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The Power of One

One of the wonderful thing about good stories is that they echo through your brain, reverberating off whatever other ideas and thoughts happen to be in there at the time.

When I first downloaded Company Eight, by Matthew Pearl, I was intrigued by the chance to read about a piece of history I had literally never before considered: how our modern fire departments came to be. This is still how I pitch the story to friends I think should read it. It is a well-researched and fascinating look at how something we all take for granted came to be.

But it is more than that, too. As it echoed through my brain, it bumped into some thoughts about how things change, and what one person can hope to accomplish with her life.

It is hard to find the right balance between ambition and optimism to make the world better (for whatever value “better” assumes in your own worldview) and realism about what one person can do. I am generally an optimistic person, but change can be slow in coming and which efforts will take root and actually make something happen in the world depends frustratingly on chance as well as effort.

The amazing thing in Company Eight is that Willard Sears did manage to bring about great and long-lasting change. It was not through his efforts alone- very few things ever are actually due to the efforts of one individual. Still, it was through Sears’ efforts that the possibility of a different sort of fire department was demonstrated, and it was through his efforts and due to his savvy that the change was finally realized, and the rough volunteer fire brigades of Boston were replaced with a paid professional force.

There were setbacks, and for a time it seemed that Sears’ effort was going to come to naught. Eventually, though, the chance came again. That Sears was able to seize that chance, applying what he had learned in earlier attempts, is a great example for any of us who hope to change the world, in ways large or small. Change is hard to achieve, and does not always happen in a single smooth storyline. Efforts can seem to fail, only to be revived and succeed years later. Not all of us are as lucky as Sears was and get to see the second coming of our ideas. But his story can inspire us to keep trying, nonetheless.

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