Change the World?

Posted on 2014 November 20


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We can change the world. / Rearrange the world. — Graham Nash

Back in the day, it was an American commonplace that any kid could grow up to be president. Today people tell boys and girls they can grow up to be the next Steve Jobs.

We also tell our children they can grow up to change the world. It seems like a good thing to encourage them to dream big. What can go wrong?

Eventually these kids matriculate into the adult world, where they discover that the boss is not easily moved, nor social situations quickly altered, nor wars or diseases or other catastrophes suddenly vanquished. These newly minted citizens become cynical, sometimes giving up their dreams altogether and replacing them with mundane distractions.

Maybe the problem is that we give kids false hopes. But who wants to point out that almost nobody really ever does become president … or Steve Jobs? Only a handful of people in history have “changed the world”, so the chances are millions to one against any individual. But kids are lousy at statistics, and so are we, so we fall into the trap of believing — and hoping — that the unlikely is probable.

. . . the world’s mine oyster, / Which I with sword will open. — Shakespeare

What’s more, the notion that we can “change the world” is fundamentally arrogant. How is it that we know better than the rest of humanity how it should run itself? Who died and appointed us gods? We’re offended when pompous Islamics campaign to force others to convert to their religion; why, then, do we insist our way of life should be spread around the globe instead?

We grew up expecting that the Earth would become our personal toy; then we discover that seven billion other people have their own ideas about how things should be, and our dreams get rudely interrupted. Our young minds failed to consider that this world doesn’t belong to us, nor does it wish to sit at our feet for instruction.

If we are to be fair to our children, perhaps we should stop misleading them with unicorn dreams and, instead, offer them more practical and useful ways of thinking about their future:

  • From “changing the world” to “creating opportunities”: It’s popular these days to think of social problems as solvable through “struggle”. This is a code word for “forcing others to behave.” It’s a prescription for trouble. If, instead, we focus on creating resources that assist others, many problems will begin to clear up without any struggle at all. Our entire attitude brightens when we move from “change”, which often requires compulsion, to “opportunities”, which encourage free choice and open-ended possibility. If we create what’s truly useful, it won’t be swept away by opposition or resistance but will, instead, be absorbed into society as a whole. Our constructive efforts generate ripples of usefulness that spread outward. It’s a way of thinking about challenges that can inspire kids now and not disappoint them later.
  • From arrogance to usefulness: Our change-the-world attitude reeks of hubris. When others resist our campaigns, we conclude that change can only happen if we overcome and dominate them. It’s like saying, “Some of us will triumph, while the rest must be left behind.” This certainly doesn’t make room for everyone; it regards our opponents’ most cherished desires as illegitimate and wrong. It’s prejudiced. But we can shift our perspective from the old idea — that people change only through struggle — to the more modern view that societies improve when its members use ingenuity to solve day-to-day problems. It’s not as spectacular as a revolution, but, like water that cuts deep canyons, our constructive efforts grind away at human problems. Modern technology offers enormous potential to solve intractable issues without bloodshed, to create prosperity without force. We ought, then, to encourage kids to step away from the old winner/loser ethos and aim at being creatively productive for any and all.
  • From obstacle to resource: Our kids will eventually find themselves at work in offices and factories and clinics and schools, and soon they’ll chafe at the restrictions of the workplace. All those youthful bromides about “change” wither in the face of intractable bureaucrats and baked-in traditions. It’s easy for young adults to become angry and resist these implacable foes. But parents and teachers can first introduce children to the idea of converting problems into assets. It’s not always easy, and every situation is different, and every solution requires ingenuity. But simply by raising the possibility, they’ll have presented kids with perhaps the most powerful and useful skill they can acquire. And when they grow up, instead of becoming frustrated and angry, they just might be able to angle that rule-bound bureaucracy so it points in a more useful direction.

Most of us never learned this stuff when we were kids. We need to teach it to ourselves now … and pass it along to our children. Then, instead of trying to change the world, they can create opportunities for it. And that will cause the biggest changes of all.

Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love. ― Mother Teresa