The Illusion of Changing the World – Don’t Fall for the Great Men Theory

Who or what drives forward the development of mankind? Is it visionary personalities like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk who bring about change with their innovative ideas? At the end of the day, can any of us change the world? Bestselling author Rolf Dobelli on human influence and the power of coincidence.

“We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference.” (Nelson Mandela)

“The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” (Steve Jobs)

These are powerful words. Words that spark our imaginations. Words that communicate a sense of meaning, vitality and hope.

But can we really change the world? Despite the doomsday tenor that newspapers love to evoke (or perhaps precisely because of it), today such messages are repeated mantra-style. Never before has such optimism about the influence of the individual been so widespread. To people in the Middle Ages, Classical Antiquity or the Stone Age, the two quotations above would probably have been incomprehensible. For them, the world was as it had always been. When there were upheavals, it was because kings were waging war or sullen gods were exacting revenge by making the earth tremble. That an individual citizen, an individual farmer, an individual slave might change the world – such an absurd notion never entered their heads.

Not so with Earth’s contemporary inhabitants. We see ourselves not merely as citizens of the world but as its engineers. We’re obsessed with the idea that we can reshape it through start-ups, crowdfunding and charity projects, just as the fabulously successful entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley or the inventive geniuses of world history have done before us. It’s no longer enough to change our lives, we want to change the world. We work for organisations committed to this goal, and – grateful for a sense of “purpose” – we’re even willing to do it for half the salary.

The notion that an individual can change the world is one of the greatest ideologies of our century – and one of its grandest illusions. In it, two cognitive biases are intertwined. One is the focusing illusion, which Daniel Kahneman explained as follows: “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.” When you peer at a map through a magnifying glass, the areas you’re looking at are enlarged. Our attention functions in much the same way: when we’re engrossed in our campaign to change the world, its significance appears much greater than it actually is. We systematically overestimate the importance of our projects.

The second cognitive bias is known as the intentional stance – a term coined by the American philosopher Daniel Dennett. Under the intentional stance we assume an intention behind every change – regardless of whether or not it was actually intentional. So when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, it was because somebody had deliberately brought about its collapse. The end of apartheid in South Africa would not have been possible without a campaigner like Nelson Mandela. India needed Gandhi to gain independence. Smartphones needed Steve Jobs. Without Oppenheimer, no atomic bomb. Without Einstein, no relativity theory. Without Benz, no cars. Without Tim Berners-Lee, no World Wide Web. Behind every global development we posit a human being willing it into existence.

This position of intent is rooted in our evolutionary past. Better to assume too much than too little. Better, if you hear a rustle in the bushes, to imagine the source is a hungry sabre-toothed tiger or an enemy warrior than the wind. There must have been a few people who regularly assumed it was the wind, saving themselves the energy of running away – but sooner or later they would have been abruptly and messily removed from the gene pool. Human beings today are the biological descendants of the hominids with a hyperactive intentional stance. It’s hardwired into our brains. That’s why we see intention and active agents even where there are none. Yet how could something like the dissolution of apartheid have happened without Nelson Mandela? How could someone other than the visionary Steve Jobs have come up with something like the iPhone?

The intentional stance leads us to interpret the history of the world as the history of “great men” (sadly, they were predominantly men). In his excellent book The Evolution of Everything, the brilliant British polymath Matt Ridley proposes a radical rejection of the “great men” theory: “We tend to give too much credit to whichever clever person is standing nearby at the right moment.” Enlightenment philosophers had come to the same conclusion long before. Montesquieu wrote: “Martin Luther has been credited with the Reformation… But it had to happen. If it had not been Luther, it would have been someone else.

In the years around 1500, a handful of Portuguese and Spanish conquerors subdued the whole of Central and South America. The empires of the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas crumbled with remarkable speed. Why? Not because “great men” like Cortés were especially cunning or talented, but because the foolhardy adventurers had unknowingly brought with them illnesses from Europe – illnesses to which they were immune but which proved deadly to the indigenous population. These viruses and bacteria are the reason why today half the continent speaks Spanish or Portuguese, and why they pray to a Catholic God.

But if it wasn’t “great men” who wrote the story of the world, then who was it? The answer: nobody. Events are the accidental by-product of an infinite number of trends and influences. It works like traffic, not like cars. There’s nobody directing it. World history is fundamentally disorderly, fortuitous and unpredictable. If you study historical documents for long enough, you’ll come to see that all major developments have a touch of the coincidental about them. And that even the most prominent figures in world history were simply puppets of their age. Key to the good life is not idolising “great men” – and not clinging to the illusion that you can be one yourself.

Yet there have been some “great men”, you might object – a few have shaped the fate of whole continents! One example would be Deng Xiaoping. In 1978 he introduced China to a free-market economy, liberating several hundred million people from poverty – the most successful development project of all time. Without Deng Xiaoping, China would not be a world power today.

Wouldn’t it? The analysis of British author Matt Ridley offers a different picture. The introduction of a market economy was never Deng Xiaoping’s intention. It was a development from below. In the remote village of Xiaogang, 18 desperate farmers decided to share state land among themselves. Each one would be allowed to farm for himself. Only by this criminal act, they believed, could they make the land productive enough to feed their families. In fact, in the first year alone they produced more than in the previous five years combined. The generous harvest attracted the attention of the local party functionary, who suggested expanding the experiment to other farms. Eventually the proposal landed in the hands of Deng Xiaoping, who decided to let the experiment run its course. A less pragmatic party boss than Deng “might have delayed the reform, but surely one day it would have come,” wrote Ridley.

Fine, you may be thinking, but there are exceptions. Without Gutenberg, no books. Without Edison, no lightbulbs. Without the Wright brothers, no plane trips.

But not even that’s true, because those three were also products of their age. If Gutenberg hadn’t figured it out, someone else would have developed printing technology – or sooner or later the technology would have found its way from China (where it had long been known) to Europe. The same goes for the lightbulb: after the discovery of electricity, it was only a matter of time before the first artificial light was switched on. It wasn’t even Edison who got there first. Twenty-three other tinkerers are known to have made wires glow before he did. Ridley explains: “For all his brilliance, Edison was wholly dispensable and unnecessary. Consider the fact that Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filed for a patent on the telephone on the very same day. If one of them had been trampled by a horse en route to the patent office, history would have been much the same.” Similarly, the Wright brothers were just one team of many worldwide to combine gliders with an engine. If the Wrights had never existed, that wouldn’t mean you’d have to take the ferry to Mallorca. Somebody else would have developed motorised air travel. Ditto for virtually all inventions and discoveries. “Technology will find its inventors,” argues Ridley, “not vice versa.”

Even highly scientific breakthroughs are independent of specific people. As soon as measuring instruments achieve the necessary precision, eventually the discoveries will happen of their own accord. That’s the curse of science: individual researchers are fundamentally irrelevant. Everything there is to discover will, at some point, be discovered by someone.

The same goes for entrepreneurs and captains of industry. When the home computer was launched onto the market in the eighties, somebody urgently needed to design an operating system for it. That person happened to be Bill Gates. Somebody else might not have met with quite the same success, but we would have similar software solutions today. Our smartphones might not look as elegant without Steve Jobs, but they would function in more or less the same way.

My circle of friends includes a number of CEOs. Some lead major corporations with hundreds of thousands of employees. They take their jobs seriously, some working themselves into the ground and earning plenty of money in recompense. Yet they’re fundamentally interchangeable. A few short years after their retirement, nobody even remembers their names. Huge firms like General Electric, Siemens or Volkswagen must have had outstanding CEOs. But who knows their names today? It’s not just that they’re interchangeable, even their companies’ strong results have less to do with their decisions than with market trends as a whole. Warren Buffett puts it like this: “A good managerial record (measured by economic returns) is far more a function of what business boat you get into than it is of how effectively you row.” Matt Ridley is a little blunter: “Most CEOs are along for the ride, paid well to surf on the waves their employees create… The illusion that they are feudal kings is maintained by the media as much as anything. But it is an illusion.”

Mandela, Jobs, Gorbachev, Gandhi, Luther, the famous inventors and the great CEOs were all children of their age, not its parents. Each guided important processes using their own tactics, of course, but if it hadn’t been them, it would have been somebody else. So we should be hesitant about putting “great men” or “great women” on a pedestal – and modest about our own achievements.

No matter how extraordinary your accomplishments might be: the truth is that they would have happened without you. Your personal impact on the world is minute. It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are – as a business person, an academic, a CEO, a general or a president; in the great scheme of things, you’re insignificant, unnecessary and interchangeable. The only place where you can really make a difference is in your own life. Focus on your own surroundings. You’ll soon see that getting to grips with that is ambitious enough. Why take it upon yourself to change the world? Spare yourself the disappointment.

Okay, so maybe chance occasionally sweeps you into a position of great responsibility and you rise to the challenge masterfully. You’re the best entrepreneur, the wisest politician, the most capable CEO and the most brilliant scholar you can be. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the whole of humanity has been waiting for you.

I don’t doubt for a moment that my books will vanish like stones dropped into the ocean of world history. After my death, my sons will probably still talk about me for a while. Hopefully so will my wife, and maybe even my grandchildren. But then that’s it. Rolf Dobelli will be forgotten – and that’s exactly as it should be. Not believing too much in your own self-importance is one of the most valuable strategies for a good life.

An excerpt from Rolf Dobelli’s book, The Art of the Good Life: Clear Thinking for Business and a Better Life.

Rolf Dobelli

Writer and entrepreneur

Rolf Dobelli, a philosopher with a PhD in business administration, was the CEO of various subsidiaries of the Swissair Group and, together with friends, founded the company getAbstract, the world’s biggest provider of brief summaries of business-related books. He is the founder and director of WORLD.MINDS, a community of leading international thinkers in science, the arts and business. Born in Lucerne, Rolf Dobelli writes novels and non-fiction, including the bestsellers “The Art of Acting Clearly” and “The Art of Acting Smart”. “The Art of the Good Life: Clear Thinking for Business and a Better Life” has sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 40 languages. The sought-after guest author and keynote speaker has lived in Hong Kong, Australia, England and also in the USA for many years. He now calls Bern his home, together with his wife, the writer Clara Maria Bagus, and their twin sons.

Rolf Dobelli inspired the guests of the 2017 CMO of the Year gala at the Old Bavarian State Bank with his keynote on “The Art of Acting Smart”.

More articles from this chapter