In the TV show The Good Place, all humans on Earth are judged with a point system: you get points for doing good deeds and lose points when you do something bad. When you die, your lifetime point total — a measure of “net good” — is used to determine whether you go to “the good place” or “the bad place.”
In a recent episode, a character learns that in the year 1534, a guy who gave roses to his grandmother received 145 points for his gesture of kindness. In 2009, a guy who gave his grandmother roses actually lost 4 points. His act of kindness was negated by the fact that he ordered them on a phone made in a sweatshop, the flowers were grown with toxic pesticides and packed by exploited migrant workers, and the money went to a billionaire racist CEO who sends horribly inappropriate texts to his female employees.
The show is making the point that it is hard to be good. In a world in which we are all ever more interconnected, it is extremely difficult to understand the true impact of your actions.
One of our Bush Foundation values is “More Good. Every Year.” As an organization, we do things that we believe are clearly good. And even as we try to do good, we know we also do things that cause or contribute to negative outcomes in the world. We do both every day, sometimes simultaneously. Like when we decide to fly to western North Dakota to hold community meetings that are accessible to people who can’t get to the Twin Cities (which we think is an important good), we are also increasing our operating expenses, consuming natural resources and creating pollution.
To me, doing more good every year is first and foremost about recognizing we have a whole lot of impact on others — visible and invisible, good and bad, intentional and unintentional. Then, we have to put in the effort to better understand that impact and find ways to increase the net good we contribute to the world.
Doing more good every year also means recognizing that we can only take on so much. That we won’t ever get to a point where we are as good as good can be. We can always improve. And improving means being realistic about our own capacity for change.
While I don’t believe there are cosmic accountants keeping score of our deeds, I really find it helpful to think about my life and my aspirations in terms of “net good.” How can I do a bit more good this year? How can I cause a little less harm? It helps me when my own efforts feel so small in comparison with the scale of the challenges I see and wish I could fix.
There are billions of us together on the planet. Sometimes that fact makes fixing problems seem overwhelming. But it is also why each of us doing a small part can lead to really huge impact. None of us can take on the world’s challenges alone. But we can all do more good every year.
***BTW, if you're not watching The Good Place, I really think you should! The plot lines are crazy, so you have to start with season one, episode one, and go from there. It is amazing to me that we have this funny network TV show that is focused on philosophy and ethics and notions of good. My whole family watches and discusses it. (And the creator, Michael Schur, is one of my leadership heroes. If you want to read about how he thinks and leads check out this article.)