How to Change the World

Through the generations, society has been transformed by the actions of individuals who understood that if they didn’t like something, they could change it—and change the world.


| August 2013



How to Change the World Book Cover

Combining fresh new insights from history, politics and modern culture, “How to Change the World” will give you a sense of what might just be possible, as well as the inspiration and the courage you need to go about improving and changing the world we live in.

Cover Courtesy Picador

We all want to live in a better world, but sometimes it feels like we lack the ability to make a difference. In How to Change the World (Picador, 2012), author, broadcaster, and journalist John-Paul Flintoff offers a reminder that big change happens small and the power lies within each of us. Combining fresh new insights from history and other disciplines, this book will give you a sense of what might just be possible, as well as the inspiration and the courage you need to go about improving and changing the world we live in. The following excerpt comes from chapter 1, "Overcoming Defeatism." 

How to Start to Make a Change

How can I, one individual in a world of billions, hope to change anything? There are many reasons why this kind of defeatist question comes so easily to us. They include the way we have been brought up, a lifetime of putting up with things that frustrate or dismay us, and painful memories of failed attempts to Do Something.

But the fact remains that we are all making a difference all the time. The real problem is that if we’re only affecting things unconsciously then we are probably not producing the effect we would wish for.

Some people may find it hard to believe they are making a difference all the time. In which case, it may help to abandon the global perspective for a moment and zoom in to our daily human interactions—in which we spend every moment either deciding what must happen next or going along with somebody else’s ideas. Either way, our actions are all purposeful, and all produce effects. Our day-to-day lives are hardly the stuff of history, you might argue. Certainly not compared with Julius Caesar invading Britain, Genghis Khan sacking Baghdad and Christopher Columbus discovering America. That’s how many people understand history. ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men,’ wrote Thomas Carlyle. But the ‘great man’ theory of history has been on its way out for years. Nowadays, we recognize that those men couldn’t have done what they did on their own. And we identify historical significance in hitherto overlooked episodes.

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was one of the first to observe that history should more accurately be considered to consist of the combined effect of the many small things that ordinary individuals do every day: ‘An infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions’.

As Tolstoy saw it, we are making history from the moment we get up in the morning till we go to bed at night. And it’s not only the things we do that make history, it’s also the things we don’t do. That’s obvious when you think about, say, voting in an election or not. But taken to its logical conclusion it also goes to show that we are making a difference even after going to bed: because we are sleeping instead of, say, working all night on some earthshaking political manifesto, or patrolling the streets to feed the homeless.