Don’t Try to Change the World

(the following is the Graduation speech I intend to give one day, if I am ever deemed important or interesting enough to be asked to give one.)

“Welcome to the world.”

“New doors are opening for you.”

“Go make a difference in the world around you.”

Around the country, at this very moment, people like me are giving people like you advice on how to live your lives. And if we aren’t actually delivering the speech, we’re writing it, honing it, practicing it, and worrying about it. Along that path, we are parsing words, trimming sections, and loading it with saccharine garbage like the first three lines I shared with you.

“Welcome to the world.” What does that mean? You’ve been in the world for 17 or 18 years already. You’re just about to see a lot more of it. “New doors are opening.” That makes for a nice fortune cookie, but doors open and close all the time. “Go make a difference in the world.” Let me tell you, that’s some of the most dangerous thinking imaginable, a recipe for an unhappy life. I’m going to share six words with you – Don’t try to change the world.

The Triumph of the Ego

We already have enough people trying to change the world, thank you. And I’m not so sure they’re in it for the right reasons. You certainly can’t tell they are serious about it by the professions they choose. I went to journalism school, and later as a working journalist I met many students. The number one reason for going into journalism? “I want to make the world a better place.” I was a political theory minor, and mingled with many people who later went into politics, working as candidates, bureaucrats, and campaigners. “I want to make the world a better place.” When someone seeking power wants to change the world in their image, be careful. Some go into education, with the idealistic notion of raising the next generation with a new set of values. They want to change the world too.

There are many other examples, I’m not just picking on those professions. But let’s be realistic for one moment. Look at the tiny fraction of the planet you’ve seen, and the minuscule percentage of humanity you’ve actually met. Your experiences are limited and skewed in so many ways. It is a coping mechanism of the human brain that fools us into thinking we can grasp the enormity of this planet. 12 humans have set foot on the moon, and looked back on this gigantic, wet, sloshy ball of magma with a crusty outer shell. Those astronauts – to a man – have a completely different perspective on this world. I dare say those of us who have only flown on airplanes can’t relate.

Our mind fixes our horizons at the limits of what we’ve seen, because the notion of the vast unseen and the infinite unexplained is scary. You know the world around you quite well. You are a product of it. Taking your limited experience and pledging to use that as a template to change the rest of the world is an exercise in ego.

Attainable Goals

Setting a goal of changing the world is a recipe for unhappiness. Name an individual that in your mind has changed the world, and you’ll find much pain, much suffering, and little fulfillment. You’ll find that many of them died before their contributions made any difference. You’ll find several who were ridiculed for chasing an idea. A few were persecuted, tortured, and killed for their aberrant beliefs.

There is a common thread among those who have truly changed the world. They didn’t have that as a goal. Their claim to history was an accident, a coincidence, a by-product of doing something completely ordinary. The people who claim they want to “change the world” have little patience for staring at the stars, like a Galileo. They don’t track the movement of the sun, like the creators of the Mayan calendar. They weren’t horsing around with chemicals, like the inventor of gunpowder. They don’t have the patience to look at little bugs like a Leewenhouk, nor play with moldy bread to find penicillin. They aren’t as apt to spend the time studying math and science and engineering and medicine to be in the right place for a truly world-changing discovery.

The people who do study math and science and engineering and medicine don’t start out to change the world. They start with the express purpose of helping people solve specific problems.

The Business of Revolution

Changing the world is a noble calling, and one that is hard to impeach. If some of you are uncomfortable in hearing what I have to say, then prepare to get even more uncomfortable. Because many of you who have in the past expressed that dream of “changing the world” have in the process thumbed your nose at others who are “greedy” or “selfish” for wanting to study business and finance. Within this very graduating class there are those who have already decided that others are less moral for ignoring the problems of the world.

Yet its these same businessmen who end up making a huge difference in the world, by creating opportunities for others. They deliver products and services that raise standards of living. They employ thousands of workers, who get to do things they love for profit. And God forbid those businessmen make billions of dollars that end up channeled into philanthropic efforts. Someone pays for those volunteers who help in overseas disasters. Someone pays for the creation and distribution of measles vaccines across Africa. Men like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are pooling their fortunes to make a big difference in individual lives and fortunes… and they didn’t start out saying “Hey, I want to change the world. Let me start by dropping out of Harvard and writing an operating system for a PC.”

Laugh all you want, but Sam Walton did more than undersell the competition. The techniques Walmart has pioneered in the use of technology to track inventory has changed the way the world does business. Economies are more efficient, which means more people have an improved standard of living. Even those who never shop at Walmart, or would never be caught dead in one. Walton didn’t try to change the world. He drove a beat-up pickup truck to work. He just wanted to bring people goods and services at a better price. And in the process he changed the way the world does business. (Even Target and Costco.)

Visions of Grandeur

Many of the men who have pledged to change the world have indeed done so. Some guy named Hitler had some pretty big notions about how the world could be a better place. I wonder how much more encouraged he would have been with a modern guidance counselor pushing him to explore his vision of paradise. Alexander the Great brought the known world together under a sword. The scientists behind the Manhattan Project were torn from day to day, not knowing if their splitting of the atom was the beginning of a new age or an end to the known one.

Even the men of power, like Hitler, weren’t so special. Many are a product of their time and culture. If a paper-hanger named Adolf had not written Mein Kampf, some other blue collar German nationalist would have written something similar. And the public would have reacted in a similar way. Historians will tell you that history doesn’t change because of special individuals — it is fulfilled through them. Hitler was a product of his time. He was a product of the zeitgeist. So was FDR. So was Truman. So was Ronald Reagan. So are most of us – even if fate singles one or two out to be the lightning rod of attention. Don’t get too hung up on trying to be one of those Big Names of History. History has a funny way of taking your legacy in a different direction, and you can do a lot of damage and create much suffering on the way.

A Simple Request

My goal is not to dash your dreams, nor keep you from reaching for the best you can achieve. On the contrary – what I share with you now is an ingredient in every recipe for a meaningful life: If you want to build a better world, start by building a better you.

Read a book. Exercise. Do something nice for someone else. Work hard. Play hard. Don’t run from problems. Don’t shirk your duties. Love those around you with a passion and a spirit that can’t be quenched. Be yourself. Think for yourself. Help others learn to be and think for themselves, not how you would have them be.

When you do those things, you create a spirit of accomplishment and achievement that makes everyone around you better people. Forget the world – impact your world. Your family, your friends, your associates, your co-workers, and the strangers that wander into your life’s walk. Be an influence. Leave a legacy with those that matter the most.

When you set out to change the world, you start with an impossibly narrow goal and astronomical odds. When you set out to improve yourself, you have an achievable goal and a lifetime to get there. When you aim to change the world, any deviation of the course is a failure. When you aim to improve yourself, a deviation may just lead to a different improvement. When you dream of changing the world, you impose upon others the arrogance of your vision. When you dream of changing yourself, you share with others the humility of your station.

The world – our world – is a very big place. Don’t get lost while trying to stake your claim to fame. By locking yourself into other people’s ideas about what is important, you might just miss your real chance to change your world for the better.

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  1. I hope you get to deliver this speech some day. I saved it on delicious with this note: “Forget the world – impact your world.”

  2. wow, good speech! I’ll link to it and try to get some of my students to read it.

  3. Sarah Marchetti says:

    Love it! This is so true, especially for people pursuing non-profit careers. I think there is some dissatisfaction because people are trying to change the world and then get disappointed when their job is heavy on office work.

  4. Jeez, Occam, sometimes you are SO good. But remember that your audience is hungover, that the sun is hot, that the mononucleosis already has them nodding before you begin. That they’re immortal.

    Start with “I’m going to share six words…” Keep the subheads, and Hitler, and the theme. Imagine it as a Twitter. Okay, a Twitter for each subhead.

  5. Brilliant. If you give it at a high school graduation, you had better take a look at the valedictorian’s speech. No doubt it will have some of that sappy, amorphous blather you mentioned at the beginning. You may wind up reducing him to tears.

  6. Ike, As far as speeches go this is a great essay. Not that it isn’t one helluva of a speech, but I think I agree with Paul–you might lose a high school audience.

    But your thesis is amazing. Think about flushing it out in print (seriously).

  7. @Connie and Dr. V – Thanks. It’s here on the web, precisely because I don’t think any sane administrator would ever let me deliver it. It’s a dangerous anti-dote to the artificially high levels of self-esteem we’ve pumped into their systems. (Or as ADM would say, “We’ve piped too many vitamin-D rays into their nethers.”)

    @Sarah – I honestly didn’t even think of non-profits as I wrote it. But you’re right on the money. (…and being out of the non-profit world yourself, you’re finally with the money.)

    @Paul – You have a point, but it would also apply to the standard dose of Vitamin-D Rays that any other speaker would project. Maybe we can send it as mandatory SMS messages to all the kids as they’re at their most sober – driving to the beach.

    @Drew – And exactly where would you find a male valedictorian?

    @Michael – I don’t think there’s a high school that would want me to give this as a speech. Glad you like it – and I’m sure it will evolve and emerge in some other size or format down the road. Although I feel I have a better chance finding a school that will allow the address than a publishing house that would print “Occam: The Book!”

  8. Ike, I’ll step in with my “European perspective” here to state with undeniable clarity that were this speech to be delivered to Gen C’ers and Gen X’ers here in my part of the globe, we’d see a sudden rise in the suicide rate…in fact, I’d read something off the Czech wires today about how the suicide has risen from y-to-y…

    As astute as your observations always are…and as mellifluous as you always seem to deliver them with such flowing sentences and word choice…I’d have to say that we’ve not entirely contextualized. There are entire countries — and legions of youth — not to mention, say, the young of Iran, in which over 50% of the population is under 30…imagine telling these oppressed youth that the world isn’t their oyster. I don’t know…somehow, it doesn’t exactly square.

    Nothing beats consistency, nothing beats dogged nose to the grindstone type of behaviour, but our young people out here need to be catalyzed. This, to them, would be painful — don’t you realize how they look to their leadership to the West to gain their daily inspiration?

    Just a thought…

  9. ADM – thanks for the perspective. I’m not sure how this would translate into every culture, but I would dare say history would bear me out worldwide. Most of the people who set out to change the world never do — and those who do change the world didn’t start with that as the objective.

  10. I was always taught all change occurs locally.

    Not at school of course, but from my parents.

    I realized that in order to make any I’d
    have to at least appear qualified to make that change, thus a change of plans in regards to grad school.

    I feel in some cases a larger noise must be made in order for those who can make change to hear, and to provoke those who can effect change take to take the reins,, and sometimes they need a hand.

    As is the case with many causes, Darfur in particular, we are still waiting for the change to occur from the bottom up – one day maybe.

    If everyone did something in their neighborhood, community, city or state to affect change what amazing difference we would see.

    They do not teach that though, at least not in any great depth, in most parts of this country, and it needs to be taught very early, and examples need to be set.

    You should take that speech on the road.

  11. Coop — God bless you — you’re one of the few who do “get it.” I’m not here to bury idealism, just to match it up with the realism that will give us results.

    I’m glad you’re around.

  12. Don’t Try to Change the World aka The Tao.

  13. Great thought Ike, and I so agree with you that if we want to build a better world, we should start by building ourselves. I am so tired and sick hearing those guys who are saying that they will change the things around them by doing projects, building a new system, blah..blah…blah…

    I also hate the people who do nothing but blame their leaders, the government or the business people for their poverty. We all talk a lot, we often see other’s mistakes but we seldom see or perhaps never acknowledge that we have our own shortcomings.

  14. Glad that I read this post along with all the comments.

    I agree with the premise that our conceptions of how to ‘change the world’ are probably too limited to do the good we are hoping for. But, working to make changes in our own lives, or those around us, can make a big difference on a smaller scale.

    When we think about changing the world, it’s with a grand notion that the lives of millions of people will be improved and that we will see the fruits of our labor and be vindicated.

    Compassion for the individual gets lost in that line of thinking. And, if you ask me, that’s what it’s really all about. Making a difference in the life of one person is valuable. When we start thinking of the value we can bring to a specific individual, we are more likely to get concrete results.

    And, as Cooper said, if we can affect each other as individuals at a local level, then we can work together to bring about those larger changes.

    I like the way you phrased it, “I’m not here to bury idealism, just to match it up with the realism that will give us results.”

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  16. Very insightful and on the mark.

  17. Ike, I think that you’ve taken the pressure off of these young adults to have to live up to an unrealistic goal. if I was sitting in the audience with someone telling my graduating class to go out and change the world, I’d look around at my peers and know that we can’t ALL make that kind of impact. That some – most – will fail in that aspiration. But, bringing the challenge down to a personal level, well, that is achievable and attainable. It might not sound as glamorous, but it’s at the root of all change.

  18. Matthew McVeagh says:

    I don’t agree. There are people for whom “trying to change the world” is exactly what they want to do, which for me therefore means it’s exactly what they should do. How easy to achieve it is is irrelevant. It’s probably right that people giving these speeches shouldn’t preach world-changing as a universal duty, as it is not for everyone and the motive in the speech-givers mostly seems to be a platitudinous, ill-thought out optimism rather than a coherent, purposeful, realistic course of advice. Some people want ‘only’ to be homemakers and that is fine and should respected equally with more ambitious goals. But equally it would be wrong to tell young people to forget any great world-changing ideals they have to only aim for ‘attainable’ goals – i.e. ones that are easier without necessarily being desired by them.

    I think the best advice, certainly what I would give, is for each individual young person to get a good look into themselves and work out what they’re about, what their true values are underneath any conditioning and surface social influence, and what would make them feel fulfilled and ‘doing the right thing’ by their own lights. Which may be ‘changing THE world’, ‘changing THEIR world’, or something else, it doesn’t really matter, as long as they are not co-opted into or out of an approach to life that is not actually appropriate to their real self.

    It may be true that many individuals who have tried to change the world have had “much pain, much suffering”, but it is not necessarily the case that they did not have fulfilment, unless you define that as “mild contentment brought by conforming to rather than challenging contemporary/local norms and keeping one’s head down”, which obviously they didn’t. They were motivated to try and change things more fundamentally, so that was what fulfilled them, whatever their fate and treatment. And considering so many GOOD aspects of our world originated with such people I for one deeply respect and celebrate their choice of life.

  19. Matthew, I appreciate what you are trying to say.

    I’ll probably get thrown in the Eternal Cynics Club for this, but most adults have never contemplated their core values, nor will they. Of the graduating seniors who are listening to such speeches, the ones who think they “have it all figured” are living in idealism will later find themselves attached to other guiding principles.

    The last thing we need is another wave of kids ready to “change the world.” Where we DO agree is that people should take an approach to life that is appropriate to them. My advice not only saves the vast majority from a future moment of disconnect and disillusionment, it actually ends up changing the world on the scale of the individual.

    Everyone wants someone else to change the course of the climate, yet I have to pay to change the oil in my car. It’s the classic battle of the ideal and the pragmatic.


  21. this is good, and the day you posted it, i was going to post the baz luhrman / bogus kurt vonnegut thing, but didn’t . .b ut we should cycle this back through, and i’ll do it then. . . . also have lotsa other points to add. love this one though. did you feel i fairly characterized your work when i introduced it to my FB friends that day? you never said . . just curious. (said something like “timeless” etc.)


  1. says:

    Grad Speeches: Who flopped and who rocked in 2008…

    Corporate communicator and blogger Ike Pigott has penned a graduation speech he hopes to one day give, and it sounds almost nothing like the typical commencement address….

  2. […] just tried leaving the following comment on a previous post: WHEN U R READING THIS DONT STOP ORSOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN! MY NAME ISSUMMER I […]

  3. LewisG says:

    Great minds… RT @ikepigott Change yourself first Good stuff Ike. For my take RT Hope

  4. Ike Pigott says:

    @barbaranixon – I addressed some of those Life-myths here:

  5. Ike Pigott says:

    Some poor soul Googled for "creative high school valedictorian speech openings" and landed here |

  6. Ike Pigott says:

    Some poor kid Googled for "creative high school valedictorian speech openings" and found my version |

  7. Ike Pigott says:

    The Graduation Speech They Won't Let Me Make (almost two years old, and I still stand by it) |

  8. Ike Pigott says:

    David Brooks has advice for college grads. | is it that different than mine? |