(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.
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.