Be The Change You Want!

by | May 17, 2017 | Formation, Systemic change

“Be the change you want!” is often used as shorthand for what is the very hard “Inner work of Systemic Change.” The words are often attributed to Gandhi. But there are two problems with this. The first is that he did not actually say them.

What he actually said was:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Reading the original quote, one could understand how or why we might paraphrase what he said as “be the change you want to see in the world” but doing so only gives us part of the story.

Joseph Ranseth points out:

Now this actually is good advice, and even though he didn’t actually say it the way we attribute it to him, I believe he’d support the idea. This notion of be the change you want to see in the world does 3 powerful things when we adopt it:

  1. It stops us from judging others;
  2. It replaces complaining about others with  reflection on self;
  3. It stirs us into taking action within the only thing in the world over which we have any control: ourselves.

The following insights from the Stanford social Innovation Review take it further.

However, the real change comes when we go within and do the work of inner transformation. To examine ourselves openly, honestly, vulnerably and to purge out any resemblance of selfishness, depravity or insecurity.

Real change starts with recognizing that we are part of the systems we seek to change. The fear and distrust we seek to remedy also exist within us—as do the anger, sorrow, doubt, and frustration. Our actions will not become more effective until we shift the nature of the awareness and thinking behind the actions.

Re-directing attention: seeing that problems “out there” are “in here” also—and how the two are connected. Continuing to do what we are currently doing but doing it harder or smarter is not likely to produce very different outcomes.

Ineffective leaders try to make change happen. System leaders focus on creating the conditions that can produce change and that can eventually cause change to be self-sustaining.

When we learn to listen to each other in a deep way we see that a problem is not just one person’s problem, it is all our problem.

The Stanford article is very rich and may be the subject of another post. For the time being, I offer two questions for reflection:


1) Do I recognize myself as part of the systems I seek to change?

2) Do I focus on creating the conditions that can allow change to happen rather than trying to make change happen?