When I was a little girl, I had grandiose ideas about saving the world. I wanted to win a Nobel Peace Prize and have my name printed in all the history books… I literally told my friends that if I died without accomplishing that goal, I wanted them to go to the local library and write my name—in pen—in the appendix of a history book. (That request still stands, in case anyone is interested).
I was a complete idealist, looking at global problems like hunger, poverty, war, disease and environmental degradation as though they all had some magic silver-bullet solution just waiting to be discovered. I figured the only reason these problems existed was because the right solution had not yet been discovered. We have world hunger yet a surplus of food in America? Let’s just share our food—BAM! Problem solved by the smartest six-year-old ever (now where’s my Nobel?).
As I got older, I began realizing that real life problems are never that simple, and viewing them as such can be dangerous because when people expect a simple solution to a large problem, they can quickly become discouraged when things don’t go as easily as they planned. Bold statements about “changing the world” are great for temporary motivation, but they are soon abandoned upon reaching the first obstacle. In contrast to cliché sayings of “think big,” I think it takes more courage to say
You know what? I may not ever change the world. I may dedicate my life to something I’m passionate about and reach obstacle after obstacle, never achieving all my goals. My name will probably never appear in the textbooks, and a hundred years after I die, no one may even know I ever existed… But even so, I’m going to do all that I can because I care about this issue.
In a way, not holding lofty ideals frees us from the fear of failure and allows us to look realistically at our barriers to success. I’m trying to take this realistic approach to my work here in Menomonie this summer. I know that in my ethnographic research, I will never talk to every single person in the Red Cedar Watershed. I will never fully understand all their struggles and motivations, and I have absolutely no chance of finding a perfect solution that will satisfy everyone.
Even so, I can still talk to a variety of local people and get a general idea of public perception. I can sit in on farmer council meetings to better understand their structure. I can relay this information to others in this REU to help them better understand the public standpoint. If I do these things, then perhaps, in the long run, my small contributions will have a positive impact on this three-year research project.
In summary, if you ask me if I can change the world, the answer is no… or 42, whatever you prefer… Because the truth is I don’t think that’s the right question to be asking in the first place. I’d rather ask, can I do something?
And the answer is always yes.