We’ve all been told, at some point or another, that we could “change the world.” We’ve heard it from parents, teachers, in public speeches and even in the Pokemon theme song. It’s a message that’s so simple that a child could understand it, but it’s also very confusing.
In fact, what does it actually mean to change the world?
Many of us think (or used to think) that changing the world meant doing something BIG. Something on a scale that would transcend social or cultural boundaries, that would immediately touch and impact millions of people in a profound, life-changing way. Like when Henry Fordbuilt the first car in a world where horses were the dominant mode of transportation; or when we put a man on the moon for the first time.
This is certainly a valid way of going about changing the world. In the tech world, these are called "moon-shots,” because they represent a major departure from the status quo (just like how going to the moon was!).
But there’s a reason why everyone isn’t developing moonshots like teleportation or next-generation gene editing technology. For one, they’re often prohibitively expensive- both in terms of the sheer amount of money required, as well as the time investment, given that there’s no guarantee of success. Not to mention that they usually require an unusual degree of knowledge and access to resources. While it’s reasonable to expect two college dropouts to build a computer, it’s unreasonable to expect them to be able to build a cold fusion reactor, for example.
There’s also the “top-down” method, where you identify problems (as in large scale, societal problems), and try to incentivize people to behave differently, in order to fix it. In practise, this is easier to do as there’s no shortage of urgent problems to tackle in the world. The roadblocks here are philosophical. Human beings find it hard to trust someone whose primary motivation is to change other people’s behaviour. This is because we usually identify this kind of behaviour as manipulation.
But there’s a third option, that I believe is actually doable at the individual level- meaning every single person on the planet, regardless of who they are, has the potential to change the world.
It’s based on what Socrates said, hundreds of years ago-
“Let he who would change the world, first change himself!”
The truth is, you can’t change other people- let alone millions of people at a time. It’s a logistical nightmare, and a daunting and unreasonable request to make of anyone. But you can change yourself- and influence change in the small circle of people around you. You might find that your circle isn’t nearly as small as you think it is.
There’s this famous mathematical idea (attributed to Francis Bacon) called Six Degrees of Separation.https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/francis-bacon/
The idea was that if you picked any two random people on the planet, they could be connected by a chain of six common people. Meaning if you picked Person A and Person B at random from the world, then Person A would know Person 1, Person 1 would know Person 2, and so on, and the 6th person would know Person B.
At the time, Francis Bacon used this as a means to illustrate how small the world actually was, despite the fact that the geographical distances between individual people were hard to traverse.
However, interestingly- today we find that there are no longer six degrees of separation.
Many companies, such as Twitter and LinkedIn, have participated in what’s called the “Small World Project,” where it was found in 2016 that the degree of separation was no longer six, but in fact around 4.7.
Now, what that means is that a single person, on average, has about a thousand (1000) people in their “circle,” or their network. That’s impressive- but it gets even more impressive when you consider that their secondary network (their “friends of friends”) is 1000 * 1000 = 1,000,000 people. Their third degree reach is a billion people.
So whether you realize it or not, you’re actually at the center of a very dense network. Meaning your potential to do good is unbelievably high- and this is how I think we can actually change the world.
Imagine that you and I were having a conversation about something- even if it’s something commonplace, like our daily routines. Let’s say that halfway through our conversation, you say something that gets me thinking. What you’ve done is that you’ve changed my perspective. In other words, you’ve changed how I see the world. So for that one person you were speaking to (in this example, me), you’ve changed my world. That’s my formula for changing the world- by making our individual interactions memorable, being kind when it’s not expected of you, taking the time to genuinely compliment someone etc.
Afterall, these days- what you say to one person, you’re saying to a thousand.