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How to change the world: Be the change

· Leadership,Values,How To Guides

There are many people who seek to change the world in some way - for better or for worse. Very few large scale changes have been made in the grand scheme of things, but all those that have occurred and fill our history books do so because an inside-out approach was taken.

The process of change

Lasting changes only happen when the initiators of change have the right mindset. The best way to describe this mindset that I have found so far is the following poem written on the tomb of an Anglican bishop:

When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world.

As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country.
But, it too, seemed immovable.
As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it.
And now as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realize: If I had only changed my self first, then by example I would have changed my family.
From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country and, who knows, I may have even changed the world.

As I change the world changes with me, quote, change from within
Why changing the world first doesn't work

The poem above beautifully states that in order to make any change you need to start with the self. To see why this works you only need to consider the times when this doesn't happen. Imagine, for instance, that an individual steps on stage at a leaders’ world summit to propose we all work against climate change - having arrived on a fuel guzzling private jet. Or that a musician plays at a gig to encourage charitable donations to aid the underprivileged, but is known for avoiding paying their taxes.

In these examples it is obvious that large scale changes will never occur. Some individuals hearing the message may buy into the principles of the message itself - but many will be dissuaded by the hypocrisy of the communicator. When an individual doesn't live by their word then listeners begin to think "Well they don't truly believe it, so why should I do it?"

This effect can be seen all the way down the chain of social change. At any stage if the individual is not practicing what they preach then others will not internalise the message or way of life.

Live your message

If you want to change the world the best thing that you can do is live the change yourself. This may come naturally or may take a lot of careful reflection. What kind of world do you want to live in? What would the people in it do? Say? Behave like?

When you have worked out the answers to these questions then it is a case of putting those things into practice yourself. They will become your guiding principles and after practicing them for 30 days or so they will start to become automatic: in other words, habits.

It is at this point that you will start to be able to authentically change the minds of others. If you have lived your message for long enough people will see your commitment to it and will be more responsive to hearing your reasons for wanting that change. Obviously there will always be people who oppose a suggestion because variety is the spice of life. But at least they won’t be able to question your commitment or accuse you of hypocrisy because you will be living in line with your vision of change.

A change in sport:

In pole vaulting, everyone had always jumped forwards over the bar with their upper body higher than their legs. An American revolutionised the technique in the late 1800s by realising that he could flick his body over the bar sideways – reducing his centre of gravity. This made it easier to get a higher jump. If he had explained this to other people they would have shown very little interest in using the technique because it “wasn’t the way things were done”. But by showing people the technique in action, by living that method, others soon saw the value of it. Now it is the only technique used in pole vaulting as it seems to be the most efficient.

pole vaulting technique changed over time, leading by example
A change in politics:

If you consider the black rights movement in America, the social and political changes driven there were carried forth by ordinary people who lived by their ideals. The likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Jessie Owens all carried the message that people should be treated equally, regardless of their skin colour. At the time this was a radical idea and was especially disliked by some individuals who had lived through years of prejudiced teachings. What made these black rights activists so inspiring, and so able to change people’s mindsets, was their conviction to live the way they wanted the world to be.

Rosa Parks peacefully sat at the front of the bus, normally reserved for white people, in order to demonstrate her belief that she had the same rights as a white person. Jessie Owens competed in the Olympics, with Hitler in the audience, despite overwhelming prejudice and pressure that black people could not perform as well in sports as white people. Martin Luther King Jr. famously made the speech that stated he longed for a world where people were treated based on their character rather than their colour. He lived this message through peaceful protest but also by being respectful to all those around him, regardless of colour. In these instances, setting an example for others was enough to spark support on a mass scale from people who were perhaps too afraid to make the changes themselves.

Martin Luther Kind Jr. causes social change through his speech and living by his principles.
In summary

In order to create any change we must always start from the inside out. When we lead by example it encourages others to follow and sometimes even liberates others – making them feel free to do the same when before they were unsure if it was acceptable or the done thing. The examples above are much wider social and historical changes, but small changes are just the same. Making sure to recycle in your family may convince those around you. Making a point to talk to the new kids at school may get your classmates acting differently too. Whole world changes always start off with small acts that form a ripple effect and can become something much bigger.

So, as Mahatma Gandhi famously said:

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Image credits:
Teacher Dude - We can change the world, 2012
BK - Symphony of Love As I change, the world change with me, 2014

Etienne-Jules Marey & Harold Edgerton - Pole Vaulting

Tony Fischer - I have a dream, 2009

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