This is spring conference season in philanthropy, filled with such events as Skoll World Forum, the Council on Foundations annual conference, and the Global Philanthropy Forum (streaming live). At all of these conferences, there will be an invocation to dream big, to think big, to set audacious goals, and to reach for the stars—to believe in the power of social entrepreneurs, or foundations, or grassroots communities, or individuals to change the world.
Grand plans and expansive visions will be the order of the day.
I think we’d get a lot more value from these conferences if they encouraged people to think small.
Recently I’ve been reading bits and pieces of Jane Jacobs’ classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and I stumbled across this: “The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.” I had a moment of depression thinking of how apropos that sentence is today—especially during conference season—even though it was written almost 40 years ago.
And it is apropos. A similar thought was powerfully expressed by Kathryn Schulz, in a terrific essay in New York Magazine about the spate of “Big Idea” books that have come to dominate the nonfiction shelves: “Solutions are not one size fits all; they are in fact, maddeningly bespoke. That’s because neither problems nor people are fungible.”
The problem with big dreams and big visions and “changing the world” is that it almost necessarily involves assuming that problems and people are fungible, and invoking impossibly superficial means to address these oversimplified problems.
This isn’t a cynical argument that change is impossible (it’s another way of advocating for patient optimists) and we should throw up our hands. It’s an argument that big changes don’t come from thinking big, but from thinking small. That by the way is one of the core themes of Abhijit Banerjee’s and Esther Duflo’s new book Poor Economics, which I highly recommend. In closing their book, they offer some succinct advice of the type that I wish was more on display during conference season:
- Resist lazy, formulaic thinking that reduces people and problems to the same set of general observations and principles.
- Listen to people and force yourself to understand the logic of their choices.
- Subject every idea, no matter how commonsensical, to rigorous testing.
The next time you’re urged to “think big,” give thinking small a try. The world will be better for it.
Read more stories by Timothy Ogden.