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  • Sarah Ayton

Changing Our Perception

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy


“Where would I find enough leather to cover the entire surface of the Earth? But with leather soles beneath my feet, it’s as if the whole world has been covered.” Santideva.


To think one individual can change the world is foolish, but to think a small change can have a greater impact is progressive. The idea provides an insight into my writing, with the example of a small personal change having a more significant impact on others.


Does the world need to change?


Tolstoy coined the statement in 1800 when individuals aimed to change the world for economic development and industrial reasons. Today, however, some individuals that seek to change the world may do this for personal, altruistic, or environmental reasons. Perhaps Tolstoy meant that changing the world should not be people’s exclusive focus; self-change can be undertaken in parallel to a grander venture to improve things on a larger scale.


There are over 7.8 billion people in the world today. Individuals can make small changes that may catalyse greater ones; not only in their own lives but also in the lives of those around them. The belief that one small act of kindness or positive thought can have an unconscious positive effect on other individuals has been relevant among psychologists, sociologists and philosophists. Mark Twain penned that “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see”, in the context of this piece, it is the responsibility of ‘himself’ to commit to the acts of kindness, to do no harm to others and to be morally sound.


To change the world is to think the world requires change and to think that there is a fault with the current circumstance. Although humans are born with inherent traits and are moulded by their environment, change is also possible through learning and growth by reflecting on their own characteristics, whether these be personality or skills-based.  Otherwise, people can endeavour to undergo a continuous process of self-improvement. This is evident in today’s society, highlighted by the fast-growing industry of self-help books in recent years. If everybody followed this process, perhaps via the butterfly effect, positive change may propagate throughout society.


Another standpoint to question the statement is to understand why individuals may not proactively change themselves. People may be afraid of change due to the uncertainty it brings; this may be amplified by the dramatic and drastic world changes that individuals see. People may not want to change themselves because they may not perceive their own shortcomings. Perhaps, they consider the world changing of considerably more importance than self-change, and thus sacrifice the opportunity to better themselves for a greater cause. The Bystander Effect popularised by Latane and Darley in 1964 may explain how individuals are less likely to make personal changes when there is a greater number of individuals in their environment. This causes a person to believe there is a diffusion of responsibility, leading them to question why they should make the change, as another individual may instead.


When individuals are concerned about the world and the wellbeing of its inhabitants, certain factors may draw them to these concerns. Societal pressures may push individuals to consider future generations. If individuals make small changes in their lives it may have a significant effect on the long-term goal. Such as the idea that a butterfly’s delicate wings can cause a typhoon across the world and that actions can have greater nonlinear reactions. Making small personal changes can have a more impactful change on the world.


Jordan Peterson stated that if people want to change the world, they have to start with themselves, working outwards to build competence. This is the idea that small individual changes, like keeping a room clean will lead to greater personal improvements.  When Tolstoy made the statement that has been discussed, one can assume that he may have meant people should think of changing themselves before beginning to think about changing the world. My contention is that individuals must always reflect upon themselves and their backgrounds and seek to improve. However, having aspirations to change the world is also extremely important. If the core focus was not on this and people focused on themselves, would the world really be a better place, or would we have a society of concerned people? 


I believe that the point is not to only change the world or to only change oneself, but the changes should occur simultaneously. I believe that changing oneself, in turn, changes the world around them and that changing the world is not separate from changing themselves. It is synchronous.

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