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[Review] Can't Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive That Changes Our World

October 28, 2015

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau tells readers that "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." It is the same kind of hopeful advice that social sector veteran Paul Shoemaker offers to readers in his new book Can't Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive That Changes Our World.

Cover_cant_not_doShoemaker, founding president of venture philanthropy network Social Venture Partners International, argues that the book's intentionally ungrammatical title captures a sentiment that is ubiquitous among people working to create social change. It is not "a self-help book," he writes; "it's a help-the-world book." And whether one has just a few hours a week to devote to change work or is determined to devote a lifetime to it, everyone can do their part.

Can't Not Do opens with a call to action inspired by the loss of a good friend of Shoemaker's who died in a plane accident. "[H]is life, and even the loss of him," he writes, "galvanized my personal mission in a way I never expected." Indeed, the theme of the intensely personal serving as motivation for making the world a better place is carried through many of the stories of change presented here.

Those stories are organized around a handful of big questions: Are you a determined optimist? Who are you at your core? Are you willing to go to hard places? Can you actively listen? Do you believe 1+1 = 3? And: What is your can't not do? Shoemaker devotes a chapter to each question along with an exemplary story or two of how someone has answered that question. My favorite was, Are you ready to be humble and humbled? As Shoemaker notes, we often are humbled by our failures, and this is especially true of social change work, where the complexity of most problems is both frustrating and daunting. This shouldn't drive us to despair, but rather serve to remind us that the work is hard. "When we get humbled, really knocked back on our heels," writes Shoemaker, "it means we've gotten close enough to the real problem to truly learn what matters, to feel the problem enough that it hurts, and to show our authentic commitment to the cause." It's also important to realize the power inherent in humility. Shoemaker explores this seeming paradox by looking at a number of successful businesspeople who have focused on social change — and the power dynamics inherent in philanthropy — arguing that humility expressed as inclusivity, authenticity, and inquisitiveness is key to overcoming the challenges of social change work.

The crux of Shoemaker's argument, however, is that effecting positive change in the world has never been so possible. "More than ever before, in the past 10 to 20 years, just a few people can do so much," he writes. "[A]dvances in globalization, connectedness, and technology are converging to become force multipliers that can either increase the magnitude of social problems or accelerate the solutions to them." From founding a nongovernmental organization that delivers water-filtration solutions to rural communities in the developing world, to volunteering at an early childhood education program, to helping members of one's immigrant community learn the local language, to building a nonprofit that provides disadvantaged youth with internships, the individuals whose stories Shoemaker highlights embody the human desire to create meaning and build community while reminding us of our own potential for creating change, no matter our position, skills, or interests.

Wanting to create change is one thing; actually doing it is something altogether different. One of the most important lessons Shoemaker shares is the need for sustained commitment and dedication to the work. "What matters most," he writes, "is the intensity, singularity, and longevity of your focus or use of your professional talents applied to the social challenge or cause that fits you best." In a world filled with causes vying for attention and virtually infinite ways to get involved, this may be a difficult lesson for many to absorb. But don't expect any sympathy from Shoemaker, who argues that focused determination and grit is the only way to make progress against intractable societal ills.

At the same time, he makes a point of reminding readers of the difference between creating meaning and being happy. "They're not mutually exclusive," he writes, "but if you are going to tilt one way, tilt toward meaningful because, done with sustained commitment, a meaningful life can eventually lead to a happy life." The challenge and adventure, he adds, is in finding the meaning and building a life around it.

Can't Not Do serves both as testimonial to the power of altruism and, with its helpful worksheets and lists of resources, a handbook for those ready to embark on a journey of social changemaking. While it isn't great literature and at times bogs down in platitudes, what it lacks in style is more than made up for by its accessibility, usefulness, and timely message that a few caring people can change the world.

Michael Weston-Murphy is the Lisa Goldberg Fellow at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public ServiceFor more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

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Related Readings

Mitchell, Alexandra and Jeffrey W. Pryor. Compassionate Careers: Making a Living by Making a Difference. Career Press, 2015.

Cooney, Nick. How to Be Great at Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World. John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Kristof, Nicholas D. and Sheryl WuDunn. A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity. Knopf, 2014.

Illingworth, Patricia. Us Before Me: Ethics and Social Capital for Global Well-Being. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

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