How to Change the World, by John-Paul Flintoff- a review

Malcom X, Mohandas K Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. These names evoke profound feelings in people. They inspire us because of their action, and have deserved places in our history books. What do they have in common? They have all changed the world in one way or another. John-Paul Flintoff is interested in getting to the root of how exactly it is that people come to make change happen, and in doing so, he wants to help us realise what change we can bring about too.

He starts off his book by reassuring us that we can all make important changes in the world. We don’t all need to aspire to make changes on the same grand scale as Gandhi did. In fact, he says that Robert Carlisle’s version of history is partly at fault. Carlisle believed that history is a linear documentation of conversations and actions between great people. He is much more interested in emphasising the power of the everyman, in much the same way as Leo Tolstoy was. Rosa Parks was a prime example of this. He points out that she was a very ordinary person who refused to give up her seat on a bus. It is a much more courageous act than it may sound, in a context where black and white people were segregated and often lived in fear. However, in doing this, she inspired other people to stand up for themselves too. His point is that you don’t need a public platform to make big changes in the world.

One prominent problem is that people often think that they want to do some good, make some positive change in the world, but many people never ‘get around to it’. He says that a key reason for this is that many people’s ideas are far too general (end poverty, end hunger), and therefore unrealistic. However, before we can start talking about how to make more realistic changes, we need to work out what is most important to us. One person cannot change everything, and you will do the best job when you find out what matters most to you. He suggests we start out by simply asking “why am I doing this?” every so often. This will help us get to what he calls the ‘want behind the should’. Understanding what means most to us, and what motivates us most, will lead us to what we can do. He suggests asking-

What do I think of as the good life? What kind of life do I most admire? What kind of life would I be most happy to look back on as mine?

He suggests we write a list of things we love, and who we think we are, then repeatedly asking the ‘why’ question until we really get to the bottom of who we are, what we want, and what motivates us. He offers us several different ways of thinking about this, and things we can think about.

Once we have thought about what we care about and what motivates us, we are in a better position to choose what issues we are to give our attention. He says that you should begin by drawing up a list of things you want to do. It could look like-

  1. War
  2. Poverty
  3. Environmental degradation
  4. Famine

Or it could look like-

  1. Do more baking with the children
  2. Play more American jazz
  3. Do a bit of stonemasonry

We should understand the value in our actions and realise that the second list can seem less important, but is not really always the case. Baking with the children can mean passing on the best creations of our ancestors, playing American jazz can be keeping alive a tradition which Nazis tried to suppress, or stonemasonry could be building a beautiful place of worship for people to experience the divine. What is important is to ask WHY you are, and should, be doing the things you are doing, and what difference it will make for you to do them. He suggests you draw up a list in which you categorise your choices from huge problems which effect everybody, to small issues which effect only yourself and those around you. Next draw up a to-do list of five things you want to address, a mixture of the biggest issues and smallest, and for each one, give an achievable goal. He gives us one of his lists as an example-

  1. Organise a Christmas party for my street
  2. Find someone to fund a prize for the designer who works out how to extract fibre from nettles cheaply, for use in high-quality sustainable clothing
  3. Encourage the cooperative movement to launch a parallel currency, creating liquidity for its members at a time when the banks aren’t helping
  4. Talk to a local café about providing space on their walls for local artists
  5. Set up a web page which enables people to upload local news and concerns

There are two things to remember here- be realistic, and be specific. He advises us to read Gene Sharp’s list of 198 non-violent ways to act. CLICK HERE to read it. Flintoff gives us many fascinating stories behind items in Sharp’s list, many of them are very inspirational. The important thing is to remember that we must ‘be the change we wish to see in the world’, as the famous words of Gandhi go.

The next two important issues are getting people on board and gathering resources. Change can be hard to implement by yourself. It takes many people for large changes to happen. Once one person is interested, it can have a knock-on effect. It is important to remember that reporting doom and gloom about the environment is not going to make people feel very enthusiastic about the futurre, you have to make people interested and hopeful. Try to see the world from their point of view. Understand what is important to other people, and how that can relate to your issue. Communication is very important. Therefore, it is important to do your research!

The second point, resources, is about what you personally have to offer. He suggests you draw up a list of your skills, knowledge, resources and connections. This allows you to see what you have, with which you can implement your change. It can also show you what you may need to acquire if you want to aim for further goals. He tells the story of a man named Richard Reynolds. He wanted to change his local community by brightening it up. He had a love for gardening, so that is what he did. He lived in a block of grey tower flats with nothing verdant around. He used some of his own money and planted flowers, tress and so forth overnight. The council told him he couldn’t do it, but he did it anyway. He eventually won the right to do so. It started a craze called ‘guerrilla gardening’ and people all over England started decorating their estates and tower blocks with beautiful flowers and other plants too. Shops even started selling ‘guerrilla gardening’ kits. CLICK HERE to read more about guerrilla gardening.

In the rest of the book, he spends some time discussing how you can bring more people in, what changes can be made, and so forth. Make it fun, he says. People are much more likely to get on board if you make what you are doing enjoyable. Find a way to bring people together. One example is a lady named Rachel Mathews, who spent her time teaching strangers on trains and buses to knit. Other people loved what she did so much that they started doing it too. It’s amazing what a difference something so seemingly small can actually make to a person’s day, or even their life. Another example is the Learn to Love You More art project, the website can be found HERE. It was a wonderful project which is now over, but there are plenty of wonderful, fascinating archives to read through.

This is a fascinating book. If you wish to apply yourself to doing something important with your life, it really is a great place to start. He uses many rich and interesting examples for each point, and teaches us about everything from thinking about what and how to care about and work out what we should do, right through to how to implement and capitalise on the changes we wish to make.

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