Working to change the world

I recently read that Google co-founder Sergey Brin asked an audience whether they are working to change the world. He said that for 99.9999% of humanity, the answer is no.

I really dislike that question. It invites arrogance. Say yes and you’re one in a million. You’re a better person than the vast majority of humanity.

Focusing on doing enormous good can make us feel justified in neglecting small acts of goodness. Many have professed a love for Humanity and shown contempt for individual humans. “I’m trying to end poverty, cure cancer, and make the world safe for democracy; I shouldn’t be held to same petty standards as those who are wasting their lives.”

To paraphrase Thomas Sowell, we should judge people by their means, not their ends, because most people don’t achieve their ends and all we’re left with is their means [1].

In context Brin implies that only grand technological innovation is worthwhile, obviously a rather narrow perspective. Did Anne Frank make the world a better place by keeping a diary? I think so.

The opposite of a technologist might be a medieval literature professor. If you wanted to “change the world” the last thing you’d do might be to choose a career medieval scholarship. And yet two of the most influential people of the 20th century—C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien—were medieval literature professors.

It’s very hard to know what kind of impact you’re going to have in the world. The surest way to do great good is to focus first on doing good.

Related post: Here’s to the sane ones

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[1] I think Thomas Sowell said something like this in the context of organizations rather than individuals, but I can’t find the quote.

18 thoughts on “Working to change the world

  1. Bravo, John. Couldn’t agree more (about “It invites arrogance.”)

    Very easy for a billionaire to talk about moving mountains and changing the world. I mean, is he worrying about putting his children through college? About health insurance? About a car payment?

    I’m sure there are brilliant minds in New Orleans, in Mississippi, etc. that will never realize their full potential because of environment, poverty, etc. What is Mssr. Brin doing to find those people and help them reach their potential.

  2. Thanks, Dan. Those of us who are working to provide for our families are changing the world in our way.

    As far as what Brin is doing for the poor in Mississippi, he’s providing them Google search, and I don’t want to minimize that. But man does not live by Google search alone.

  3. John,

    I like this post very much. It is thought provoking about a topic we all ask ourselves at one time or another….”Am I making a difference?” Then we try to put our life and action in perspective. Thanks for posting.

    With that…this pararagraph confuses me:

    “Focusing on doing enormous good can make us feel justified in neglecting small acts of goodness. Many have professed a love for Humanity and shown contempt for individual humans. I’m trying to end poverty, cure cancer, and make the world safe for democracy; I shouldn’t be held to same petty standards as those who are wasting their lives.”

    In the last sentences are you trying to sound like those who show contempt for individual humans? Just wanting to be clear.

    Dr. Bubba

  4. Dr. Bubba: Thanks. I edited the post to put quotation marks around the sentence in question to make things a little clearer.

  5. I like Feynman’s message on the matter. At one point in his career (right after the Manhattan Project) he thought that he had to be working on only the hardest Physics problems and that he should not tackle some problems even if they were fun because they weren’t big enough. Ultimately he realized that he hadn’t gotten into Physics because he wanted to change the world, it was because he loved physics and it was fun. When he started working on interesting, but not necessarily earth-shattering problems that he was happier and more productive. That’s part of the reason he loved teaching even though many professors at big research Universities consider it a waste of their time: to him it was fun. And today the world remembers as one of the greatest teachers of science that has ever lived. I believe at one point in his book his talks about his realization that “I am not responsible for the world’s problems” and he became much happier and actually more productive and impactful after that.

    I think what Mr. Brin misses is that for many people doing what you’re interested in and what seems fun (or just puts food on your family’s table) is a far greater motivator and more satisfying than some notion of “changing the world”.

  6. I dislike the question as well. However, although this kind of questions make some people see cynical or unthoughtfull signs (mainly people who are aware of their role in the world), it has potential to redirect energy of some others to a better purpose (people who are not motivated or who make more harm than good because do not think hard about their actions). It could be tougth as a “bad marketing with a noble purpose”.

  7. A great post. By the way, this isn’t just folklore: people who think they are doing great things are more likely to cheat and do other dishonorable things. History has shown it and psychology experiments have shown it. Dan Ariely talks a lot about these sorts of things in his new book on cheating.

  8. I think a point implied in John’s post, but perhaps not stated directly, is that changing the world in a huge way isn’t even necessarily any better than making a small difference to a few others in your life. Actually, making a positive impact on a few people is changing the world. The impact of a small thing done by many people is enormous. In other words – how you reply to that nasty person on the internet, how you help your elderly neighbor, how you take time to volunteer at a food bank – is just as world changing as anything. While you can argue that “Google has shaped today’s world”, my personal opinion is that Google has had relatively little influence on today’s world at all, other than at the very surface.

  9. I tend to agree – focusing on doing good is a worthy cause.
    This reminded me of two essays:
    First, Hamming’s You and your research. Hamming focused on working on important problems, but did not qualify them as world changing.
    Second, Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl says everybody should live a meaningful life, but only the person involved defines what is meaningful to him.

  10. The impact of a small thing done by many people is enormous, but that’s because many people are doing it.

    (Which isn’t to imply that it isn’t worth doing small things, of course. If I give a meal to one starving person then I have done a very good thing. But I haven’t done as much good as if I find a way of feeding a million starving people and put it into practice. It might still be better to focus on small things because they’re easier to achieve; if my chance of success when I try to find a way to feed a million people is less than 0.1% and the attempt uses the same resources as I could have fed 2000 people with, I’d do better to feed the 2000. — Of course in practice this sort of quantification is difficult and oversimplified and one has to work with hunches and gut feelings. But the general point doesn’t depend on the exact numbers.)

    Incidentally, Tolkien was a professor of language rather than literature.

  11. You might enjoy this CS Lewis quote, shared by my colleague Gian Luca Clementi:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

  12. I totally agree with john.
    A person has to be judged not only by the big things he wants to do or did but also by small things he did or will do to achieve these goals.
    Afterall we all end up in travelling trying to reach our goals(as there is no end for them) all through our lives,So path we take matters(i.e., small things we do throughout our lives)

  13. The Golgafrinchan telephone sanitizer is in the novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams. Ironically, after all the telephone sanitizers were sent away with the rest of the “useless” Golgafrinchans, the rest of the society died off from an infectious disease contracted from an unsanitized telephone.

  14. I don’t know the Sowell source, but it seems close to John Dos Passos, in the concluding page of “Adventures of a Young Man” (part 1 of the District of Columbia trilogy) :

    …means are more important than ends, because means mould institutions which frame ways of behaving, while ends are never in any man’s lifetime attained…

    The whole trilogy has a recurring theme of how individuals participate in “historical forces”.

  15. I think it is more important to think about how to make things better than whether or not it is “world changing”. There is a whole lot of things around me at work that exist because “it is the way it has always been done” or “if we do it this way we don’t affect other departments and avoid all the politics involved in finding a “ideal solution””.

    Failing to find the best solution to your problem because it will involve a couple awkward meetings has got to fall on the “don’t be evil” spectrum somewhere. It doesn’t have to be world changing but saving a half dozen people 10 min a day, still adds some good in the world. If people around to world worked on small problems there would be a ton, likely millions of people lifetimes saved doing things the inefficient way.

  16. C.S. Lewis, I believe, said something like this in his essay “On Living in an Atomic Age”: that the people who know this world is ending and believe in a greater one are ultimately the people who will do this most good in this present age.

    Also, Orson Scott Card points out that “changing the world” is ultimately a short-lived endeavour. In one of his books about Bean, after the Third Formic War, he reflects that “A man searches for something that will outlast his life. For immortality of a kind. For a way to change the world, to have his life matter. But it is all in vain. You can change the world–as you have Bean, Julian Delphiki–you and Petra Arkanian, both of you, all those children who fought, and the ones who did not fight, all of you–you changed the world. You saved the world. All of humanity is your progeny. And yet, it’s in the past, and yet you are still alive, so what is your life for?”

  17. This strikes me like the difference between a conservative and a radical. A radical thinks everything needs to change. A conservative thinks more like your example of Chesterton’s fence: first, why should I change this? Maybe it’s fine how it is.

    With exceptions of course to the persecuted and the poor, if I see Sergey Brin making things better for then I’ll recant any negative comments about lack of humility or how I’d prefer to be around a funny friend than a hero.

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