect someone or something else (technology, politicians, another specialist) to take care of our problems. The scale of such issues ranges from group projects at work to global concerns like climate change. When voting along with hundreds of millions of others, it’s too easy to minimize our individual impact with a shrug and a “why bother?” Not that we don’t care – we just can’t fathom making a difference.

The term “woke” has evolved many different meanings, but lately it is used to suggest that one’s expressed beliefs in big-picture concerns are not backed up with sincerity or action. It is not a compliment, and yet it is hard to deny prioritizing our own personal short-term gain.

Looking to our leaders for answers is futile – it’s exactly that kind of passive delegation of responsibility that got us into this situation to start with. So what would motivate us above and beyond immediate gain? A sense of personal virtue perhaps, although the term “virtuous” is sometimes used with irony. Doing the right thing sets an example for others, and with luck, this could set off a chain reaction. Such virtuous acts can even go viral. Sometimes you have to act as if it will make a difference, even when you don’t think that it will.

Why bother? Because it might matter in ways you can’t predict.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has 50 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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