How many of you want to change the world?

St. Paul's GreenHouse

Larry Smith.

“How many of you want to change the world?” That was the question Professor Larry Smith posed to a full lecture hall as he began his January 27 lecture at St. Paul’s University College.

Almost sheepishly, afraid to wear hearts on sleeves, hands around the room were cautiously raised. “You should want to make a difference,” Smith said, “and to solve big problems.” And then, for the next hour, Smith talked to a rapt audience on the subject: Change Your Mind and Change the World.

Recognizing that the crowd in attendance was composed of emerging entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs, Smith emphasized the fact that good intentions are not enough to make change that has real social impact, and encouraged those in attendance to apply intellectual rigour to finding effective social solutions. “We have big problems to tackle. We need people to think aggressively about these problems and how to take action rather than bouncing around making glib or casual assumptions.”

The first and most necessary step in approaching global social challenges can be found in a Philosophy 100 class: Challenge your assumptions. “Until you examine your ideas,” Smith said, “You won’t make a big difference in world.”

Smith, who noted that entrepreneurship is the most intellectually challenging activity someone can do, challenged his audience: “We will have a bumpy future unless you can start thinking aggressively, challenging every assumption in your head. Lazy, uneducated people make gross generalizations. You are at university, trained to be a scholar. It’s not that your degree is a job license—it’s about using your brain in a scholarly way, looking for real answers."

Smith described the usually binary pairs of thought on human nature, gender, government, democracy, technology, the environment, and collaboration, saying that too often social entrepreneurs approach challenges and solutions without carefully and thoughtfully considering their own intellectual biases.

“Don’t expect magic answers,” he cautioned. “We’re not going to resolve these contradictions with some magic answer. This is complicated stuff.”

There are also serious practical implications to this kind of thinking: Smith challenged the assumptions that human nature is hard to change and that behaviour changes are almost impossible by pointing to the rapid shift in thinking and behaviour around smoking in North America. At the same time, he warned, that doesn’t simply mean that human beings are simply plastic and malleable.

Smith warned the audience early on that he was going to be critical of charitable work—even if doing so made the audience feel uncomfortable. He talked about a charity in India that had reached half a million rural farming women with short videos that would help improve their agricultural practices. While this was, by some measures, a laudable accomplishment, Smith argued that it was less effective than it might appear: “The scale of this problem is vast. Is it reasonable to take this journey slowly? Hundreds of millions of rural women—must they wait for video to come?”

Regardless of the sector in which they work, Smith emphasized that those who want to create social change must be smart, crafty, intellectual, and rigorous. “Are you effective? Are you actually accomplishing something important?”

As for a more effective solution to the challenge of getting effective agricultural practices in India, Smith said, “No clue, but if you aren’t thinking in crafty, rigorous ways about this, and if you don’t think about big assumptions you’re making, you won’t get these things done. You need to ask yourself: What is the crafty, best, smart way to do it? How do I bob and weave and make the best argument? How can I be a super marketer? Do I have a plan or just a vague idea?”

For second-year Political Science and Peace and Conflict Studies student Khadija Hamidzai, Smith’s talk was empowering and engaging with exciting new ideas. “He did what not many lecturers do—talk about the messy and controversial issues on our planet. I felt like I could do anything after the talk, that barriers did not exist anymore because I knew that I had only created them in my mind.”

Social entrepreneur and founder of startup Complice, Malcolm Ocean, says, “I've done a lot of thinking about mindset-shifting, being strategic, and the fact that nobody is in charge even though that's really scary. I was just really glad that Larry was there, talking to an audience of hundreds of people, about how good intentions aren't enough to change the world, and how usually you have to change yourself too, and yes, that can be uncomfortable.” Ocean especially liked Smith’s challenge to the audience to use social media to encourage voter participation in the 2015 Canadian federal election—and hopes students accept the challenge.

“You change the world with a plan like a military strategy,” said Smith, who concluded his talk with a quotation from one of his favourite masters of change, Machiavelli: “The great majority are satisfied with appearances… and are often more influenced by the things that seem rather than by those that are.” Seeing what is without assumptions and then making a strategic plan is being part of the small but vital minority who change their minds in order to change the world.

You may watch the full lecture here:

- Susan Fish is a Waterloo-based writer who operates Storywell, an editing company, and who has two published novels (Seeker of Stars and Ithaca).

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