I think we need more people who are willing to devote 10–20 years of their lives to a single project that they believe has a huge potential for impact. Animals need you to find something important that needs to be done, and then to devote years of your life to figuring it out.
So are you ready for that?
Good Things Take Time
“Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
This is a simple saying with a profound meaning for how we should approach creating an impact for animals, especially for us modern-day people with too many things to do and too little time to do them in. James Clear put a spin on it when he wrote that Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day, But They Were Laying Bricks Every Hour.
What do you get when you do a million things all at once and never stick to anything for more than a few days or weeks? You may get random piles of bricks all over the place, but you most certainly won’t get Rome.
Alan Turing spent his whole life studying mathematics, cryptography, and electronics in order to come up with the insights into computing that he did. Jane Goodall began her work studying chimpanzees back in 1960, and almost sixty years later continues her work by spending nearly all of her time advocating for chimps. Peter Singer, best known in the animal rights movement for his 1975 book Animal Liberation, has dedicated his whole career to moral philosophy and its applications.
With billions of people in the world working on millions of distinct things, each of us can choose to dedicate ourselves to an important topic and give it the time it deserves. (Don’t worry—other people are going to work on other important things. You don’t have to do it all.)
So which topic are you going to devote yourself to? How long are you willing to persevere in order to make it a success?
Are you chasing a hundred little things, or one big thing?
An Abundance of Good Ideas
The thing is, there are plenty of good ideas out there. In fact, there are tons of great ideas—profound, game-changing ideas that have the potential to make a big difference for animals.
The problem? We don’t have enough people who are willing to push through years of hard work to bring those ideas to life. It makes sense—bringing something to life is hard. Having ideas is easy.
As humans, we like ideas. We like coming up with them, talking about them, debating them, chewing on them. Ideas are fun. They’re sexy. They’re addictive. And you can think of them from the comfort of your couch while drinking a beer and hanging out with friends.
But ideas alone don’t create change. Ideas need to be brought into existence through the slow, difficult, beautiful process of actualizing them.
The idea of juicy, savory, realistic plant-based burgers is great—that’s a really good idea with the potential to get a lot of non-vegans to switch to eating plant-based. But unless someone is spending 10–20 years developing that burger, marketing the burger, building the factories, fighting the competition, crafting a new market, and so on, then the burger idea isn’t going to come to life.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are on that quest right now, and it’s taken them about 10 years each to get to where they currently are (since 2009 and 2011 respectively). They’ve both broken through into fairly significant success (at least in terms of distribution and media coverage), but both companies have massive potential for more growth and bigger impact. Ten years of hard work got them where they are—it’ll take another 10, or 20, or 50, for them to get a taste of what their real potential is.
So what’s your idea that’s worth spending decades on? If you find yourself saying “someone should do this”, is that person you?
Real change for animals takes a specific plan, and that plan is going to need to be carried out every day for years—decades.
Are you ready to do that?
“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world,” so the quote goes. (Purportedly by Einstein, but quotes are so hard to verify.)
First, you invest. Then you earn a little interest on your investments, which then gets added back to the investment. But now the amount of your investment is a bit bigger, so next time you earn a little bit more interest, which gets added back again. And so on, and so on, so that Benjamin Franklin’s investment of $4,500 for the city of Boston in 1790 became $4.5 million by 1990, two hundred years later.
What many people don’t realize is that compound interest is the perfect metaphor for investing in projects, as well.
The website and app HappyCow was started in 1999 by Eric Brent (just one year after Google was founded, incidentally). These days, we know that HappyCow is the go-to resource for people looking for vegan and vegetarian restaurants—but it required twenty years of work (twenty years of investing in HappyCow as a project) to get to where it is today, and at any point Eric could have thrown in the towel and shut it down. With each bit of investment though, it became a more valuable resource. And as it became more valuable, more people used it, and Eric learned more about how to make it better. That’s how projects compound over time into something greater.
Mercy For Animals was also founded in 1999 and confined its work mostly to Ohio for the first several years of its existence, a much smaller domain than the half dozen countries it works in now. Similarly, PETA has been in existence since 1980 and spent much effort over its first ten years on a single case (contrasted with the dozens of campaigns it has running at any given point now). With each year of effort, both organizations grew their networks, grew their influence, and gained a bit of “interest” from their previous investments in the work.
Investing in the same project over time is just that—it’s an investment. And if you devote years of hard work to a big, important project, that investment will pay off. (Yay for compounding!)
Imperfect Solutions That Get Better Over Time
I think people are sometimes afraid of being failures (or of their projects failing), but that’s the wrong way to look at it.
First, every pursuit is a learning experience. You always have the opportunity to learn something you didn’t know before and use it in the future to improve your work. That’s hugely valuable.
Each organization and each person can only accomplish so much in this vast ecosystem of society that we live in. Life is hard—it requires a lot of work to learn new things, build new structures and institutions, or change existing ones. In order to achieve mastery of a domain (or truly creative synthesis of multiple domains), you need to put in a lot of focused work. Angela Duckworth found that grit is correlated with success—and grit basically means “sticking with something for a long time”. When you stick with something for a long time, you’re going to learn a lot. With each thing you learn, you’re able to build something better the next time.
Hence, your own 20-year project.
Second, nothing is ever perfect. Absolutely nothing. Frankly, the concept of a “perfect solution” doesn’t even make sense. The whole world is constantly in a state of breaking and repair, of trying and trying again, of getting it slightly wrong a million times and fixing it.
Nearly everything starts out bad, and then slowly—painstakingly, over the course of years of work—it gets better, bit by bit. This, in a nutshell, is the story of life—there are no perfect solutions, and nothing is ever finished. We create imperfect solutions and then try to improve them with time. Things do get better because of our efforts, but we’re never done.
It’s actually been really hard for me to accept that nothing is ever going to stop needing repairs. For example, Google is an amazing search engine—and it continues to be because a bunch of people at Google are constantly fixing it and improving it. Google is never going to be a “perfect” product, because perfection doesn’t exist. There are simply a series of problems (often big, fuzzy, ill-defined problems) and solutions to those problems (which are always imperfect in some way). And even when we do our best, things go wrong and we have to figure out how to move forward.
Think about some of the most successful companies or people. Think about Google, or Facebook, or Apple. On the animal rights side of things, think about PETA or Mercy For Animals or Beyond Meat. None of these companies or organizations started off great. They all started off with people, ideas, prototypes, and the magnificent art of “not getting it right”. They all got many, many things wrong. And they’re still getting things wrong.
Stuff breaks at major software companies all the time. Successful animal rights organizations are constantly struggling to raise money, or to create a better strategy, or to hold onto good people, or to expand into a new country, or to get better project management software, or whatever.
Everything is slightly broken all the time. (Or, you know, majorly broken.) Everything has limits to what it can do. Everything has bugs and faults.
Build it anyways. That’s how life works. We’re in the business of imperfect solutions to difficult problems.
When It Breaks, Start Anew
As a recent example, despite hundreds of years of construction and repairs (and all the blood, sweat and tears that went into those efforts), the Notre Dame cathedral recently caught fire and sustained a huge amount of damage. What do we do when calamity strikes? We accept it, and then we plan for bigger and better things.
This can be a source of inspiration for you, because it takes a little bit of the pressure off of us to create perfect solutions. (Remember: there is no such thing.) Once you accept that imperfection is part of the process, you’re free to create things and then improve them from there.
And—bringing it back to the 20-year project—if you’ve found something that’s important and worth devoting a lot of your time and energy to, then you have a long time to create better versions. Compared to your future versions, your first version is always going to suck. Try your hardest, enjoy your efforts, acknowledge the faults, and build the better next version.
Why twenty years?
Honestly, it’s an arbitrary number that sounds like “quite a long time”.
Okay, well maybe not totally arbitrary. There’s the popular 10,000 hour rule about mastery (which is just a rough heuristic and can be doubted, like any theory of success or mastery), which can translate to 10–20 years of work, depending on how many hours you spend each day on your craft or your pursuit. Mastery is necessary to push us forward in new and important ways, and the only way to get there is through the long process of trying, learning, experimenting, practicing, and building.
But also—twenty years sounds like a long time. (Ten years also suffices. But twenty is better.)
There are a lot of domains we can look at to see how truly great things take a long time to create. Compound interest is a good example of this. Large amounts of sustainable growth don’t happen overnight, but rather accumulate over the course of decades. Great companies start with humble beginnings and gain prominence over the course of years. Organizations and businesses take decades (sometimes even fifty or a hundred years!) to spread globally and achieve household name recognition. Doctors spend decades mastering their craft, as do writers and engineers and programmers.
Even the overall story of humanity is one of gradual compounding of progress over the course of tens, hundreds, and thousands of years. To create computers, we needed electricity. To first harness electricity (through the use of generators—which someone had to figure out), we needed to know that electricity existed, and we needed to figure out its basic properties. All of these developments rested on top of the knowledge of language, the knowledge of how to extract and refine metals from the earth, etc.
As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
Who are those Giants? Normal people who devote large chunks of their lives to figuring out difficult problems and building important things.
Let’s look at a bit of math really quickly. Let’s say that each of us has a certain probability of being able to execute an idea really well. Let’s also say that ideas generally get better over time as you try to bring them to life, although this probably isn’t true in a lot of cases.
If there’s only a 0.1 probability of you or I executing an idea really well (in other words, only 1 out of every 10 projects is very successful), then that’s a pretty small likelihood of helping animals if we’re the only ones trying to bring ideas to life.
But if there are 100 of us working on ideas, or 1,000, or 10,000, then suddenly we’re going to have dozens of great ideas brought to life. (10,000 people working on ideas with a 0.1 probability of success is 1,000 successful ideas. That’s what we need!)
In Support of Good Ideas
Good ideas are important, and I don’t want you to think I’m bashing the value of good ideas or saying that discussion and ideation aren’t important.
What I am saying, though, is that we currently live in an age where ideas are easier than ever and our attention spans are shorter than ever. That means we probably need to correct course in the other direction: erring on the side of doing, erring on the side of spending too long on single ideas rather than not long enough, and erring on the side of being too singularly focused rather than too broadly focused.
Amazing ideas are often created slowly (rather than discovered) during the process of bringing a mediocre idea to life. Once you start slamming your idea into reality, you’re going to notice some things and have the opportunity to improve your idea as you go.
Alright, let’s talk about some of the nuance in this idea.
First, not everyone can focus exclusively on their own specific thing to the detriment of all else—then we would all be off by ourselves without any help or support from others. But, I believe that we’re currently underinvesting in the power of creating new things. And we can do both! Many great things start as side projects. There’s room for all of us to be leaders and followers, innovators and supporters, trail-blazers and trail repairers.
Second, I’m a big, big believer in the power of thinking critically and rationally, and I think that continuous learning is one of the most important habits to develop. I don’t think we should throw deep thought out the window, not at all! I also don’t think we should devalue learning. But once again, I think we’re currently underinvesting in taking action on long-term projects. With today’s ubiquitous access to the internet, getting information is easy—trying new things is not. Getting excited about new ideas is easy—sticking to the same idea for 10 years is not. Some of the most important learning happens while doing—so get to doing!
Now It’s Up To You
So what are you going to do now?
Is there something that you think is incredibly important, that you’d love to see someone do? Is that someone you?
Have you ever poured 10 years of your life into creating something specific that you wanted to see exist? I want to challenge you to have the courage to create what you want to see in the world. Create the thing that only you can.
Because the idea of the thing isn’t enough. No one else is going to build it for you.
It needs you to bring it into existence.
Animal Movement Project (AMP) is a platform dedicated to building the movement for animals.
We share thoughts and ideas that can take the movement for animals from x to 10x. Our focus is predominantly on animals exploited for food since they account for more than 99% of the animals exploited by humans. The topics covered are often about ways to tie the pieces of the movement together or to fill in the gaps. We focus on connecting people, ideas, and resources to each other.