Why "Changing the World" is a Horrible Phrase

byozziegooen4y25th Dec 201416 comments

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Steve Jobs famously convinced John Scully from Pepsi to join Apple Computer with the line, “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”.  This sounds convincing until one thinks closely about it.

Steve Jobs was a famous salesman.   He was known for his selling ability, not his honesty.  His terminology here was interesting.  ‘Change the world’ is a phrase that both sounds important and is difficult to argue with.  Arguing if Apple was really ‘changing the world’ would have been pointless, because the phrase was so ambiguous that there would be little to discuss.  On paper, of course Apple is changing the world, but then of course any organization or any individual is also ‘changing’ the world.  A real discussion of if Apple ‘changes the world’ would lead to a discussion of what ‘changing the world’ actually means, which would lead to obscure philosophy, steering the conversation away from the actual point.  

‘Changing the world’ is an effective marketing tool that’s useful for building the feeling of consensus. Steve Jobs used it heavily, as had endless numbers of businesses, conferences, nonprofits, and TV shows.  It’s used because it sounds good and is typically not questioned, so I’m here to question it.  I believe that the popularization of this phrase creates confused goals and perverse incentives from people who believe they are doing good things.

 

Problem 1: 'Changing the World' Leads to Television Value over Real Value

It leads nonprofit workers to passionately chase feeble things.  I’m amazed by the variety that I see in people who try to ‘change the world’. Some grow organic food, some research rocks, some play instruments. They do basically everything.  

Few people protest this variety.  There are millions of voices giving the appeal to ‘change the world’ in the way that would validate many radically diverse pursuits.  

TED, the modern symbol of the intellectual elite for many, is itself a grab bag of a ways to ‘change the world’, without any sense of scale between pursuits.  People tell comedic stories, sing songs, discuss tales of personal adventures and so on.  In TED Talks, all presentations are shown side-by-side with the same lighting and display.  Yet in real life some projects produce orders of magnitude more output than others.

At 80,000 Hours, I read many applications for career consulting. I got the sense that there are many people out there trying to live their lives in order to eventually produce a TED talk.  To them, that is what ‘changing the world’ means.  These are often very smart and motivated people with very high opportunity costs.  

I would see an application that would express interest in either starting an orphanage in Uganda, creating a woman's movement in Ohio, or making a conservatory in Costa Rica.  It was clear that they were trying to ‘change the world’ in a very vague and TED-oriented way.

I believe that ‘Changing the World’ is promoted by TED, but internally acts mostly as a Schelling point.  Agreeing on the importance of ‘changing the world’ is a good way of coming to a consensus without having to decide on moral philosophy. ‘Changing the world’ is simply the minimum common denominator for what that community can agree upon.  This is a useful social tool, but an unfortunate side effect was that it inspired many others to follow this shelling point itself.  Please don’t make the purpose of your life the lowest common denominator of a specific group of existing intellectuals. 

It leads businesses to be gain employees and media attention without having to commit to anything.  I’m living in Silicon Valley, and ‘Change the World’ is an incredibly common phrase for new and old startups. Silicon Valley (the TV show) made fun of it, as do much of the media.  They should, but I think much of the time they miss the point; the problem here is not one where the companies are dishonest, but one where their honestly itself just doesn’t mean much.  Declaring that a company is ‘changing the world’ isn’t really declaring anything.  

Hiring conversations that begin and end with the motivation of ‘changing the world’ are like hiring conversations that begin and end with making ‘lots’ of money.  If one couldn’t compare salaries between different companies, they would likely select poorly for salary.  In terms of social benefit, most companies don’t attempt to quantify their costs and benefits on society except in very specific and positive ways for them.  “Google has enabled Haiti disaster recovery” for social proof sounds to me like saying “We paid this other person $12,000 in July 2010” for salary proof. It sounds nice, but facts selected by a salesperson are simply not complete.

 

Problem 2: ‘Changing the World’ Creates Black and White Thinking

The idea that one wants to ‘change the world’ implies that there is such a thing as ‘changing the world’ and such a thing is ‘not changing the world’.  It implies that there are ‘world changers’ and people who are not ‘world changers’. It implies that there is one group of ‘important people’ out there and then a lot of ‘useless’ others.

This directly supports the ‘Great Man’ theory, a 19th century idea that history and future actions are led by a small number of ‘great men’.  There’s not a lot of academic research supporting this theory, but there’s a lot of attention to it, and it’s a lot of fun to pretend is true.  

But it’s not.  There is typically a lot of unglamorous work behind every successful project or organization. Behind every Steve Jobs are thousands of very intelligent and hard-working employees and millions of smart people who have created a larger ecosystem. If one only pays attention to Steve Jobs they will leave out most of the work. They will praise Steve Jobs far too highly and disregard the importance of unglamorous labor.

Typically much of the best work is also the most unglamorous.  Making WordPress websites, sorting facts into analysis, cold calling donors. Many the best ideas for organizations may be very simple and may have been done before. However, for someone looking to get to TED conferences or become superstars, it is very easy to look over other comparatively menial labor. This means that not only will it not get done, but those people who do it feel worse about themselves.

So some people do important work and feel bad because it doesn’t meet the TED standard of ‘change the world’.  Others try ridiculously ambitious things outside their own capabilities, fail, and then give up.  Others don’t even try, because their perceived threshold is too high for them.  The very idea of a threshold and a ‘change or don’t change the world’ approach is simply false, and believing something that’s both false and fundamentally important is really bad.

In all likelihood, you will not make the next billion-dollar nonprofit. You will not make the next billion-dollar business. You will not become the next congressperson in your district. This does not mean that you have not done a good job. It should not demoralize you in any way once you fail hardly to do these things. 

Finally, I would like to ponder on what happens once or if one does decide they have changed the world. What now? Should one change it again?

It’s not obvious.  Many retire or settle down after feeling accomplished.  However, this is exactly when trying is the most important.  People with the best histories have the best potentials.  No matter how much a U.S. President may achieve, they still can achieve significantly more after the end of their terms.  There is no ‘enough’ line for human accomplishment.

Conclusion

In summary the phrase change the world provides a lack of clear direction and encourages black-and-white thinking that distorts behaviors and motivation.  However, I do believe that the phrase can act as a stepping stone towards a more concrete goal.  ‘Change the World’ can act as an idea that requires a philosophical continuation.  It’s a start for a goal, but it should be recognized that it’s far from a good ending.

Next time someone tells you about ‘changing the world’, ask them to follow through with telling you the specifics of what they mean.  Make sure that they understand that they need to go further in order to mean anything.  

And more importantly, do this for yourself.  Choose a specific axiomatic philosophy or set of philosophies and aim towards those.  Your ultimate goal in life is too important to be based on an empty marketing term.

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