It was my mistake. The vacation was planned months in advance. Recently I’ve been swimming. Or doggie paddling maybe. I need all of the help I can get as I thrash my way to new personal records (just swam 1km in 33 min for the first time). So I ordered a pair of webbed swimming gloves to help me move more quickly through the water and maintain my upper body strength.

I ordered the gloves before vacation. We planned on leaving on Wednesday morning and Amazon expected the shipment to arrive on Tuesday.  We left a day early on Tuesday and the package was a day late arriving on Wednesday night. Even if we had left at our original time I wouldn’t have received the package. A classic switcheroo. When I returned, there was no package on my doorstep and no package at my apartment office. Poof! Gone like Blackbeard’s treasure. I’m guessing whoever wound up with the package was probably disappointed unless they are a wanna-be amphibian like me.

Who’s fault is it that I didn’t receive the package? I knew better. I saw the timeline was tight. As I’ve wrangled with the intricacies of global manufacturing and fulfillment for my upcoming Kickstarter party game, I’ve learned that logistics is no easy feat, even for Amazon. The reality is that I ordered a package I wasn’t sure I could receive. Amazon always leaves packages at the door and when I clicked the purchase button I knew I was taking a risk.

Admitting my simple lapse of judgement is hardly the purpose of this piece. I had two options after my webbed hands disappeared. I could pass this off to Amazon or maybe the retailer. And in the past I would have clicked the “return or replace items” button on Amazon and not thought twice about it. And wouldn’t that be easy? The gloves were only $8.80. Surely Amazon can absorb that. Maybe it would get passed to the shareholder. Either way, I’m not out the $8.80. In fact, considering the markup on the item, they’d only be out $3. Good deal, right?

Wrong. This type of thinking is exactly what erodes healthy societies. It’s the tragedy of the commons. We identify primarily as individuals, rather than as a member of the group, and care only about extracting the maximum personal benefit without regard for how that affects the common good. Put another way – this is the same as the one kid in class who always ruined it for the rest of class.

In public policy, we’d call these externalities, side effects of an action that is not reflected in the price of a good or service. The litterer and the polluter pass the cost of their actions onto society just like the repeat filer of bankruptcy and the commercial fishing operations depleting fisheries. These and many more costs are bore out by all of society.

It would be really easy to tell Amazon I never received the package. A younger, more selfish Evan would have done this twice without thinking. “It’s not my problem.” What a convenient approach to take. Our opportunity, as humans, citizens and employees, is to take responsibility for our personal actions rather than passing the impacts onto others.

There’s a journey from being one of the crowd to the feeling that you alone are either part of the problem or part of the solution. Whether it’s an Amazon package, littering or stepping up to take responsibility for something in your business, the more we take true personal responsibility of our actions, the stronger we make the whole.

The challenge with this outlook is that the larger the whole, the more likely we are to perceive our individual actions as insignificant. When we are one of 318 million or one of 7.5 billion, it’s easy to see the consequences of our actions as one drop in a large bucket that won’t cause it to overflow. The longer we remain anonymous as individuals, the more we exacerbate many of this century’s biggest challenges. Rugged individualism may have helped build America into a great country. Yet as the world turns a page and enters a new millennium, our choice to identify as a community of humans rather than as a disconnected single entity will define us. Identifying as either a community or as individuals will help seal our common fate, each with drastically different outcomes.

Back to the absconded package. The fundamental breakthrough is realizing that while it’s easier (financially) to report the package lost/stolen, passing those costs on down the line, even in this insignificant purchase, perpetuates the thinking that I am an individual rather than a part of this community.

With Earth Day having just passed, and with the increased recent global trends of isolation, separation, and otherness, I urge you to consider your actions in light of “yourself as an individual” or “yourself as a member of a community”.