The Most Important Thing

Q: What's the most important social issue today?

A: What issues are the most significant of our time? Which are the most pressing? Given the reality that every one of us has a limited amount of time, money, or other resources to contribute toward solving social problems, where should a person direct his or her attention first? What's the right priority order?

Here's the thing. I actually have very strong opinions on this. If I could waive a magic wand and the power to instantly fix any social problem, without hesitation I'd turn my attention to providing relief to the very poorest individuals on the planet, and address their immediate physical needs: food, water, shelter. And if I looked at a list of everywhere I've ever volunteered, or given money, the vast majority of those organizations work on addressing these kinds of issues. 

Does this mean I think these are the most important issues in an objective sense? Do I think everyone should agree with me? The truth is, yes, I often do wish that everyone on the planet would stop what they're doing and do just this - because, for instance, hunger doesn't have to be a problem. We have the resources and knowledge to eradicate it - just, apparently, not the collective will. So, agreeing on what's most important matters.

But. I'm hesitant to answer this question outright, or to prescribe my ideas about what matters most to someone else. Why? I'm usually asked this kind of thing by an eager college student after one of my lectures, and they're asking it because what they really want to know is: What's the most important work I can do, so that I can make the greatest impact? In other words: How can I matter the most? They may think, by asking "what's most important" that the answer to this question can be found through some sort of calculation. That it's a math problem. That we can look at some objective impact score and say, there it is, it's official, here's the most efficient, effective thing to do! But I believe that - even if we could come to a place of agreement on how to do this calculation - knowing this answer wouldn't be the right thing to focus on for, say, the average college grad when choosing a career path. I think we each do our best work when we are working on something that matters most to us. For me, knowing what matters most to me isn't just about a calculation or fact or statistic. If you're like me, you find meaning with your heart too - and this means paying attention to when some fact or statistic makes it feel a little (or a lot) broken. Or hopeful. Or intrigued. Or passionate.

I'm inspired - endlessly, and perhaps a bit irrationally - by entrepreneurs. Sure, I can back up my opinions with stats and make a strong case for why they matter in the world, and why they move things forward, and why - in the long-term - I believe so many social problems can actually be solved by investing in entrepreneurs around the world. But if I'm honest, what sustains me day to day, week to week, year after year, and what makes me feel alive and creatively inspired and motivated to do hard things, isn't what's in my head, it's what's in my heart. I love entrepreneurs. So I focus on them. I work on this related to their ability to thrive. It makes me happy, and makes me feel fulfilled.

The good news and the bad news is, there is a LOT to fix in the world. if you're trying to find out what's the "most important issue" to work on, ask instead what's most important to you. And be open to finding the answer not just with your head, but with your heart too.