How to Make a Difference When the World’s Problems Seem So Big

How to Make a Difference When the World’s Problems Seem So Big

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Social Justice

I’ve noticed that many multipotentialites seem to be extra-sensitive to the world’s problems and injustices.

I could speculate on whyperhaps straddling multiple spaces introduces us to more matters which are crying out to be fixed, or maybe we’ve had more practice at spotting ideas which have benefits across communities.

Either way, why doesn’t really matter. There’s a much more important question: when we’re drawn to alleviate pain and aid others, how can we have the most impact?

Unfortunately, We’re Just One Human

There’s an important first step in attempting to change the entire world: to recognize that we can’t.

I don’t mean to sound defeatist. But it’s important to set sensible expectations. Believing that we, personally, must fix all the world’s problems guarantees failure, and makes it harder to make the positive changes we could reasonably make.

Paradoxically, accepting the sheer impossibility of fixing everything is the only way we can start fixing anything.

This realism is a lesson I’ve needed to learn over and over. Left to its own devices, my brain sets wildly optimistic expectations for what I can achieve, and I flame out in an inevitable disappointment of attempting to shoulder responsibility for the entire world.

Feeling Depressed into Inaction

There’s a flip-side to this over-optimistic coin: fatalism—the belief that the world is already beyond redeeming, so “Why bother trying to change anything?”

At first, this appears to be the opposite of caring too muchbut in reality this is where people land afterwards. It’s impossible to take a truly fatalistic position unless you cared about the state of the world on some level.

Those who actually don’t care, don’t care. They aren’t depressed by the world’s problems, they’re uninterested. The rest of us are mostly either inspired into action or depressed into inaction. (Or swing wildly between both.)

I’ve learned that it’s healthier to care… but not to invest so much emotional energy that it burns me out and pushes me into a fatalistic “why bother” place. I aim towards a better world without expecting to fully reach it.

“But, Hold On, This Cause is Really (Really) Important!”

It’s hard to maintain a balance between taking action and taking care of our mental and emotional health. And it should be hard: people’s lives may depend on it! Shouldn’t I do as much as I possibly can?! If I were less lucky, and my life depended on the actions of others, wouldn’t I want my “supporters” to throw themselves fully into helping?

There are entire essays that could be written on the morality of sacrificing ourselves for a greater good, and I’m no expert philosopher. All I know is that these are questions that must be continually revisited. Superficially, the answers are simple: of course we should all do as much as we possibly can to help those causes that matter to us most. But also of course, we should look after ourselves, too.

No cause can progress if all of its adherents are utterly exhausted by it. Sometimes we have to give more than we can and sometimes we have to redress that balance by recharging. The important thing is to continually revisit that judgement call and do the best we can.

Pick Your Battles

Of course, multipods aren’t actually superhuman (despite our superpowers), and we only have the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else. As in the rest of life, we must choose what matters most, and factor in where we can have the most impact.

Some causes will be specific to your town, region or country. Perhaps there’s insufficient provision for the homeless, or your political system is corrupt (if you can imagine such a thing!), or a particular community is facing hardship. And some causes will be global: looking after our planet, working to end human trafficking, or expanding upon medical research.

The more scrupulous amongst us might have a tendency to feel guilty for not caring equally about everything. But it’s okay to give ourselves permission to pick our battles. Even the greatest of saints and activists presumably couldn’t care about literally every good cause! Try not to let guilt from one cause prevent you from doing what you can for another. If you care about it, that’s all that matters.

If you’re having trouble deciding which causes to pursue, it might help to spend a moment asking questions like: who needs help?, who do I feel drawn to protect?, and what impact can I have? There’s no right or wrong answer—each of us will be drawn to some needs over others.

See which ideas tug most against your emotions—it doesn’t matter if it’s an extreme reaction, as long as there’s some passion there—and see what little steps you can take to help. This can begin a virtuous cycle where taking action leads us to care more, which leads us to act more, which leads us to care more…

… And Is That It? Everything Solved?!

I’m not going to pretend that it’s possible to remotely solve all the problems of the world in a few hundred words. You couldn’t even list them, let alone start planning solutions.

But I find it heartwarming, and even vital to my hope, to remember that so many people share the same motivation to help others and make the world a better place. Hopefully together we can make a decent start. 

Finally, Emilie has asked me to remind all of the American multipotentialites to please vote today. :)

Your Turn

How do you stay motivated to do good things, and what inspires you? Do you have any tips for looking after yourself as well as the world? Share with the community in the comments.

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.


  1. Lisa says:

    This is super important, and great points here, but I think there’s another key question everyone needs to ask when considering how and where to help, which is this: What way of giving will sustain me?

    Here’s what I mean. I don’t believe in “impossible” (another multipotentialite tendency?), and I care about a LOT of issues. I used to joke that my calling is to solve homelessness, racism, and climate change (not necessarily in that order). I’ve gotten less hopeful as I’ve gotten older, but I’ve gotten more and more involved in the issues I care about, even as I believe less and less in our ability to impact them…and the reason I’m able to keep going even as my hope declines is because I always choose work that feeds me. When I work on these issues, I do actions and activities that make me happy, ways of service that are, for me, an intrinsic reward. So I want to keep going, keep acting, keep serving, even if it never makes a difference, because I love the work and it makes me happy.

    It’s probably not in any way the work that would have the most impact on the issues, to be honest. But it has a little impact on the issue, and a huge impact on me.

    For example — the main thing I do for homelessness right now is volunteer at a foot clinic. I help provide herbal foot care for people. Foot clinic goes on with or without me. I’m not the best or most experienced person there. It doesn’t leverage any of my specialized skills. But it gives me the opportunity to sit and talk and connect for an hour with someone who’s homeless, to truly build relationships and learn about their life, and I LOVE that. It makes me so happy. Those relationships feed my soul. So yeah, I’m doing something small for homelessness, but I’m doing something huge for me, and when you choose ways to serve that feed you like that, you never give them up. You’re consistent, which can be a hard thing for us mtipotentialites. ;)

    I think it was Fredrick Buechner who said “Calling is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And I think that’s the key question that everyone should ask, but especially us multipotentialites: Where does serving bring me deep gladness? This is about the issues you care about, but it’s also about the WAY you serve. My special skills are in writing, marketing, and persuading, so I could probably have more impact on issues by helping with fundraising. But that doesn’t feed me. What feeds me is getting to connect deeply with individuals, to be physically involved in the things I care about, and to be present on the ground, to be part of the front lines of the important battles…so I find ways to serve that give me those opportunities.

    Thanks for this post today! It’s so important for all of us…especially in times like these. I’m off to vote now!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Wow, thanks Lisa – as so often, the comments add entire dimensions to the article. Really appreciate you sharing, thank you :)

    • AiLin says:

      Wow Lisa! Nicely put. It somehow reminds me of The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapmam – the different ways of giving and receiving love. The different ways in which we make an impact in this world & the different ways how what goes on in this worlds impact us. With that match, with that balance only can things function, and not become “depressed into inaction”.

    • C says:

      I think you may be missing two pretty big possibilities. First, some issues are so complex that it is *primarily* multipotentialites who can even wrap their brain around issues that straddle several worlds. And secondly, what’s wrong with multipotentialites coming together (even if many may like solitude) and put several multipotentialite minds together to come up with novel solutions? Most fields of knowledge–as we are all painfully aware–go for depth and not breadth. But that leaves the field wide open for all of us to specialize in … not specializing, but seeing the links in between, or how all the bigger pieces work. Everyone else gets the culture of their industry/ethnicity/religion/nation. Data analysts pool data across those. What about the people on the ground who get the patterns or can organize, analyze and depict them across several modes of expression?

  2. Vicki Biggs-Anderson says:

    This subject is so important to multi pods like me. When the students at Parkland were killed I immediately booked a flight to D.C. (I live just 25 miles south of the Canadian border in MN) and began making a display to carry in the student March For Our Lives, I made cookie cutter shapes of boys and girls out of canvas drop cloth, then painted them white, There were 16. On each cutout I write in black marker the child’s name and age and the word, ”
    Gone” and on the other side I wrote “killed on (date) by and AR15 assault weapon. I have a big black umbrella and pinned the figures to each pointy edge. In the march, two women came up to me and told me that they were friends of moms who lost one of the students named on the umbrella and thanked me for carrying their names,
    I intended to make umbrellas for all the mass school shootings, researched state legislative initiatives on gun control and then,,,,,,,well, you know, the umbrellas and the boxes of data sit in the corner of my bedroom. This was going to be my cause and I was good at it. So what happened, I told myself that I was just a glory seeker, lazy, a late blooming ADHD, etc. But the accusing pile still sits in the corner, looming large some days, slouching sulkily on others. I didn’t dream when I signed up for the course and bought your book that I might really be able to regain the energy and stick-to=it drive to accomplish my goal: to send an umbrella to every school where a massacre happened for a permanent display, plus the exact language of state bills that have reduced and could even eliminate access to the killing weapons.
    Fingers crossed,

  3. Paula Oliveira says:

    Thanks for this post – especially today. I took the day off after meeting an inspiring person who dedicated over 40 years of his life fighting for the environment and human causes. After that, I came home and binge watched lots of documentaries about the world’s most complex issues and also read a few articles about systemic change. The eagerness has never been so high, probably as high as my paralysis and my doubts about what to do next (I recently quit a well paid job to search for a calling that also provides for my family, volunteering wasn’t enough for me anymore!). Anyway, the search continues, but thanks for making me feel less alone in my quest :-)

  4. J says:

    I love the articles you write, Neil. Every single one I’ve read has hit home. This one in particular.

    I used to do peer support for adults diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Being that I also have an SMI I can relate, so I figured I’d give it a shot. It was extremely rewarding knowing I was helping like I was but I found myself eventually having mental/emotional fatigue which inevitably produced issues elsewhere in my life; particularly with my child. I thought my best choice was to cut back but that didn’t work. So I chose to fulfill a position which pretty much kept me out of the peer support limelight, however, because I had already created relationships with these people, I was still very active in it. So, when the time came that I was no longer working there, I was actually relieved. Cutting ties with those I connected with was difficult but I was relieved that I didn’t have to continuously put my emotions and mental capabilities to the max on a daily basis. Yes, we were constantly told about self-care and how important it was, but being the type of person I am, it didn’t always stick.

    I realized it takes a strong person to be active in something they are passionate about. And self-care is definitely an important factor no matter what you’re doing. Self-care entails physical, mental, >and< emotional maintenance. Do your best to keep it all in balance because having just one out of whack can throw the rest off. Take the time you need to ensure you are at full capacity before taking on challenges. And despite what others may say, having "me time" is essential to your wellbeing. Just keep this question in mind the next time you're not feeling so hot but you're burning to take on the world: How much can I truly give of myself today?

    Take care of yourself, fellow multipotentialites. The world needs us around. ?

  5. Stephanie says:

    I’ve definitely been struggling with this recently. All the climate change news has left me susceptible to fatalistic thinking and “depressed into inaction”. I can’t shake the thought that all of our work on other important issues will mean nothing if our world isn’t livable in the near future. So I’m trying to focus on what I can control and what little impact I can make.

  6. joe says:

    Hi Emilie and everyone,
    After many years of trying to save the world, the most important thing i have learned is that if we can stop finding differences and concentrate on making each other feel loved and needed the worlds problems are solved.

    Peace and hope for a better tomorrow

  7. Christin says:

    I think that everyone should find their own way to change things or be part of them. To me it means including my interests. I´m not into people very much so i decided 1 year ago to join in science projects as a volunteer online. You are able to choose whatever projects you want. Social sciences or medicine etc. If´i´m feeling not good i won´t work on them. In this case i am not forced into anything. This is how i prevent myself a bit from beeing overstressed with a single heavy task. As long as the poject is online and data available, i can work on it.

    Maybe some of those science projects won´t change the world itself but you can be a part of something meaningful like classifying solar storms. No one recognise your work out there or that you´re doing this in your free time, but maybe someday the data you were worked on could literally save the earth from a big collapse in the future. Who knows ;) Or counting whales projects to learn about and save a certain species and the environment in which they live. I love things like that and this is my tiny little universe in which i can do something without burning out in the long term

  8. Sanna says:

    Thank you for this post, truly an important issue.
    “Be the peace, love and caring you want to see in the world ” This is something i have devoted myself to. It means taking responsibility of my inner experience as a first step in participating, actively arranging space and time for myself to regocnize peace in me. It can happen through yoga, walking, sitting somewhere in nature, or at a bus stop, anywhere actually if i just remember to let it happen.

    I’ve noticed this is the only way for me to stay open and active in the outside world, to be able to keep my eyes open also in front of all that horrible which is happening in the world these days. I think this world doesn’t need more people to look away trying not to care, world needs people to care more and more and more… Wittnessing all this sickness hurts and it should hurt, when it doesn’t hurt anymore i have become much more part of the problem than the answer to it. I need to balance all that hurt with loving and caring, letting myself feel good at least as much as i feel hurt and sad.

    Recognizing peace, love and caring in myself i am able to function and contribute constructively in the world. I can’t expect to feel good only when the world is feeling good, but I can let myself feel good and that already is creating space for “goodness” in the world rather than adding my depression over depression and victimhood over victimhood.

    I am definitely not suggesting to just strictly ‘stay positive’. Important part of caring is to let myself and others to genuinely feel all the spectrum of emotions as they arise. And then let there be peace. And then let there be action.

    Thank you for making me write down my personal-this moment-how to live -manifesto!

  9. Joe Hill says:

    Great words Neil! And amazing comments! Just imagine if all of these caring people accomplish even a portion of what they intend.

    There is a International Peace Fellow and Musician in North Carolina named David Lamotte whose book “Worldchanging 101: Challenging the Myth of Powerlessness” is a great introduction for those who are looking for a path into meaningful service to the world.

    I’m trying not to feel too guilty for being on hiatus from helping the world right now. At the end of last year, I rolled off of a board I had served on for six years and had begun to feel resentful of the time and energy it took from me. I knew it was time to leave. I also consciously uncoupled from another organization I was Treasurer for. For all the things I’m not doing there is a tremendous amount of daily guilt.

    Especially when I look at peers canvassing, volunteering, leading, it is easy to feel I am no doing enough.

    Right now my self-talk is involved in telling myself that I have done a lot and it is okay to take a break to help recuperate and rediscover a new passion and energy in time.

    I tend to look at where I want to be instead of focusing on the daily small work that might lead me further along the path I want to walk. I’m trying to better focus on the now and small actions I can take.

    Like the quantum butterfly who flaps her wings on one side of the world causing the hurricane, I hope that small actions will lead to consequential results.

    Best of luck to you all in your endeavors. You are changing the world just by being in it.

  10. Harald says:

    So very true, Neil. :-)
    My only small objection is that all this has more to do with being an HSP than with multipotentiality – in my opinion. Of course, there is a significant overlap between the two groups.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Glad the article resonated, Harald :) I certainly agree that this isn’t especially multipod specific: of course it would be pretty silly to claim that multipods have any kind of monopoly on caring! :D I simply noticed a high proportion of the multipods I meet seem drawn to this sort of thing – whether that’s actually true or merely anecdotal doesn’t much matter to me, as I just wanted to explore how we might respond to being drawn in that direction :) Thanks for your addition and reminder about HSPs too, I’m sure this would be very resonant for that group too.

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