How to Change the World: A Short Summary for Seemingly Powerless People

January 7, 2014

“Leo Tolstoy was one of the first to observe that history should more accurately be considered to consist of the combined effect of the many small things that ordinary individuals do every day” – John-Paul Flintoff

Here’s a neat little aside. You are changing the world. Whether you realise it or not.

Every minute you make a decision, every time you commit an action, every word you choose to speak, it’s all happening at the expense of something else.

Something else, regardless how big or small, to say, think or possibly even do.

Because of that the truth is inescapable. You are an agent of impact in the world. And what you do, whether you see it or not, definitely does matter.

This is the conclusion of John-Paul Flintoff, philosopher and writer, who, like those before him, shows no fear in taking big issues to task.

According to Flintoff we all have the capacity to make a positive dent in our world. Even the seemingly powerless among us too.

His book, How to Change the World (The School of Life), is instrumental in shaking us out of any doubt. The opening, which considers Tolstoy’s letters to a young Gandhi, tells us so. These “small ordinary things” as Tolstoy calls them? Carry huge weight.

Yet it’s not only the writers of classic novels who believe so much to be true.

“If you think your efforts may not be decisive, it’s imperative that you try” says Flintoff, after considering, through the scholarship of writer and historian Gene Sharp, the plenty of concrete examples of this dotted throughout time.

Writing about World War II and the Nazi resistance, these small steps of resistance proved crucial to the efforts, on the whole, to stop control, murder and subjugation under the German regime.

“In Norway, citizens looked right through German soldiers, as if they didn’t exist, and refused to sit next to them on public transport

In Denmark, the king wore a yellow star in sympathy with Jews who were forced to wear them.

In fact without such small changes, Flintoff argues, the momentum would have been dramatically slowed in shifting to the favour of the Allies.

Grounding, of course, for the seemingly powerless among us to recognise our potency.

Despite this perception though, and despite the efforts we attempt to make in our lives today, we can’t help but feel that what we do simply isn’t enough. It’s as if the sense of overwhelm we get, the confusion over the number of worthy issues and the limitless possibility of action, go so far as to cripple us from doing anything at all.

Thankfully Flintoff offers good advice to help solve such matters. Designed to help us see possible ways in which we might contribute to greater change, he offers three main points of focus. Seeing that we must put people first, recognising that we should specify exactly what it is we want to change and, finally, avoiding overwhelm by focusing away from the complex, more iconic struggles we’ve seen throughout history.

If we are really interested in changing the world, we have to put other people first. Every attitude we assume, every word we utter, and every act we undertake establishes us in relation to others.

Strive to be specific. Surprisingly often, people worry about, for instance, ‘poverty’ or ‘animal rights’, but have no clear idea what it is about these topics that they want to fix…Unless we are specific about what the problem is, we can’t hope to find a specific solution.

To focus too much on monumental struggles – such as that of the lone Chinese student who, in Tiananmen Square in 1989, went with his shopping bags to block a column of tanks – can be misleading. Ethics appear in our lives in much more ordinary, everyday ways.

It’s good advice, of course, to start small and focus on what we can or can’t do through the mere consequence of our actions. That’s what Flintoff advocates when he talks about the aforementioned struggles against the Nazi regime. That it’s impossible for us all to be that lone man out in front of the tanks and that we must club together for the greater good.

Yet as for leadership and the art of changing the world? Surely the seemingly powerless among us daren’t likely step forward?

Here Flintoff again, through the analogy of the dancing man, suggests that we might be able to change too. If only we cast away our negative dispersions, our mere effort alone is enough to achieve a result.

Don’t worry about other people. If you put enough energy into your own efforts, soon enough they [others] may find it impossible not to join you.

 In summary:

1) You’re already changing the world whether conscious of it or not

2) Being aware of the power and steps within your control enables you to go further

3) Specify what it is you want to change: find what fits your values and whether you prefer to add pleasure or reduce pain

4) Recognise you do need not take huge action. Disobedience and a refusal to act (against conflict of your principles) is sometimes just as effective

5) Don’t feel scuppered by the fear or threat of leading. The only thing you need concentrate on is the act of making the effort

Read more about how you can effect change, no matter how powerless you might feel, in John-Paul Flintoff’s How to Change the World.