What It Takes to Change the World

by | Feb 4, 2014 | Defining Success | 30 comments

It’s become almost cliche to say you want to change the world.

But for you, it’s different. You know deep down that you have something of value to offer. You’re passionate. You’re hungry to make a difference and you’re willing to work hard to make it happen.

So why isn’t it happening?

You tell yourself you have a job to do, maybe a family to feed, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for world changing. And when you’re being really honest with yourself, you admit you just don’t know what to do.

A vague kind of stress gnaws at you. You know it’s ridiculous, but there’s a part of you that expects to be the next Martin Luther King Jr. or Jo Salter.

And the gap between what’ve you’ve done to foster change and what you feel you should be able to do is driving you crazy.

I get it. As an overachiever, I’ve always had big dreams of changing the world too.

Then I realized those big dreams were just holding me back. 

As a kid, I could have easily made the international team for day-dreamers. (I don’t think such a team really exists, but wouldn’t it be awesome if it did?)

I would disappear in my room until my mom started to worry I’d somehow been abducted. On road trips, I would quietly stare out the window hour after hour. I was never that kid who asked, “Are we there yet?” I always had the ability to see what could be, and I loved exploring it.

The first time I thought about actually doing something, I thought I’d cure cancer.

My mom died of cancer my sophomore year of college and I had just declared a biochemistry major. It felt like a way of honoring her while also doing something important. I did some nice work during a six-week college internship, and it even got published in a scientific journal, but that was about the extent of it.

After that, my path to changing the world was less clear.

I was doing important work. My first job out of college was to run a small lab that provided the data necessary to enforce nuclear treaties. As a teacher, I tried to produce class after class that felt a love for chemistry in their hearts (or at least didn’t hate it). At one point, I had the authority to direct tens of millions of dollars in scientific research funding, which in turn influenced what questions the community devoted their efforts to.

But in all these roles, I felt small. I was a cog in the machine, doing my part, but without ever feeling particularly special. My work certainly had impact, but I wasn’t close to making the history books.

How many of us shortchange our efforts this way?

No one changes the world alone. This is one of the biggest world changing myths. We our influence or achievements have to look like this:

How we think change works

How we think change works

But that’s wrong. Real world change often looks like this:

How change really happens

How change really happens

Notice that in this model, any one person is only catalyzing the actions of two people. Your reach doesn’t have to be enormous to create an impact.

The person who ultimately cracks the cure to cancer will do so thanks to the many contributions of scientists and doctors throughout history. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t end racial segregation on his own. His primary contribution was that of a catalyst.

That’s why I love ideas like the one my friend Fran Sorin shared with me. Her mission is to help people reconnect with the natural world and with each other. We had tossed around some ideas on how she could do that, but she came up with something much more elegant and brilliant on her own. Look at this video to see what she’s done. It’s amazing.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

The old me might have smiled politely and said, “Well that’s nice. But really, what does it accomplish?” The wiser me is totally awe-struck. If this isn’t changing the world, I don’t know what is.

Changing the world happens one moment at a time

Listen, what I’ve come to realize is that these small, seemingly insignificant moments are all there is. We don’t zoom with our cameras to only take a picture of the top brick on the top of the pyramids. We stand back to appreciate the full structure.

Each moment in life is like one of those bricks, and through luck or persistence, one of them miraculously finds its way to the top. It’s not that the top brick is so impressive, it’s the capstone to something truly enormous that stops you in your tracks.

Not only can you be part of that, you already are. You just can’t see it.

Case in point, my husband, a fellow instructor I met while teaching at the Air Force Academy (we like to tell people we just had that “chemistry”) recently got an email from a former student who failed his class. When you fail a mandatory course at the Academy, you have to give up your three weeks of vacation and attend summer school. My husband had worked with the student extensively and knew that although she’d failed, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. He argued on her behalf that she should be allowed to take the summer course and still go home for three weeks.

Fifteen years later that student told him it had been a pivotal moment. She told him that without that break, she probably would have dropped out. He didn’t know, but she’d been struggling with more than just chemistry. Instead, she had a breakthrough—she figured out how to study, how to put things in perspective, and went on to have a happy, productive career.

My husband didn’t think he was doing anything particularly momentous when he argued for her break. He’s just a soft-hearted man. It was a small act, but it changed that student’s world.

My friend Arvind heard about a sick child and instead of wishing he could do something to help children like her, he decided to walk the London Marathon while raising money for the charity that provides her nursing care. Efforts like this are a way of life for Arvind. He raises about £2k every year for the various causes that move him.

The overachiever in me loves loves these stories. It completely take the pressure off. I don’t have to cure cancer. I don’t have to invent something to clean all the oceans or solve the energy crisis.

I just have to make someone smile. I just have to be willing to show up, day after day, and add my brick. I may never see the end result. But that’s okay.

I trust the world is in good hands–ours.