We dream of a future where everyone has a fighting chance. Luck plays an enormous role in all of our lives. Where and when we’re born largely dictates the opportunities we’re afforded. Unluckily, much of the world is born into difficult, debilitating circumstances, without the chance to realize their ambitions and dreams. Some of these circumstances, such as geography, are a result of forces outside of man’s control. Others, including global development policy, are within our control. We hope for a future where we proactively manage what factors we can, to ensure that everyone has at least the opportunity to care for themselves and their families.

Good work today means carefully considering the consequences of our actions, now and into the future. It means understanding the connections between social, political, and economic forces worldwide, and it means making informed and responsible choices that, at the very least, mitigate crises instead of exacerbating them.

Most disasters are not random acts of fate—they are man-made. Terrible events, such as earthquakes and floods, are unavoidable, but they only devolve into true disasters through bad decisions and ineffective systems. A powerful example of how the bad decisions of a few lead to disastrous consequences for millions happened in Somalia. The country’s 2011 drought could be called an act of fate but it was only a disaster because faulty foreign interventions resulted in an extremely fragile country that didn’t stand a chance in the face of crisis.

We can’t avoid droughts, earthquakes, or floods. But we can avoid the worst disasters if we are thoughtful about how we engage with each other. People often talk about wanting to “do good work” that “helps the world”. A great place to start is by minimizing the harm we and our governments inflict on the world.

Thankfully, there is a growing recognition that program design needs to be more grounded in field realities and driven by the communities they serve. In the age of Big Data, we think there is something to be said for engaging face-to-face with the communities you serve. For us, we know it drives us in a different way; it makes us less willing to settle for poorly thought-out or poorly executed solutions because we know the people it’s going to impact. They are people with names and faces, people we’ve shared tea with, people we’ve laughed with, not just random points in a dataset.

The world’s challenges are interrelated. There are people who champion health, education, clean water, or any number of important factors as key to solving the world’s problems. But we see each of these issues as symptoms of deeply rooted and structural challenges. Thus, we don’t choose to focus on particular sectors or regions; rather, we increasingly work on cross-cutting issues in government and institutional accountability.

What we do maintain is a very keen focus on services, which are the transactions between institutions and people. These are the most concrete means of improving livelihoods, and thus of realizing human rights.

We believe that the sum total of the basic services people receive is an accurate measure of a society’s real-world embrace of human rights. This is an inherently practical approach to human rights, and an evolution in the theory of how societies can be improved.

It’s important for everyone to have a theory of change—a well thought-out and workable strategy for how your own actions and work can make a difference. And passions can originate from the most unlikely of places. We have a friend who traveled to Latin America, fell in love there, and thus has continued to focus on the region. Another decided to devote his life to improving education in America after having watched a moving documentary on the topic. And all that is great—more people should run with what their heart tells them, regardless of whether that issue is trendy of whether there’s a strong body of evidence to back up their choice. There are enough challenges plaguing our world, this work isn’t easy, and so you need to really care about whatever topic you care about to be able to stick with it, and to be able to make the sacrifices you’re going to need to make.

Panthea Lee and Zack Brisson are the founders of Reboot, a service design firm tackling global governance and development challenges. thereboot.org

This excerpt is from American Dreamers, coming soon from Sharp Stuff.