As the founder of Slavery Footprint and Made in a Free World, Justin Dillon went from touring musician to major activist — but why? In his new book, A Selfish Plan to Save the World, Justin describes how working on the problems of the world using the talents and skills you already have is a recipe for a purposeful life. We interviewed Justin prior to the launch of the book to talk about his inspirations, and how meeting the needs of the world can end up meeting our own needs, too.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. In the introduction of the book, you call it a “self-help-others book.” Can you elaborate on that concept?
When one buys a self-help book, there’s a problem they’re trying to solve in their life. It could be time management, it could be ability to make better life choices. We buy this self-help content to help re-adjust our lives. We all have these questions about our lives, like what’s the purpose of my life, what’s the purpose of my job, am I really working at my potential, am I making the right decisions? These are deep soul-ish questions. These questions can vex us.
So this book is addressing those issues while saying that we find ourselves when we give ourselves away. We find out who we are, and why we’re here, when we actually invest in the problems of others. And that could be any problem anywhere: someone with a problem in Syria or someone with a problem living next door. It doesn’t matter. The idea here is that we solve for our need for meaning and purpose in life by investing in the problems of others.
Was there a specific moment or event that led you to want to commit all of that to a book?
It’s an idea that I’ve carried around throughout most of my adult life. At a very young age, I knew that my life wasn’t normal. I came from a suburban neighborhood with the same two parents. I knew by 13 years old that my life wasn’t normal. Everything I read and saw on TV told me my childhood was privileged. It shaped my soon-to-be-adult world: If you’ve been given a life where you get to have the luxury of choosing your job and choosing a school and choosing what you get to eat, that’s a privilege. And privilege only works if you leverage it for those who don’t have it.
Part of the way to build a meaningful life is to leverage your extra. Not just by giving it away but by turning it into something fulfilling. We live in an extraordinary time in history. The fact that we get to choose our meals and choose our jobs, and choose where we live means we’ve got “extra” and in some cases “privilege.” People throughout most of history and most of the world don’t get to choose these things. Compared to history and much of the world, we have discretionary resources that are begging to be leveraged. This freedom of choice creates inside of us a need for meaning, a need to understand what to do with our discretionary resources. It’s possible to drown in our freedom of choice, and drown in our discretionary time and resources by only trying to get more of it. Because that’s not a way to meaning.
I think in the book I say that you can get a ton of happiness by getting more resources and more attention and all the rest of it — it certainly provides happiness. But don’t mistake that for purpose. Many of us live below the poverty line of meaning. And that’s what I’m trying to fix with this book.
In the book, you describe attending a sort-of “bipartisan prom” or event. Why do you think bipartisan efforts are so important in the fights against poverty, slavery, and the big issues that plague our world?
We need to find safe places to agree and be vulnerable. And advocacy is one of those places that we can just check our voting cards, our parties, our social class or intelligence class, or whatever “it” is. When we take on the problems of others we get to check those things at the door and come together. There is a vulnerability that we share with each other, regardless of our opinions, that is bound in the vulnerability of others.
And I have seen this first hand. I’ve seen vulnerability in Senators and billionaires. It’s just the craziest thing in the world, to think a billionaire needs anything. They need to be needed, to be found useful, to contribute a verse. This wholesale vulnerability that we share regardless of the commas and zeroes in our bank accounts is where we come together and connect. We need this type of connection, and vulnerability, now more than ever.
As a follow-up, can you tell me more about working with politicians and the State Department on Slavery Footprint?
We found a way to work together where science and art — politics and private citizenry— can really mutually benefit each other. The State Department took a chance on me, and in some ways, I took a chance on them, because working in the cultural and innovative space is very different than politics, but each has its own power. Slavery Footprint is one of those very unique situations where different and unique strengths came together to build a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
These unlikely partnerships are the key to creating change. This is the answer to your question: We change the world when we unlikely partners come together. You know, a billionaire and a student. Or State Department and an artist. An advocacy organization and Senator. It’s within these partnerships that you can do things together that you can’t do alone.
Later on in the book, you discuss how charities sometimes use desperation as a motivator and how that doesn’t really work for a long-term activation. Why do you think that is?
I think that the face of charity — and maybe not just the face but the fundamentals of charity are in the midst of a pivot. And that’s okay; everything has to change. Charity has to change as well as it moves into the 21st century. I was having this discussion with the head of one of the largest NGOs a couple weeks ago, and they were telling me how hard it is to get donors to understand the longer play of advocacy, because many donors, myself included, want quick solutions for people suffering desperate situations. He used the example that I use in my book of constantly pulling people that are drowning out of a river and stopping to go upriver to find the strong man that’s pushing people in the river.” Pulling people out of the river is saving the world. Stopping the strongman from throwing people in the river is changing the world. Advocacy is changing the world.
The natural gravity for many organizations is to use desperation to garner a transactional approach so that we can just get this immediate work done — which is extremely important, right? We can’t stop these things. It’s hard to get donors to understand that we need to invest in something that’s not transactional, and move up river and change the world, not just save it.
At the same time, we need to be thinking about what will charity look like in the next 25 years? Can we move from kind of a pity motive to one of parity? Meaning, how can we start to tell the stories about how the Developing World is enmeshing and interdependent with the Developed World, and how poverty in one part of the world is going to affect progress in another part of the world. So it’s more than just looking at global challenges like poverty and injustice through a different mindset. While pity is something that we all feel — but what’s inside of every one of us, and something that’s far more powerful than pity is our capacity for parity — the acknowledgment that we are connected to those who live very different lives.
So what advice would you give to someone who wants to get more involved in activism and has maybe been hesitant up until now or felt like they don’t have the time or the talents to do so?
The problem I am trying to solve with this book is to express how valuable each of us are to the world. We undervalue and underestimate how impactful our time and our talents are in solving big problems in the world. I truly believe that each of us has untapped superpowers that come out when we turn to the change the world.
The problem is that we are taught to avoid chaos and resistance – especially the chaos of others. Resistance is how we become our true selves. None of us expect to go to the gym once and walk out 20 pounds lighter. We go to the gym for one thing: resistance. It makes us stronger, it makes us healthier, and opens up our minds. In the same way, we can’t find our purpose in our life without applying ourselves to the problems of others.
The starting point that I make in the book is: Spend time understanding what matters to you, because that is probably the place where you will find yourself. This is what I call “Find Your Riot.” Find your cause. Find something bigger to live for. If people are saying, “Human trafficking is a big deal,” and you’re like, “Yeah I care about it… but man, I really care about the refugee crisis or I really care about gun violence in my neighborhood,” you must follow that riot and see where it takes you. I would say that’s what’s most important.
And be sure that you understand this timeless premise: Those who changed the world were initially unqualified to do so. Our world is calling out for those who are unqualified to fix it.