Many starfish washed up on shore. A young boy started picking them up and throwing them back into the ocean. Someone saw what he was doing and told him that it was pointless, that there were too many to save, that it wouldn’t make a difference. Throwing another starfish into the sea, the little boy responded, "It makes a difference to this one."
This often retold tale, originally from The Star Thrower, a collection of essays by the naturalist and writer
Loren Eiseley, is a favorite of many as an example of how we each individually can make a difference. Businesses and organizations ranging from socially responsible investing and real estate to animal rights and children’s issues have quoted this story as a way of explaining their mission and purpose.
While it’s a motivating and inspirational perspective on making a difference, I’ve often wondered when I’ve heard or read this story: what made the starfish wash up in the first place? What could have been done to prevent them from getting beached?
Maybe there was a storm. Maybe there was something in the ocean.
It’s partially a question of where we want to put our time and
resources, as individuals working to make a difference, and as a
society. We want to save individual starfish, but in times of scarce
resources, where can we get the most impact from what we do? While
it’s certainly important to help individuals in crisis, what
could be done to prevent them from getting into difficulty? How could
we move up stream?
While I’m all for us each finding our unique responsibilities
and taking on issues we are passionate about, working alone can’t
always produce the impact we want. Sometimes it’s easier to pick up
starfish, rather than look for larger causes, because it’s what is in
our control, or it’s what we feel we can do, either
individually or as a society. Addressing systemic issues takes years,
if not decades, and can be frustrating work. Yet, without addressing
root causes, we’ll just have more starfish to clean up.
It’s necessary to find a balance between changing policies, systems
and structures to promote the changes we want to see, and working to
help individuals in crisis. We can’t ignore the starfish, but we also
need to ask why they are becoming beached in the first place.
Where do you best make a difference?
If you’re picking up starfish, what’s possible upstream?
If you’re working upstream, how can you stay in touch with the starfish?