The human impact of your work

I recently read a fascinating profile of Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Tom’s Shoes. I had been peripherally familiar with the premise of Tom’s Shoes for some time, but this was the first time I read in-depth about the work they do. For those unfamiliar with Tom’s, the idea is a program they call “One for One” – for every pair of shoes you buy, they give a pair of shoes to a child in a developing country (now over a million pairs worldwide).

This article led me down a few paths, including reading a good bit of both the company’s and Blake’s blogs. Maybe it was the beautiful music pumping into my headphones, but I was profoundly moved at the photographs of so many children receiving shoes for the first time. Meanwhile, a building’s worth of colleagues advance the front in structural engineering research around me.

Suddenly, my work felt cold and quite distant from alleviating the suffering and problems of real people. I can take a step back and reason: (a) tens of thousands of people have perished in earthquakes in recent years, (b) the goal of my work is to advance the understanding of building collapse, and (c) this may lead to preventative rehabilitation measures which will ultimately allow earthquakes in the third world to pass with little loss of human life due to structural failure.

However, in this moment that impact feels real, but very far away.

I am left hoping that all of us choose to spend our lives wisely on each other. That we will give our careers (and time and effort and energy and resources) to problems that matter and touch real lives, both in the near and long terms. This goes especially for those of us with technical and scientific backgrounds who possess the training and intellect to do something significant in this world.