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How the world really changes: the path and the delusion

NB: Before we begin: this is the latest article in a series on modern leadership mastery. The series overview and links to previous articles can be found here. 

This may sound insane (even for me), so I’m going to put it very simply: you have the power to change the world.

Yes. You. The person reading this right now. You. You are capable of changing the world. I know that sounds more aspirational than realistic, but stick with me for just a moment.

In fact, there tricks that make changing the world approachable (all of which we’ll cover):

  • Understanding how the world changes
  • Cutting through the delusions that strip you of your power
  • Harnessing what you love in service of others
  • Small, consistent action compounded over time

By combining these things you connect to your innate power as a creator and a leader.

But here’s the problem: society has tricked you into believing that you are powerless; the truth is, you are extremely powerful. My aim today, is to help you see just how powerful you truly are.

Becoming acquainted with your power begins with understanding the delusions that hold you back:

Delusion 1: you cannot change the world

One of the biggest problems facing our planet is the delusion that individuals are powerless to improve it.

So often we see something that is blatantly wrong (homelessness, poverty, violence, abuse, etc), sigh, and wish we could do something to help, but feel unable.

Here’s the truth: you do have power. In fact, if you dedicate a bit of time each week to improving the situation, you will become massively successful.

Harnessing your power requires two things:

1) Taking action. The more aligned your action is with your truth, the more quickly you’ll gain momentum.

2) Understanding that sustainable change happens through the compounding of consistent action (more on this below).

Delusion number 2: you can save the world

A fairly embarrassing confession: when I was 19 I was sure that I could save the world.

Obviously, I can’t.

In fact, I can’t even save a continent. Or a country. Or really, even a singular community. Not on my own at least.

And here’s the thing about saving the world: no one can. So if you’ve been burdening yourself with that pressure of fixing every problem for every person ever, it’s time to release yourself from that.

Besides, if it were truly possible for one person to save the world, we wouldn’t have any problems.

Delusion 3: the world changes overnight

These days, we are wired for instant gratification.When I text a friend, I expect a fairly quick response. If I want a product, I can have it delivered to my doorstep within hours.

Because of this, we have been conditioned to believe that we can change the world quickly. This, of course, is a delusion in and of itself, but it’s a particularly captivating delusion because every now and then, the world does change instantly.

But those moments when the world changes all at once are exceedingly rare and almost always inspired by extreme suffering or violence. A few terrorists slam jumbo jets into sky scrappers, and suddenly, everything is different.

Changing the world for the better requires changing it piece by piece. Moving slowly but surely. Working with individuals and small groups.

When you take on the challenge of changing the world, you’re accepting a challenge that will take more than just minutes, seconds, and hours. Your deepest impact will be realized over the course of months, years, decades, and possibly lifetimes.

A new illness emerges, for example. Through careful experimentation, you figure out how to treat it. Then you make the treatment affordable. Then you create a public education campaign. Then you train others in how to administer the treatment.

Moving from the emergence of the illness to the treatment becoming ubiquitous may take years, but once all is said and done, the world is a notably better place because of your efforts.

The trick to cutting through the delusions: be realistic

Being realistic about your capability is one of the most important parts of accessing your power. If you pretend like you have extreme power when you do not, your expectations of yourself will be divorced from your reality, and you’ll get discouraged quickly. If you pretend that you have no power at all, you’ll never get started.

Here is what is realistic: you have plenty of power. The more you use it, the stronger you become. But if you’re busy aiming at blatantly impossible goals or none at all, you’ll never get started and never create the opportunity to flourish.

How the world really changes part 1: the ripple effect

In order to continue motivating yourself, you need to learn to see the ripple effect. The ripple effect is the phenomena that when you improve one person’s life in the moment, they will often feel the impact well into the future. In many cases, improving one person’s life ripples through to improve the lives of other people too.

Imagine for a moment that you spend two hours each Saturday over the summer volunteering in a literacy program for children.

By investing in the child’s reading ability, you create the potential for them to:

  • Do better in school
  • Perform better on college admissions tests
  • Make more money (which will enable them to provide a more stable environment for their family)
  • Expand their mind
  • Travel the world (it’s exceptionally hard to travel if you can’t read)
  • And a million other things…

An important note about the ripple effect: there is some instant gratification in a single instance of building a better world. If you take a moment and check in with yourself, you’ll notice a quiet sense of contentment. And, if you take a moment to reflect upon the future implications of your work, you’ll notice that you have created the potential for massive change.

How the world really changes part 2: the power of small actions compounded over time

Imagine again that you spend two hours a week volunteering at a literacy program but this time, instead of spending just the summer, you volunteer every single weekend for five years.

Now, instead of just helping one or two children, you’ve helped countless.

Your potential impact has grown exponentially. Now many people’s lives are directly improved because of your work, and many more have been indirectly improved. You are becoming far more influential than the average person.

It’s by combining the ripple effect with the magic of compounding that you will make a truly noticeable difference in our world.

How the world really changes part 3: harness what you love

People often think that in order to lead or serve, you have to sacrifice. Religious icons do this, social justice leaders do this (though sometimes not intentionally), and heroes in movies do this.

One problem: that’s a deeply flawed approach to leadership.

When one person sacrifices herself for someone else or a cause, nothing is gained; pain is just shifted around from one person to another.

But when one person shares something she loves, nothing is lost; both people gain.

If you take nothing else away from this series on leadership, I hope it’s this: the best way to improve your life and the lives of others is by harnessing your passions in service of others.

Love health and fitness? Work with people who are confused about health to get them in the best shape of their lives.

Love making organizations run efficiently? Focus your attention on helping the organizations you believe in.

Love writing and shooting films? Create movies that will inspire conversation about social change, open people’s eyes, or leave them feeling charmed and delighted.

When you harness what you love for the service of others, you pick up speed. It is the fullest and most potent expression of your innate power.

How the world really changes part 4: start where you are. Scale when you can.

And here is the real secret: start now. For most people, starting now means starting small. Perfect. Small is good. Small is realistic. Small, compounded over time becomes huge.

For all people, starting now means starting wherever you are, as opposed to some hoped for version of the future when you have more time or more money or more… whatever (protip: that future will never actually arrive unless you start now).

Take the first step to giving back to your community, or reducing suffering, or building your organization, or creating joy now.

And if you’re struggling with the first step, or you don’t think you can start now, try breaking it down into an even smaller task.

Most people get caught up focusing on what they can’t do. The trick is to keep doing the things that you can do, and scaling your efforts when the opportunity emerges.

Maybe all you can do now is volunteer for one hour a month. Perfect. Do that.

Maybe in the future you can volunteer for two hours. Or maybe you can also donate $50/year.

Maybe in the future, you can get a few friends to volunteer with you.

Maybe in the future, you can take a leadership role in the organization. Or build your own.

If you’re building or growing an organization start by dedicating the resources that you have available now. It will start to grow.

Start where you are. One baby step forward is infinitely greater than none. As your leadership ability increases, your power will too.

Scale when you can, but for now, just start.

How the world really changes part 5: start with you

One final note: nothing in the world – and especially in your personal world – will change until you take action.

In many cases, the most dramatic effect you’ll be able to achieve begins with changing yourself. Take the time to realize how awesome, and how powerful you are. Stop surrendering to paralyzing delusions of impotence and omnipotence, and instead, admit that you are awesome and powerful.

You’ll notice that as your life improves, the people around you will start improving their lives too. Bit by bit, you’re becoming more powerful and more capable. You’ll start to feel inspired to improve other people’s lives. You’ll want the same success and happiness and stability for others that you want for yourself. That is real leadership. You’ll understand how to create change too. That is real power. That is how you change the world.

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