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Do what you can where you are

The worst way to change anything is to wait for someone else to change it.

Look around you. You probably see lots of things you think should be different than they are. If you say to yourself something along the lines of, “They should do something about that,” it’s unlikely to ever get fixed.

If you see something that needs changing, the more powerful question is: what are you going to do about it?

Herbert Ponting’s 1907 photograph of “a fakir in Benares” (Varanasi, India)

You can’t do something about everything, of course. That’s the second worst way to change anything. If you know the “bed of nails” trick, you know that it works by spreading the weight of the body over hundreds or thousands of points so that no single point has enough pressure to penetrate. If you want to not make a difference, then, spread your efforts over too many issues. If you want to penetrate, you need to focus.

That leads to related questions:

Where can you actually make a difference? What matters most to you?

That gives you some idea about where to focus your efforts.

That brings us back to our main point: don’t wait for someone else to fix it. What can you do, right here, and right now (or soon)?

For instance: People are concerned about shooters in a school. The odds of such happening may be very low for any given school (which gives no comfort to those who have experienced it), but media coverage and the unusual nature of it drive demands for sweeping changes, most of which depend on someone else like a legislature or a Congress.

Changes may be needed there, and I’m not arguing that one way or the other at this point. In the meantime, I’ve taken a couple of pragmatic steps for the college classrooms in which I teach.


Our building was built not too long after the rising public awareness of school shootings began. Following Columbine, those concerned with school safety feared a situation in which a gunman barricaded himself inside a classroom, and so the classroom doors all had narrow windows so police could see into a classroom, and the doors all opened to the inside so police could fairly easily force it open even if it were locked.

Now, we know from research and unfortunate experience that shooters are much more likely to wander the halls looking for a room that is easy to enter. So the “protective” measures actually made us more vulnerable, and we don’t have the budget to fix it all — not just replacing doors, but rehanging them, all of which is expensive.

We are now told if a shooter situation arises, hide where we can’t be seen through the door windows. Shooters mostly seem to be opportunists. If a given room doesn’t seem to have targets, they move on.

I happen to frequently teach in the (from this perspective) most vulnerable room in the building. The room sits on a corner and has an entry on two walls, so every square inch is visible from one or both doors.

I could wait for someone to fix it by replacing the doors. I could insist on holding my classes in another room (and good luck with that since available space is quite scarce).

Or I could do what I have control of.

And that’s what I’ve done. Three things, in fact. I’m not going to spend a lot of time and effort on these things since it’s highly unlikely to be needed. But given the consequences if it does happen, and given that these three things cost little or no money or effort, then why not?

  1. We lock the door when class starts. As I said, shooters are opportunists. If they try a door knob and it’s locked, they likely will move on, especially if they don’t know whether anyone is inside.
  2. We taped paper over the windows. Probably to save on expense, the windows are not large, narrow enough that a single sheet of paper covers them. Three sheets of paper for each door, and an observer in the hall can no longer see in.
  3. I carry two door stops in my computer bag. A determined assailant could shoot out the lock, and then just open the door, since it swings to the inside. In the event of a lockdown, I will push the door stops under the doors, making it much harder to open the door, even if the lock no longer works. It’s not foolproof, but again, if the first attempts to open the door don’t work, an assailant is likely to move on.

Honestly, even if the administration arms faculty, I’m not likely to take part, because do you know how much those things cost? I believe in insurance, but that doesn’t means I’ll spend, say, $50,000 insuring my car. But I’ll spend $5 for some doorstops.

Waiting, begging. CC0

Don’t get caught up in the issue itself. This is just an example. Remember the point: whatever it is that needs doing, you can wait for someone else to act, or you can figure out what you can do. This happens in two parts:

Get over thinking that you’re helpless.

Then ask yourself what you can do.

If you also want to work to get “the system” changed, have at it. Just remember that you have limited time and energy, and plan accordingly.

When you change the way you see the world, you change the world you see. Good luck!

About the writer

Donn King helps you communicate confidently. He writes a lot, too, a habit he hasn’t been able to break for nearly 50 years. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.