Nathanael Garrett Novosel, May 31 2023

Change Yourself, Change the World

The word “activist” has become pretty popular these days as both a profession and a way to virtue signal to everyone on social media that you are a good person who cares about others. Now, the cynics of the world will point out two things:

This post isn’t going to point out specific causes and judge them nor is it going to rail against hypocrisy or why activists are even needed for something that “is so obvious that everyone should just do it.” Instead, I’d rather talk about the psychology behind activism and the one risky belief behind it: “Other people have to change for me to be happy.” Why? So that you can maximize your time on this planet focusing on things that both make you feel good and actually do good.

There’s a well-known saying, “You can’t change other people; you can only change yourself.” That’s largely true, as people will generally only change if they want to change and so all you can do is either lead by example by demonstrating the behavior that you want others to follow, make a good argument that people are convinced by and so they change, or create incentives such as rewards, shame, or penalties so that others follow them to receive or avoid them. Of course, you can use coercion to change behavior, from imprisonment to duress to harm, but most coercion is illegal or immoral in modern society. So all that is left is what you can do to make the world the way you want it to be.

So how can you do something within your control that will change the world that isn’t activism? After all, there is a good reason that activism exists—it provides the following value:

Let’s take some innocuous causes for example. If you find that children do not get enough outdoor time or exercise, you could advocate that people allocate time to outdoor activities. If you find that people do not get enough Vitamin D in the winter—especially those with more melanin (they get less Vitamin D from the sun) who live in cold climates—you could advocate for people taking a Vitamin D supplement. It is likely true that many people do not notice that their lack of outdoor activity might be causing anxiety or depression or that their lack of Vitamin D could be causing health issues. So activism has its place in society.

However, if everyone went around advocating for whatever cause they were passionate about full time, no one would be available to create the outdoor flag football league or produce the Vitamin D pills. So there is as much (if not more) value in taking action yourself to make the change as there is value in convincing others.

This gets to a fundamental truth about change: if you created or provided something that people wanted, you wouldn’t have to advocate for it. You never see advertisements for lettuce, for example, as most people are aware of it and the people who want to consume it will purchase it. Similarly, no one needed advocates for electricity, smart phones, or other things that are ubiquitous today. When people saw that they could call people, listen to music, check e-mail, and surf the internet all on one device, it became a must-have purchase for (eventually) everyone. (Note: yes, there was a lot of advertising, but advertising is by the people who create the devices and not activism by people who want others to donate to a cause or change their behavior in some way)

The good news is that many activists also head charities or organizations that work on solving the problem they are talking about. But in certain circumstances, such as green energy, it would be much more productive to study to invent better technology than it would be to try to petition the government to restrict everyone’s electricity usage. After all, as we said before, if you made a renewable energy source that cost less than fossil fuels, everyone would move over to it within a couple of years without any coercion required.

The point of this post is not to just say, “Be the change that you want to see in the world”—although that is good advice—but also to hopefully point out that you should take the most productive approach to addressing issues that you see by taking action yourself in a way that will create the result you want. If you want people to exercise more, invent a fun new exercise. If you want people to eat healthier, open a healthy restaurant chain and expand around the globe. Subway, which had 41,600 locations in 2019, likely has more influence over diets than the food pyramid. It’s not a surprise, then, that Morgan Spurlock had a huge impact, then, when he ate McDonald’s every day for a month in Super Size Me and showed the effects of said diet on your health. This documentary persuaded every fast food restaurant to eliminate the extra-large option from their menu where likely countless other tactics from nutritional activists failed.

If you want to change the world, what can you do? Can you invent an application that will connect people in new ways? Can you create a new genre of art that appeals to people who have certain sensory impairments? Could you create a new healthcare product that saves someone’s life? It’s taking an action like these that can have the world-changing impact that you might wish to see.

One of my most controversial (but true) statements is, “Who had more of an effect on the world as we know it today: Alexander Fleming or Mother Teresa?” Now, don’t get me wrong: I know it’s not fair to compare a saint who dedicated her life to helping the underprivileged, and she practiced everything that she preached in terms of service to others. The point of the question is that Alexander Fleming invented Penicillin, which has saved or improved billions of lives. Both are great, and neither were only activists, but the amazing work you do on yourself like Alexander Fleming did to become a microbiologist paid off much more than if he advocated for hand washing or other anti-bacterial behavior in others for hundreds of years.

I know that it is all the rage these days to pat yourself on the back for changing your social media photo for a cause or shouting your opinion over and over again in videos. But, those actions are usually for yourself and for the people who agree with you—people who disagree usually block or get blocked. And I won’t deny it: it will make you feel good immediately…it just won’t really do much. Taking action yourself to make people’s lives better will do much, much more, and it’ll make you feel better in the long term than if you simply present a virtuous face to others while you feel an existential crisis of why you don’t feel like your life is worth living when you’re alone with your thoughts. People with purpose—a constructive one of directly improving others’ lives—may feel down and may find it difficult to keep fighting, but they have that intrinsic sense of purpose and fulfillment that comes from doing what they can to improve the world around them and witnessing the beneficial effects.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


Previous The Three Relationships Between You and Your Emotions
Next Constructive vs. Unconstructive Caring