Why you should think twice before aiming to 'change the world'

Elon Musk speaking at press conferenceMax Whittaker/Getty ImagesElon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, speaks at a press conference at the Nevada State Capitol.

The desire to “change the world” has become a common goal among aspiring entrepreneurs.

Silicon Valley visionaries, such as Larry Page, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk have often cited changing the world as the goal of their companies in talks and commencement speeches.

And people with hopes of embodying their success are watching those speeches.

But Ryan Holiday, author of the newly released “Ego is the Enemy,” cautions prospective entrepreneurs, new graduates, and everyone else about adopting that mindset.

In his book, Holiday suggests that the desire to change the world comes from a narrative that we often craft about successful people.

When people we consider our role models give that advice to us, we’re more likely to believe what they say without really questioning its validity.

We’re less likely to ask why we want to do it, or seriously think about our specific purpose for that goal. When things get hard and we find ourselves lost without any direction, we might turn to the one thing that Holiday believes is the greatest hindrance to our success, our ego.

Instead of focusing on why we want to change the world, we fuel ourselves with images of prestige and acknowledgment that we envision accompanies such achievement.

In an interview with Business Insider, Holiday shared his insights on the dangers that having this mindset can pose, and suggested approaches that are likely to be more conducive to long-term success.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
People want to pursue goals that are exciting and inspiring, due to social media and the abundance of media outlets.

Beware of ego

Holiday believes that the abundance of media outlets, along with social networks, have made people want to pursue goals that are 'exciting and inspiring.'

Saying, 'Hey, I need to sit down and work for 10 years to get good at something, is much more attainable and a little bit less sexy,' Holiday told Business Insider.

Focus on execution

Holiday dropped out of college at 19 to work as an apprentice to Robert Greene, best-selling author of '48 Laws of Power.' At 29, his accomplishments include a six-year stint as the Director of Marketing at American Apparel and four published books.

In the prologue of 'Ego is the Enemy,' Holiday explains how his early successes made him 'trapped so terribly inside (his) own head that (he) was a prisoner to (his) own thoughts.' He realised the way ego can cloud ambition and ultimately thwart it, particularly when a person starts to tie their self-worth to what they have accomplished.

Later on in the book, Holiday introduces investor Paul Graham, who warns start-ups against 'having bold, sweeping visions early on,' suggesting that they start small and scale their mission as the company grows instead.

Instead of aiming to change the world, Holiday told Business Insider, the focus should be on execution. By focusing on doing good work, he said, success is much more likely to follow.

Have a goal of 'doing,' not of 'being'

Having the goal of changing the world at the outset, while seemingly noble, can lead to ego trappings when having a status of a 'world-changer' becomes more important than the work itself.

Holiday said that to avoid falling into this trap, you need to be honest with yourself about whether you're actually trying to do good work, or if you're just trying to get recognised for good work.

He told Business Insider that doing good work may involve some uncomfortable steps. 'If credit is what you're obsessed with, you're never really (going to) accomplish anything because so much of the real work is done behind the scenes, and in some ways requires ruffling feathers or hurting people's feelings.'

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Larry Page, co-founder of Google and CEO of Alphabet Inc.

Don't think those who preach about 'changing the world' always started out thinking that way

Holiday notes, in the book, that the 'change the world' narrative can be a little misguided.

He gives the example of a talk by Larry Page in which Page mentions that he judges companies by asking 'if they're going to change the world.' Holiday points out that Google didn't start out that way. Google started as two PhD students collaborating on their dissertations.

Holiday told Business Insider that this falls within the 'narrative fallacy,' first introduced by Nassim Taleb in his best-selling book 'The Black Swan.'

'We sort of look backwards on our lives, and try to tell ourselves a story that's somewhat related, that make us seem sort of better than we were, smarter than we were, more prophetic than we were.'

In other words, while the likes of Page and Musk may infer that thinking about 'changing the world' played a part in making them where they are today, it may just be the narrative that they have created about their own journeys to success.

Be careful of reverse-engineering others' success

Holiday cautioned against modelling our behaviours on our role models.

A common view among venture capitalists, Holiday said, is that 'the worst thing a CEO can do is pretend that he or she is Steve Jobs.'

He went on to say that 'a lot of successful people have bad habits,' and that people wrongly copy mannerisms that might have nothing to do with their success. 'Steve Jobs can get away with certain things because he (was) Steve Jobs,' but to do the things that actually make him successful can be difficult to figure out.

Jobs often talked about changing the world. But copying that mindset doesn't guarantee anyone the same level of success, particularly if they overlook all of the other factors that led to it.

Consider your ultimate purpose

Ultimately, thinking about your 'purpose' as opposed to 'passion' is the best way to fuel yourself to do good work, according to Holiday.

Holiday gave the example of Christopher McCandless, who hiked through the Alaskan wilderness but was ultimately found dead. 'He was passionate about going into the wild. The problem is, he hadn't actually done any of that preparation and he had no real understanding of how dangerous what he was actually doing was.'

Holiday said that passion is the 'overwhelming force that ignores everything else around you because you're so consumed with itself.' In the book, he described it as 'that burning, unquenchable desire to start or to achieve some vague, ambitious and distant goal.'

Purpose, on the other hand, is 'passion with a brain,' he told Business Insider.

In the book, he described it as being able to understand its boundaries with a sense of 'detachment and perspective.' This means asking ourselves the following questions:

'Where do we start? What do we do first? What do we do right now? How are we sure that what we're doing is moving us forward? What are we benchmarking ourselves against?'

Asking those questions may put one on a better footing to do great work, rather than an abstract goal of changing the world.

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