How to change the world, starting with yourself
“I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could’ve been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a changeMan in the Mirror, Michael Jackson
“Be the change you want to see in the world”Mahatma Ghandi
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise, so I am changing myself”Rumi
I love these three quotes. Well, I love these two quotes and the song, although the latter could also be a quote of wisdom from a wise philosopher instead of a song by the King of Pop himself. These three quotes have something fundamental in common. They all highlight the virtues of personal responsibility and are a desperate call for action to change the world, starting with yourself.
The three of them are conveying the same message: the world is changed by every one of us, by the actions of each of us, so if you want the world to change, don’t wait for others (governments, the UN, NGOs, corporations, actors, singers, writers, philosophers, your friends) to change the world, but start with yourself. If all of us started with ourselves and changed for the better, becoming wiser, more compassionate, more generous, kinder, and sharing our vulnerability, the world would become a much nicer place to live.
If you change yourself and nobody else follows you, maybe the world will not have changed so much, but at least your world will have changed, you will be able to live with yourself, and you may become a role-model for others.
This is a compelling message, so it is worth repeating: don’t wait for others to change for the better; start with yourself first.
Personal responsibility and self-actualization
These quotes talk about changing the world, but I don’t think that’s the most important message. They also talk about personal responsibility, taking ownership of your own life, and changing yourself.
In his famous work hierarchy of needs, Maslow listed self-actualisation as the need of the highest order, the one sitting at the top of the pyramid (although Maslow himself never showed these needs in a pyramid, that came later). Self-actualisation is about the realisation of one’s full potential, of achieving everything we can achieve, of being everything we can be. As Maslow put it, “what a man can be, he must be.”
Self-actualisation can mean pursuing one’s creative instincts and expressing ourselves through art, but it can also mean achieving our life goals, being the best parent or partner we can be, or excel at work.
We all need to find out who we are, accept ourselves the way we are, and then be the best possible versions of ourselves. We will be grateful for it, the world will be thankful for it.
Excellence vs. Exigence
I associate self-actualisation with the search for excellence, not for exigence. Both sound similar but are very different and can have different consequences on our effectiveness and mental wellbeing.
The search for excellence means trying to be the best version of yourself, but accepting your shortcomings, knowing you are not perfect, and being OK with that. It’s giving your best shot at it, trying your best, and being happy knowing you are reaching your maximum potential. You focus on what you have done and what you are good at, and it usually brings happiness and contentment.
When we live in exigence mode, we aim for perfectionism and are always focusing on what is lacking and what we aren’t doing well. We are always missing the target, as we haven’t reached our unachievable and unrealistic goals. Exigence brings constant dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
It is a fine line between the two, not always easy to navigate.
Is purpose the secret to happiness?
When I was younger, I was a bit of a hedonist, and I would identify myself with the Epicureans. I thought happiness was the result of having pleasurable experiences and avoiding suffering as much as possible. As I grew older, I distanced myself more and more from this line of thought, and I’ve become more of a Stoic. I still like and enjoy the pleasures of life, but I understand suffering and pain are also part and parcel of it. They are an essential part of our lives. I embrace them fully and try to learn from them.
If pleasurable experiences and lack of suffering aren’t the secret to happiness, what is it?
The secret of happiness is a very complex and subjective topic and would merit much more than a blog post, but I think one of the main elements has to be purpose. We are goal-oriented creatures, and if we don’t have a purpose, something to strive for, something to dream about, something to redirect our efforts towards, then it will be impossible to be fully happy.
One of the great stoic masters, Seneca, put it nicely more than two thousand years ago:
“Man’s ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born. And what is it that reason demands of him? Something very easy – that he lives in accordance with his own nature.”Seneca, “Letters from a Stoic”
This sounds very simple and obvious, but I find it very profound. How many of us have stopped to think what our true nature is and what we want from life? Are we true to ourselves in our choices of career, partner, life goals? How many of us know, really know, who we are and what we want to achieve in life?
I don’t know about you, but I am now a middle-aged man, and I am still grappling with these questions.
Find out who you are, define your purpose in life, and go for it. You will have walked the first step towards happiness.
Let’s change the world
What I like about the three quotes above from Michael Jackson, Ghandi and Rumi is that they combine personal growth and self-actualisation, focused on the individual, with changing the world, focused on the collective. The first step to change the group is to change oneself.
Our world has improved a lot, and living standards are better than ever, but it is still a highly unequal and unfair place, with many global issues menacing our existence and the quality of our lives. It needs changing, but it won’t change itself.
We shouldn’t be waiting for others to change it for us. These three quotes remind us that we have the agency, the power, and the capacity to change the world if we start with ourselves. If you become the best version of yourself, you will live a happier life, you will make your small contribution to changing the world for the better, and you will become a role model for others.
Next time you look at yourself in the mirror, think about what type of human being you want to be, who you really are, and who the best version of yourself is. Think what change the world needs, and be that change.