Here you go again.
You just read another inspiring blog post or watched an empowering video that makes you feel like you can do anything. You can change the world!
The message is always the same:
You need to become the best version of yourself and make an impact. Only the sky is the limit!
For a moment, you’re high on motivation. You can do it! You have the power, the willingness and a strong sense of mission — everything it takes to change the world.
The thing is… you don’t see it as an option anymore. Rather, it became the only way to make your life worth living. You feel like you owe it to the world to grind, hustle and make your vision come true.
But when the high of the latest article or video wears off — you can’t help but doubt yourself again.
Maybe you already tried to build a mission-driven career and failed. Or you simply consumed so much self-improvement content that you’re overwhelmed by how much there’s still to be done.
Plus, the options for pursuing a meaningful, world-changing mission are endless. How do you choose the one that’s right for you?
Then, even assuming that you do… what if you fail?
If you don’t make a big enough impact — does it mean you’re worthless?
Of course not.
However, all this doubt and confusion are indicators that you should stop trying to change the world. There’s a high chance that you never will.
The good news is that, instead, you can make a big difference in your inner world.
You Won’t Help The World By Trying To Change It
I bet that people told you time and time again that serving others is nobler than focusing on yourself.
Helping people is what makes life worthwhile. Overly caring for yourself is selfish.
Growing older with this altruistic mindset, you also became aware of the serious global issues — such as climate change, inequality and poverty. This awareness, sprinkled generously with self-improvement content, led you to the conviction you carry today:
To make your life worthwhile, you need to contribute to a positive change in the world.
Of course, this desire to make a difference is natural. It stems from an innate human need to be useful and recognized.
The problem begins when you render your self-esteem dependent on whether you manage to change the world.
Why is this a problem? Because fixing whatever you see as broken in the world usually requires changing how other people behave.
It may mean a whole lot of different things, from insisting they vote in a specific way to persuading them to recycle. Whatever you’re trying to convince people to do, here’s one issue you will run into:
“You can’t make people change. But you can create an environment where they choose to.” — Seth Godin
Why You Can’t Make Anyone Change
Everyone behaves the way they do for a reason. It’s neither random nor a result of their ill will.
People are simply doing their best with what they have at any given moment.
And because each person was shaped a little differently, everyone has their own motives and ideas of what “best” means.
If you don’t understand the motives but try to influence behaviors — you’re only dealing with the effects. You’re trying to treat the symptoms without ever touching upon the cause.
It’s like someone who perpetually experiences indigestion because of a heavy, fatty diet. Instead of adjusting the diet, they treat the symptoms by regularly taking laxatives.
The “laxative approach” doesn’t help in the long run. Not if you continue with the wrong diet.
Right after college, I tried to change the world by treating symptoms.
My friends and I were disturbed by the addictive ways people used the Internet and social media. We created an art company to warn others about the dangers of misusing technology.
While we preached the benefits of digital fasting and talked about the impact screens have on intellectual development, we missed that most people knew all about that. If they misused technology, it was because their motives to do it outweighed this knowledge.
I failed to understand those motives. Needless to say, I wasn’t qualified to cure anyone of Internet addiction.
I needed to rethink my pursuit of changing the world.
With time, I learned was that if I ever wanted to make an authentic contribution, I needed to understand myself first. This meant gaining awareness about my own motives and what I wanted to do with my life.
Understanding myself was indispensable to understand other people.
“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; Mastering yourself is true power.” — Lao Tzu
The Only Change You’re Qualified To Initiate
When Seth Godin says that you can’t make other people change, he also points to a possibility.
He says that you can create an environment where people choose to change.
How do you do that? That’s where an old adage comes in: The only person you can change is yourself.
By changing your ways, you naturally create a new environment for others. Until then, there’s only so much you can do to change the world.
This can be easily observed in the microcosm of family dynamics.
Think of a time when a family member did something you perceived as “wrong.” Maybe they said something hurtful. Maybe they made a decision you didn’t expect. Maybe they embarrassed you in front of others.
You probably suffered in that situation. But have you managed to improve it by telling the other person how they should behave?
I doubt it. I certainly haven’t.
For years, I tried to convince my Mom to stop telling me how worried she was about my future. I wanted her to stop because her dark scenarios were making me doubt myself.
When I became more confident about my path, she treated me differently.
I learned to contain my emotions, instead of letting them control me in our conversations. I stopped yelling at my Mom. I spoke calmly and clearly, without accusing her.
As I stopped yelling, she had no reason to yell either. And when she saw I was confident and rooted in my decisions, her worries decreased.
“When you change your own behavior, behavior around you will change. The fewer words you use, the more people listen. The less pressure you apply, the quicker the response you hope for.” — Kevin Horsley & Louis Fourie
How To Make The World Change On Its Own
Instead of trying to change the world, start with changing yourself. For that, you’ll need a sufficient level of self-awareness.
Most people live their lives unconsciously. When we’re unconscious, we can’t change anything. We’re stuck in our pre-programmed ways of reacting to our circumstances.
When you’re unconscious, you can’t perceive the complexity of the situation in front of you. Your perception is much narrower than that.
Your Mom yells at you, so you yell back. Someone criticizes your work, therefore you defend yourself. For any trigger, you have a pre-programmed reaction. That’s it.
Such scenarios are akin to reciting memorized lines in a theatre play. Nothing new ever happens unless one actor changes their line on purpose.
Stop waiting for someone else to be that actor. You need to be the one who changes the line
To do this responsibly, you need to develop self-awareness first. This means you need to:
- see how you interact with the world and how it connects to your internal experiences.
- understand what motivates you to behave the way you do.
- recognize which of your own actions serve your wellbeing and which are detrimental.
Once you accumulate a certain amount of self-awareness, it starts fuelling your personal change. You leave the world around you no other option but to follow suit.
“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” — Sheryl Sandberg
When You Change, The World Follows
Self-awareness is the prerequisite to making any kind of change. But developing it may seem like an insurmountable task. Where do you even start?
I’d say the best place to start is exactly where you are right now.
The feelings of pressure and frustration. The anxiety around whether you’re good enough. The urge to be useful and reach your full potential.
Whatever you see is going on, you don’t have to react to it. There’s no need to change the world or prove anything — even to yourself.
Instead, you can view your thoughts and feelings as natural and valid. Be curious about them. They don’t require you to do anything specific, other than being aware of them. Notice how they arise, transform and go away.
That’s it. This is all you need to develop self-awareness.
Over time, it will allow you to understand yourself and others better. Every day, you’ll collect a new piece of the puzzle and build it into your picture of the world.
Gradually, the picture will expand. As you keep adding pieces, it’ll make more and more sense.
Who knows — maybe you even end up changing the world. But if it happens, it won’t be because you forcefully fixed the problems you once saw “out there.”
It will be because you have adjusted your inner world to be the causal point of the external change.