Earlier this month I had the privilege of being asked to speak at my high school’s 125th anniversary, its quasquicentennial. The all-school assembly was a wonderful celebration of this event, and it was an honor to be welcomed there.
That evening, the school sponsored a symposium which included a facilitated panel discussion. I was one of 6 panelists who were asked to share thoughts on what it means to be a changemaker.
What is a changemaker? Of course, I Googled it.
According to the blog Observations of a changemaker, it is “one who desires change in the world and, by gathering knowledge and resources, makes that change happen.”
In an article in the New York Times: “Changemakers are people who can see the patterns around them, identify the problems in any situation, figure out ways to solve the problem, organize fluid teams, lead collective action and then continually adapt as situations change.”
These and many other definitions are all outwardly focused and, at some level, talk about changing the world. I’ve had the great luck & privilege of having found my way to Silicon Valley, the epicenter of high tech innovation and arguably the biggest and densest collection of global changemakers.
But here’s the thing that I think is missing in all this talk of changemakers. The most important thing that enables anyone to change the world is the ability and willingness to change yourself.
Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber, created a company that changed personal mobility, but he also created a toxic corporate culture that was blatantly sexist and mysogynist. He refused to change his leadership style, leading the board of Uber to replace him as CEO in order to save the company.
Most people here probably know of Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, who died as its CEO in 2011. We have his vision & leadership to thank for beautiful computers, the iPod, and the iPhone - arguably the most important consumer tech innovation in decades. He also was one of the people responsible for bringing us Pixar, the studio responsible for Toy Story, Ratatouille, Up, Inside Out…
He was also fired from Apple, the company he cofounded, years before all of that. He founded an ambitious but flawed computer company called Next. Both of those experiences, failures, if you will, shaped him to become the leader we now remember. Despite his arrogance and proven qualities to be a very flawed human being, he learned enough, he changed enough, and in turn, changed the world.
You may also know Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft who was famously brilliant, aggressive, and arrogant. I had the opportunity to participate in a few Bill reviews, as we called them in Microsoft, and I can tell you that characterization is accurate. Upon stepping down from his role as CEO of Microsoft in 2008, his work through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has shown his incredible transformation to an incredibly curious and generous philanthropist, changing the world by helping eradicate childhood diseases. By the way, vaccines work and don’t cause autism, despite what misinformed people say.
The human mind and body are amazingly plastic; we can shape them to an incredible degree. Just like how physical exercise is difficult in the beginning but gets easier over time as your body changes, we have the same ability to change our minds. Exercise it by tackling new, difficult ideas, but employ your ability for critical thought to learn and grow.
I remember being an unhappy teenager who felt stuck being this caricature of myself: insecure, angry, misunderstood. When I went to college, I took the opportunity to make some changes to the way I saw myself and in the choices I made. I did the same when I spent a semester living abroad my junior year and again when I graduated and moved to California for work. I took advantage of opportunities to learn, change, and grow every time I changed jobs, met new people, moved cities, or somehow found myself in a different situation.
My first professional job was at IBM in 1995. I remember seeing so many meetings requiring the use of a whiteboard, and how all these people who got up to write on it had horrible handwriting and couldn’t draw a straight line. When I tried it myself, I could barely do better. So I decided to practice. These were the days of private offices with doors, so I would close my door and practice writing and drawing on my whiteboard a few days a week. Once I gained enough confidence to do it consistently, I would volunteer to be the person at the board during meetings. People saw that my notes were actually good and that the charts were readable, so they started asking me to do it more. I also realized that when I was the person standing up with the pen, I had the power to speak up and influence the discussion and the written record, so I did. This was an early lesson for me how a small thing, practiced and executed, could have an outsized impact at work.
Here’s another example. I am an opinionated person, and I used to have a very hard time keeping my opinions to myself, especially when I was convinced that the person I was talking to was plain wrong. I was a jerk who loved arguing; I would constantly interrupt. My wife was the one who had to point out that this was also a problem in my personal life, not just at work. I have spent years taming this natural desire to be right, to at least learn to look like I respected others’ opinions, let them finish what they’re saying, and actually listen to them. I might realize that I might be wrong, and I might actually learn something. I’m still working on getting better at it, but this one thing has made me a better husband, family member, friend, colleague, and leader.
In my professional career I’ve worked for 8 companies, had ~12 jobs, and I’ve had to learn new things, grow, and change every single time. I’ve been married for almost 19 years, and my wife, Wendy, and I challenge ourselves to get better at being partners in life. This doesn’t mean that I’m a different person, but I actively try to evolve given the opportunity. I feel like I’m the best, most authentic version of myself now, and I plan to continue my growth as I get older and experience new things.
Being authentic to who you are doesn’t mean that you never change - it means taking advantage of every opportunity to harness your potential. We all change, as we should, but it’s powerful when you make it intentional through attention and deliberate practice. That’s all it takes.
Changing our minds is one of the most powerful things we can do, but it takes deliberate effort and delicate balance of humility & confidence. Start there, and you might have a chance at changing the world.