Archived Story

Lisa McLeod: How to solve really big problems

Published 11:06pm Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sometimes big problems can seem so overwhelming you don’t know where to start.
It feels like trying to dig a hole to China. With a spoon.
But what if instead of feeling like you had to solve the whole problem, you could just solve one part of it?
Whether it’s credit card debt, a failing career or a house filled with clutter, little incremental steps are what create the momentum you need to take bigger steps later.
You don’t have to start at the perfect place; you just have to start some place.
Julie Andrews sang,  “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very a good place to start.”
As a writer, I find that advice absolutely paralyzing.
When I write a book, I don’t start at the beginning. I start at whatever part seems the easiest, often the end or middle.
But what if your problem is bigger than credit card debt or a book deadline? What if you want to do something really big, like eradicate a disease or end world hunger?
The same advice applies: Just start.
I recently attended a press conference at The Carter Center in Atlanta where Jimmy Carter announced that after 25 years of work, they have practically eradicated Guinea worm disease from the face of the earth.
For those unfamiliar with Guinea worm disease, it’s disgusting.
The official description is “a debilitating parasitic infection that affects people living in remote, poverty stricken communities.”
The gruesome reality is: Villagers consume water contaminated with Guinea worm larvae.
One year later a three-foot long skinny worm slowly emerges from their body through an agonizingly painful blister in the skin.  There are no vaccines or medicines to prevent or treat it.
The only relief from the burning pain is to soak the blister in water, which then contaminates the village water, which passes the parasite to others, and the cycle begins again.
The disease goes back to biblical times (the serpent twined around the staff – imagery was likely a Guinea worm).  It’s called the “impoverisher” because it’s so painful that people can barely walk, much less farm or make a living.
Now imagine half a village with it, including the kids.
Now imagine 3.5 million cases in 20 countries. Now imagine it gone. Carter says, “Guinea worm disease is fewer than 1,800 cases away from becoming only the second disease in history to be wiped from the earth.”
The first was smallpox.
So how do you go from 3.5 million cases in 20 countries in 1988 (when The Carter Center began the initiative) to only 1,800 cases in 2010?
The same you way you’re going to solve your problem: You start.
With no treatments or cure, The Carter Center solved this huge problem one person and one village at a time. Guinea Worm is being wiped out chiefly through health education and behavior change, for example using simple tools like water filters to prevent the disease.
Twenty-five years later, not only did they eradicate a disease, they did something even bigger.
They taught people how to solve their own problems.
Carter said, “When people don’t have any success, they feel hopeless. But when they have success on disease, it can inspire them to reach for greatness in other areas of lives.” He says, “We underestimate the ability of people to improve their own lives.” If Jimmy Carter can wipe an entire disease off the planet, don’t you think you can start solving your problems?

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