How We Change the World

What could we be great at? What are we willing to take responsibility for? Combine those two things and maybe we can change the world!

Consider this question:

How can we change the world?

I think it’s interesting, when we each try to answer this for ourselves, how tempting it is to focus on the big part of the question: the world.

There is no doubt. The world is a big aspiration.

But we don’t have to start there. We can, if we choose, start with the small part of the question: the change.

Because, at least to start with, and probably for a long time after that too, any change we can actually make is likely going to be small.

We can completely change the question, just by asking it with a slightly different emphasis:

How can we change the world? How can we change the world?

Perhaps if we start with those two things then we might find some way to actually change the world, rather than just wishing we could.

🔨 How to make a dent

The potential of any work we do has two important dimensions: 1

  1. Width. How many people might eventually use it?
  2. Depth. How much value do each of those people get from it?

The combination of those two defines the eventual volume of the work. This is what we mean, I think, when we talk about “making a dent”.

Those who make a wide but shallow dent are temporarily famous but often quickly forgotten. Those who make a deep dent leave a mark, but are less likely to be visible to a large audience.

If we want to be recognised and remembered then we need to looks for ideas that are both wide and deep. But those are very rare. For most of us mere mortals we probably only get to choose one or the other, at best.

I think this desire to work on stuff that matters is easy to understand. What’s difficult is to define what does and doesn’t matter. And, of course, each of us has our own answer to this.

The overwhelming popular advice that is given to somebody trying to choose what to work on is to ask:

What are you passionate about?

The assumption that underlies this question is that change ultimately gets made by people who care. So uncovering the thing we already care about the most will help point us at what really matters to us.

It’s certainly true that when we just don’t care about the things we’re working on or the people we are tying to help then we are unlikely to make a difference. And it is surprisingly easy to be distracted by other things that we should care less about, like how much we will get paid for doing the work, or how much recognition we will get for doing the work.

But I wonder if it’s the wrong question to ask somebody who does care, generally, but is unsure in particular what to focus on.

Here are two alternative questions that I think are much more useful:

What could you be great at?


What are you willing to take responsibility for?


It’s easy to talk about being great. Perhaps, even, we might aspire to be world class.

But to actually achieve that, in a deep rather than wide sense, requires us to be very specific about both the niche that we focus on and what it means to be great at that particular thing.

For example, here are some examples of niches from the sporting world, described simply:

Eight people (+ one additional small person shouting instructions) sitting facing backwards in a long skinny boat, pulling one oar each, in a straight line race in lanes over a 2km distance.


Person who can put (not throw!) a heavy metal ball (weighing 7.26kg for men, 4kg for woman) the furthest from inside a circle without stepping out of the circle in the process, with each competitor getting three attempts to record their longest put, then three more attempts if they are one of the leaders after the first three.

Or even:

Person who can swim free style plus three other definitely not-free styles over 100m each in succession the fastest, where each 100m is two lengths in lanes of a 50m pool, starting from a standing start on a small platform positioned at one end of the pool.

All three of these describe Olympic events where athletes from New Zealand have recently celebrated success.

And, if you dig a little deeper, there are many other equivalent niches.

For example, the world record for running a marathon dressed as a snowman is a tempting 3:46:12. The world record for a three-legged marathon (i.e. two people running together, each with one foot tied to the other person) is, 3:07:57 - depressingly, quite a lot better than my personal best time over that distance. Or, if you prefer larger team sports, the world record for a marathon in a five-person costume (a Chinese dragon, obviously) is 4:21:30.

But perhaps my favourite sporting world record of all is the 4x100m retrorunning relay:

It might seem like these latter examples are all a bit silly rather than equivalent. But go back and read the descriptions of the Olympic events above and then try to convince me that these are any less silly. Why is running backwards a joke on YouTube while swimming backwards is an Olympic event where the winner gets immortalised as a gold medalist? There is no logical explaination for that.


It’s common to assume that once we care enough about something then we will do the work necessary to be great at it. But I think sometimes that’s backwards.

We care about the things we are great at. Retrospectively.

This is a lesson I learned while watching Eliza McCartney win a bronze medal in the pole vault at the Olympics in Rio in 2016, going from an unknown athlete in an obscure sport to future star of an Air NZ safety video in one leap.2

I was lucky enough to watch that competition live, sitting with a group of New Zealanders that included senior sports administrators and funders as well as a number of other Olympians who had completed their competitions earlier that day. I think it’s fair and honest to say none of us cared much for pole vaulting before that result. It wasn’t a sport that was given any attention or significant funding prior to that. But thanks to her performance, we quickly transitioned though mild confusion about the rules to become vocal fans over the course of a single evening.

I realised then that we care about the things we’re great at.

So the important question should be: what does it take to be great?

This is relatively easy to understand when we’re talking about sports.

For example, imagine running 100m in 20 seconds. (Most of us would be much slower).

And then let’s further pretend that we could sustain that pace for a full marathon distance (42.195km). We’d still be finishing more than 30 mins behind the current world record holder, Eliud Kipchoge.

Calculations like this put in context the performance required to be genuinely world class in that particular niche.

We should all do the same for whatever niche we’ve chosen to work on.

We don’t become world class by calling ourselves world class. And, it’s not enough to just assume we can fake it ’till we make it. We need to describe exactly what it will take to be great, and have in mind a plan that gives us a chance to achieve that. We need to understand who is currently setting those standards and what it will take to match or exceed their performance. Otherwise we’re just saying words and hoping for the best.

Infinite Niches

Here are three more examples of specific niches:

Software to help you learn to play a keyboard, pad controller, or electronic drum kit


A customer research platform, using social network targeting to reach specific audiences


Premium freeze dried fruit snacks (Gold Kiwifruit, Feijoa, Boysenberries etc)

Remember when Sir Paul Callaghan said he thought that the areas where New Zealand startups would find success would be weird and impossible to predict in advance? This is exactly what he was talking about. And yet, we continue to put a huge amount of time and money into trying to predict in advance. We have whole government departments working on it.

All three of the examples above are young companies I’ve invested in. Time will tell if any of them turn out to be great businesses or not.3

As an investor, why do I care about electronic drumming, public polling or delicious fruit snacks?

The honest answer is: I don’t. Or, at least, I didn’t until I found people working on those particular things who aspired to be great, who understood what that would actually take and who were determined to do that work.

The good news is in business there are infinite niches like this to pick from. The bad news (we’ll get to that soon) is we can probably only choose one each.

But the key is to understand exactly what it will take to be great in that niche.

That’s how to make a dent.

Bacon and Eggs - Photo by @wrightbrand on Unsplash:

🐷 The Chicken & The Pig

Consider a bacon and egg sandwich. Who contributes? 4

The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.

We can ask the same question for each thing that we choose to work on:

Q: Are we contributing like a chicken or a pig?

We can be involved, like a chicken, on lots of projects at once. But we can only make an unbounded commitment, like a pig, to one thing at a time. By definition, as soon as our contribution is split between two or more things then the time and energy that we are able to give to each thing is diminshed.

Q: Who is the pig?

To succeed every project needs at least one person who is committed like a pig. If we can’t identify anybody who is all-in and treating it as their most important thing then that’s nearly always a big problem!

This is a useful way for each of us to evaluate what we are personally willing to take responsbility for.

Are we happy to just be involved, or do we want to have some skin in the game? It’s easy to say we care about something, but the proof is in how much time and energy we are prepared to spend on actually doing something about it, and how comfortable we are being accountable for the results that are achieved, good or bad.

Here are two simple techniques I’ve found useful when trying to make this distinction:


I used to think I had ambition - but now I'm not so sure. It may have been only discontent. They're easily confused.

— Rachel Field

Firstly, we can pay attention to the things that make us feel angry or frustrated.

Often we just choose to live with these things. Sometimes we might offer to help when others step up to try and fix those problems. But taking responsibility means taking the initiative, not waiting for somebody else to describe the solution but instead having the curiosity and ambition to try and find it for ourselves.

It’s easy to look at something that seems broken and wish that it was different, but progress only gets made by the people who turn that discontent into activity.

Chickens are mostly limited to living within the lines of other people’s solutions.

Pigs realise they need to draw the lines.

We vs. They

A lot of times
We’re angry at other people
For not doing what
We should have done for ourselves

— Rupi Kaur, The Sun & Her Flowers

Secondly, we can be conscious of the language we are using to describe other people we work with and depend on.

When talking about the things that need to be done, we can often neatly divide the world into people who mostly say “we” and people who mostly say “they”.

Think about how you describe the other people in your team. Think about how your team describes the other teams in your organisation. Are they “we” or “they”?

I’ve found that technical teams have a special variant of “they” that’s very common and not so obvious, but just as dangerous. Keep an ear out for people who talk about “the business”, as if the business is something external and separate from what we’re working on, and usually something to be derided. This is silly. Technical teams are part of the business. We’re not stuck in traffic. We are traffic.

Again, this is well understood in the sporting arena. For example, Graham Henry had a simple way of describing his success as coach of the All Blacks:

The key to being a great coach is coaching the best players

On first reading that seems unnecessarily humble or flippant mindset given his achievements. But, he’s making a useful point: when a team is great they make the leader look great too. It’s important to surround ourselves with the best people we can because our success is likely to be an average of everybody who is involved.

Taking responsibility forces us to consider our leadership style. There are alternatives: we can be like a sergeant major, leading by example from the front, or like a coxswain, setting the cadence for others. My experience is that we can achieve a lot more as leaders if we don’t feel that we need to take all the credit, but your mileage may vary.

Chickens belong to a team.

Pigs build a team and get them all pointing in the same direction.

∩🚦 Polymath

Steve Jobs famously described Apple as a company that operates “at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts”.

Here is a longer quote from Wired Magazine where he explains why this is important:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

The Next Insanely Great Thing, Wired, February, 1996

Magic often happens at the intersections. One thing by itself is often insufficient.

I think that applies in this case too:

When we have the capability to be great, but don’t take responsibility, that’s idling.

When we fully commit to the work, but don’t have the ability, that’s flailing.

But when we combine those two things - when we fully understand what it means to be great at something and are prepared to make the sacrifices to achieve those results - then we have the opportunity to change the world.

  1. These two dimensions are inspired by an article by Evan Williams where he listed seven dimensions to have in mind when evaluating any new idea:

    • Tractability: How difficult will it be to launch a worthwhile version 1.0?
    • Obviousness: Is it clear why people should use it?
    • Deepness: How much value can you ultimately deliver?
    • Wideness: How many people may ultimately use it?
    • Discoverability: How will people learn about your product?
    • Monetizability: How hard will it be to extract the money?
    • Personally Compelling: Do you really want it to exist in the world?
  2. Actually, seven leaps in the final, following on from six leaps in qualifying which included failures at her first two attempts and a mistimed run-up on her third and final attempt at that first height which didn’t seem to bother her at the time but caused a lot of anxiety for those of us watching! ↩︎

  3. See Melodics, Stickybeak and Little Beauties ↩︎

  4. Source: The Chicken & The Pig ↩︎

Related Essays