Why "Changing the World" is a Horrible Phrase

post by ozziegooen · 2014-12-25T06:04:48.902Z · score: 28 (40 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 16 comments

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.

16 comments

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comment by shminux · 2014-12-25T18:52:50.217Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Steve Jobs is a bad example because the guy did actually change the world, repeatedly. He meant what he said, and he accomplished what he intended. (Personally, I don't use any of the Apple stuff, but what I do use is still Apple-inspired, whether it runs Windows or Android.)

Recognizing that you are no Steve Jobs is a part of assessing the limits of your own skills and abilities for most people, with the subsequent switch from "changing the world" to "making a difference", if you are so inclined.

comment by ozziegooen · 2014-12-25T19:43:27.324Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Just curious, what are your thresholds for what qualifies as 'changing the world' and 'making a difference'. Where do these come from, and how specific do you think they are?

I know that lots of people seem to believe that the thresholds exist, but I've always found them perplexing.

comment by Steven_Bukal · 2014-12-29T14:52:08.858Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think there's a precise threshold, but when I use the phrase "change the world", I'm pretty confident that my interlocutor is thinking of people like Steve Jobs and companies like Apple and not thinking of people like me who don't have our own wikipedia articles and companies like the ones I work for that don't have names many would recognize and aren't credited with inventing/popularizing important product categories that millions of people now use every day.

People who "change the world" make big political, technological, or scientific changes and bring them into the lives of many people.

comment by shminux · 2014-12-25T20:39:39.595Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I am not sure if there is a defensible Schelling point in this particular Sorites. Possibly whether your actions cause a self-sustaining reaction, or something.

Volunteering in poor areas can make a difference between life and death for a few people. If you end up achieving Mother Theresa-like prominence, with lots of followers saving lives out of proportion to your personal efforts, then maybe it's close to changing the world.

Or maybe you just have enough leverage to achieve a significant effect, like Bill Gates planning to eradicate malaria completely in a decade or two. But most of us are not in that situation, so we have to rely on others to create a "world-changing" amount of leverage.

comment by Vaniver · 2014-12-25T15:54:34.121Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

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.

I think that Steve Jobs is a bad example here, since his specific genius is not in designing things himself but in wringing as much productive work as possible out of intelligent and hard-working employees doing unglamorous labor. (Consider Edison, whose primary invention was the modern R&D lab, vs. Tesla, who was a good inventor but terrible businessman or manager.)

comment by ozziegooen · 2014-12-25T18:21:51.934Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I used Steve Jobs because he's about the most popular person in the Valley now, and I used him in the beginning of the essay.

Edison's R&D lab itself relied on lots of other skilled engineers (Tesla included at one time).

Tesla, out of all the engineers I know, does stand out as someone who did work solo. Even he though needed Westinghouse to manufacture and sell much of his work, and many funders to fund it all. Plus, I think in some ways Tesla may be a mediocre role model given how supremely intelligent he was (it seemed like more than the other two). This has meant that I personally have found it difficult to emulate him.

comment by Petter · 2014-12-25T15:40:43.606Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

80,000 Hours (your employer?) has the following as its web page title:

“How to make a difference with your career”

and writes on the front page

“If you want to make the world a better place…”

To me, those are synonyms to “changing the world,” for the purpose of career description.

comment by ozziegooen · 2014-12-25T18:25:09.221Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

My previous employer. I still have a lot of respect for them, but do not directly agree with everything they do. Also, I realize that while I would prefer that these things were understood, in a world in which they are not understood, the terminology has some marketing privileges.

80,000 Hours does go far beyond the phrase, as I mentioned in the end. They use it as marketing terminology and follow it up with a pretty specific philosophy. Most groups that use this phrase don't do that.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-12-28T21:03:28.424Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Basically, I am in total agreement, although w.r.t.

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

Actually, I think human beings can't help being drawn to black and white thinking of one kind or another. Even while thinking this, an insidious something in my mind is trying to turn it into some kind of black and white thinking: There are two kinds of people in the world: people who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and people who don't.

So I suggest you have the causation backwards, and rather, the reason so many heated arguments fall into some dichotomy between two Schelling points (like "Change the World" <--> "Stop the catastrophe caused by the maniacs trying to change the world") is a tendency so central to our being that we can't ever expect to extinguish it -- we can only learn to be vigilant about it, laugh at ourselves (and others).

At bottom, I think it is something like an instinct for orienting oneself, like "my people" vs "those I'd better beware of", which to me seems right for hunter-gatherers, who are very likely to only know of two groups (or they can easily view it this way): the people I live my life with, cooperate with, who are mostly likely to defend me in some way, vs those other people who don't think, talk, or decorate their bodies in the proper way, who have neutral at best, and frequently hostile intentions towards me and my people.

Ask yourself (ozziegooen) whether it's happened to you to some extent. Was there, in the feelings that motivated you to post, an element of anticipation of the agreement of people you'd like to get to know better, and simultaneous head-shaking over all those silly people to whom "Change the world" seems meaningful? There certainly was for me while reading it.

comment by ozziegooen · 2014-12-28T23:21:27.016Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's a really good point.

Black-and-white thinking is something that people seem gravitated to in all regards. It's very simple.

However, I think we can understand that it is often wrong. Our tendency to put things into simple categories instead of gradients is to me one of the most important themes behind common human rationality.

I think it's still useful to point out when its done, and that was what I was trying to do here with that point. Just because it's an endemic everywhere doesn't mean it shouldn't be understood and is not a problem towards this one mentality.

Black-and-white thinking is more dangerous the more important the area of thinking is. This area (one's perceived 'purpose' in life) is quite important, so I believed that this was dangerous enough to point out and think about.

comment by HalMorris · 2014-12-29T01:59:59.307Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think it's still useful to point out when its done, and that was what I was trying to do here with that point. Just because it's an endemic everywhere doesn't mean it shouldn't be understood and is not a problem towards this one mentality.

Black-and-white thinking is more dangerous the more important the area of thinking is. This area (one's perceived 'purpose' in life) is quite important, so I believed that this was dangerous enough to point out and think about.

I totally agree it's dangerous and worth pointing out. And humankind is is serious danger. I have no idea what the odds are; it's one of my points of agreement with N. N. Taleb that another addiction of human race is thinking we know -- thinking we can calculate the odds.

Have I made you feel defensive? If so, not at all what I intended. I've had enough of those games. If you took my post as saying "Your post is lame and pointless so I'm 1-upping you", I sincerely urge you to question that, and wonder if that was some sort of automatic reaction and if so, where it might have come from.

I was glad to see your post; it's one of the more interesting things to come up here lately -- it just reminded me of my point of view, which is related but somewhat different.

comment by ozziegooen · 2015-01-02T17:25:36.917Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

You have not made me feel particularly defensive; I just wanted to reply to that last comment. That said, I really appreciate that you considered that. I find that lots of people on this site (and others) are used to '1-upping' the rest of a long list of commenting sins, so am happy you pointed that out.

comment by CBHacking · 2014-12-25T10:42:48.384Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I've long considered the phrase to be feel-good noise; is that so atypical? It presumably has some effect, or people wouldn't use it so much, but I would be amused (and disinterested), and possibly a little concerned, if anybody tried to sell me on something because of that phrase alone.

Of course, a lot of it comes down to context. If somebody tried to sell me on a job by telling me I'd help to "change the world by producing computers than anybody can use and everyday families can afford", then that would definitely be more persuasive than either "come work for us, and change the world!" or "come work for us, making hardware and software is fun!". Even though there still isn't a real milestone defined, there's a discernible goal and it's a goal that I see value in. The fact that it's described as a "change the world" goal doesn't make it invalid, although you have to figure out for yourself how much of a change it would really be when deciding how important the goal is.

comment by ozziegooen · 2014-12-25T18:35:12.166Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I agree the phrase isn't used in complete isolation, but A) I feel like even then we should come up with more specific phrases B) there's very rarely an analysis or philosophical understanding after it. C) It's often used with a lot of other vague terminology.

"producing computers than anybody can use and everyday families can afford" is a good example actually. That's about as specific as I hear companies talk. What I'm looking for is something more like, "We're aiming to maximize this axiomatic value system, which we believe we can do by producing computers. We believe we can get these machines to be less than $50 per person, which is expected to sell approximately 30-100 million machines for people making between 10k and 30k in the United States. The computers are expected to provide a benefit of increased income of 10-20% for people in this bracket. Given that we will use less than 50 people to do this, this comes to an expected benefit of $25 million saved per person, which is a better benefit than other competing ideas we considered"

If one is claiming they are doing good, I would like for them to have an idea of how and why they are doing it. I realize that this is difficult, but it definitely seems like a good direction to me.

comment by robot-dreams · 2014-12-26T19:42:31.304Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

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.

At what point have you done a good job? On the other hand, at what point should you be demoralized? Yes, the answer depends on your personal philosophy, but how should someone who doesn't have a solid understanding of their personal philosophy think about such questions?

comment by ozziegooen · 2014-12-26T22:15:42.303Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

The purpose of this blog post was to demonstrate that the phrase change the world did not do a great job with these things. The question of what would be a good replacement or extension of it is a much more philosophical and complicated question that I wanted to leave outside of this for simplicity.