A couple of years ago I mentioned The School of Life, a bookshop and venue that hosts talks and workshops on good living and self improvement. It’s a philosophical sort of place and I drop in from time to time. Since I can’t really afford their courses, I was pleased to discover recently that they have launched a series of books.
The whole series looks great, but the one that caught my eye was this one, How to Change the World. I picked it up because yes, I want to change the world. (Don’t we all?) And because it’s by John-Paul Flintoff, who wrote the wonderful Sew Your Own.
Before I go any further, I ought to mention what a beautiful little object it is. The book is a pleasing fawn colour with bright green highlights, and it has rounded corners so it doesn’t go dog-eared in a rucksack. It has room for notes at the back, a gift to people like me who read with a pencil tucked behind their ear. With the rest of the series, it is three-dimensional proof that the ebook hasn’t made its paper cousin obsolete just yet.
With a title like How to Change the World, you could be forgiven for rolling your eyes. Roll not. This is a more practical, modest and human-sized treatise than you might expect. If lowfalutin was a word, it would be that. It begins by blowing away the notion that changing the world is about big important matters, dismissing the popular conception that “history is about the action of dominant individuals.” Far from it. History is composed, as Tolstoy said, by “an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions.” We all influence the world around us every day, in dozens of little ways, whether we like it or not.
The key is to be more deliberate about how we influence things, to aim higher, to be more intentional. That means overcoming inertia, summoning our courage, and taking a first step. If you know exactly what you want to do, you might want to strategise a little. If you don’t have a particular goal in mind, you can still get on with changing the world in little ways, right where you are.
There’s lots of good advice here about how to make change happen, how to convince people and get them board with your cause. There are personal stories and historical asides that show just how much change can come from relatively small actions. Rosa Parks, Flintoff reminds us, played a major role in ending racial segregation in America by sitting on a bus.
Drawing on a wide range of sources that includes Gandhi, Iris Murdoch, and the Biblical idea of the Kingdom of God, Flintoff concludes that changing the world is an ongoing process, a state of mind. It’s the decision to open ourselves to the world around us and take responsibility for what’s wrong. Those that do it best are those that do it out of love. “If we are really interested in changing the world” he says, “we have to put others first.”
How to Change the World is short, wise, and inspiring. It’s frequently humorous, and full of encouragement. Appropriately for the topic, it comes with homework.