What can I contribute?

Asked of oneself, in the context of being able to contribute one’s non-material resources to societal endeavors, the question What can I contribute? can be taken at least two ways. One is: what resources am I able to contribute, or capable of contributing? The other is: what resources can I offer that constitute a unique and valuable contribution?

I’m lucky to have a job where I frequently have the opportunity to make a contribution to improving people’s experience with software that’s important to their business or profession. I do that alongside other people with a similar role, which is a great opportunity to see both the common contributions that we bring and the unique and valuable ones. Everyone I work with has really strong technical skills, proven ability to analyze complex problems and identify solutions, and the ability to express those problems and solutions clearly and appropriately in speech and writing. But we all have different styles of expressing ourselves, different specific technical knowledge areas, and different ways of looking at problems. I’m particularly interested in documentation, zero in on and remember details, and tend to focus on the core issue without a lot of verbal decoration. I also have a great head for correct and effective process and a related, more amorphous thing that I think of as ‘appropriateness’ — I’m unlikely to jump into a situation headlong and ask for something that was already provided or try to answer a question I’m just guessing at. That’s a pretty cool thing that I’m good at. The flip side of that skill is “get ‘er done” — jump in and move things along, even if you don’t always get it quite right. It’s also valuable, but it’s not something that I personally am best at doing. It’s great to be part of a team so that I can focus on using my skills where they’re most needed and letting others do the same.

Applying that same thinking to transportation advocacy seems fruitful. Being on the sidelines right now means I’m mostly tuned out, but I’m still friends with my friends and Twitter is still Twitter, so I have the chance to see some of what happens with me out of the game. And the answer is: mostly the same stuff happens. I’m not the axis on which that world turns (obviously), but when I was in the midst of it, it was easy to think that because I could contribute something, that meant I should, because the work I was doing was important and therefore doing as much as I could was obviously valuable.

This seems honestly kind of stupid in retrospect. Most of what I can contribute (in the first sense) in advocacy can also be contributed by other people. As in my job, I’m one of several to dozens of people with similar capabilities and inclinations. Is this kind of contribution valueless? Definitely not. At work we’ve got a certain ticket load and my base contributions are important to keeping that load manageable. And in advocacy there’s a certain amount of basic work to be done that creates value by showing interest and articulating opinions — writing letters, making requests, commentating on issues, having discussions, attending meetings. But almost anyone can do this, and I don’t do most of it remarkably better than most people, aside from being a good letter-writer. Unlike in my professional life, though, I’m not as clear on what I do in advocacy that is unique and valuable, and that’s part of what I’d like to figure out during this hiatus.

This idea has a pretty broad application — it’s worth thinking about how it applies to close relationships, general socializing, and internet/social media as well, but that’s too long for one post (and I’m too tired).

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