How To Change The World: An Interview With John-Paul Flintoff

by Leviana Coccia
Taylor Magazine Minimalist guide to life

Here’s how John-Paul Flintoff and his book How to Change the World re-inspired me.When I was in university, I literally thought I could change the world. I knew it would take work, but I was prepared to jump aboard any ship to take the plunge and try, even if it was only in some small way. I thought I was on the verge of becoming an activist who would spread love, peace, equality and happiness from continent to continent through writing. Then, I graduated and moved onto a post-grad, where my hopes for being an important figure in the world’s improvement grew. Then, I graduated again and started working a Monday to Friday, nine to five job, and I stopped feeling so important.

It’s when I graduated from post-graduate education that I realised I was just a small fish in a sea of billions of others – none who were I, but some who might share the same goals and be better at achieving them. I felt like a sheep (probably because of the hundreds of humans I followed on the sidewalk each morning to and from our workplaces, teas or coffees in hands, iPods in ears and resting b expressions across all faces).

I became envious of people who made their own schedules, went for brunch mid-week while still performing well professionally and took each day as it came, living like tomorrow never existed. How could I begin to feel like that again – so in control of my own world, with the power to make change?

One evening, after dinner with a down to earth, very go with the flow gal pal of mine, I strolled into a gift shop in Toronto’s financial district and picked up a few books. One was called, How to Change the World, by an author, broadcaster and journalist based in London, England: John-Paul Flintoff.

Flintoff is also a faculty member of The School of Life, an organisation founded in 2008 with branches in Melbourne, Paris, Amsterdam, Belgrade, Antwerp, Istanbul and London. The School of Life offers programmes, services and classes that focus on how to live wisely and well, while finding fulfilling work, staying calm and ultimately changing the world. They also have a series of books – of which How to Change the World is a part.

I caught up with Flintoff via email to talk about why he wrote How to Change the World, a book about simple people – some who may have felt like sheep at one time or another, others introverts – whose small actions made significant change in the world in which we live.

“I previously wrote a book about my own efforts to change things – to tackle climate change and resource shortages by making my own clothes, right down to the underpants and the shoes. It was meant to be funny, because I wanted to reach beyond people who already care about this,” Flintoff said, describing what ultimately led him to write How to Change the World.

“Anyway,” he added, “in the course of writing it, I learned some lessons about the structure of how change happens, and I wrote How to Change the World to share those structural ideas, so that anybody could think of the changes that THEY would like to make – and then make them.”

With extensive experience in business journalism and having written for The Sunday Times of London, Flintoff has interviewed a large array of people from opera singers to business leaders.

“I was fascinated by what I learned, and also became increasingly hungry to do something myself, instead of feeling like I was always a spectator,” Flintoff said.

Flintoff also said he wants people to understand that we not only all have the chance to change the world, but we can’t avoid doing so.

“We’re doing it all the time,” he said. “We have an impact and we have the opportunity to do it more deliberately – to choose our impact. I don’t want anybody to think that changing the world is only for the likes of Gandhi, or Mandela, and so on.”

When I first saw How to Change the World in that Toronto gift shop, something about the book’s title really encouraged me to pick it up: It was so simple and didn’t scare me like other self-help/how-to books so often do.

Flintoff said he likes that the title of his books makes people laugh. “It seems outrageous, grandiose. And it would be a bit grandiose to set out deliberately to change the WHOLE world, though that might happen, as a happy byproduct of changing YOUR world.”

This is what I loved so much about How to Change the World. It doesn’t put pressure on you to change the world, rather the book inspires its readers to change their own world – even if that means changing something about themselves.

When I was reading this book on the train into work one day, an older man from India who was a self-proclaimed yogi asked me why I wanted to change the world (and proceeded to tell me I couldn’t). I was speechless. I didn’t know how to respond! I was also intimidated by this man who had years of stories to tell about finding happiness and wellness. So, I kept quiet. I felt like he had years of knowledge on me.

I wish I responded, but can’t change that I hadn’t. I asked Flintoff what he would have said if he were I. His reply? “Do you mean that the world is exactly perfect just as it is?”

As a 20-something, it’s so important for me to find confidence in my own beliefs and fight for things I’m passionate about – doing this helps me coin my own definition of success, a word that is so often perceived objectively, when it’s really the complete opposite.

Flintoff said if young people, like myself, don’t find confidence in their passions, it doesn’t help anybody.

He then told a story about when he asks his daughter what she wants for dinner, she sometimes replies with, “Oh, I don’t know daddy, anything at all.” This, for Flintoff, is not very helpful as it means he is more likely to serve something that disappoints his daughter, ultimately disappointing himself, too.

“It’s much better if she says what she wants, and knows that I’m allowed to say no. There might be a good reason I can’t do it – so we can move on and find something else. It’s painful to see how strongly some people believe they are not allowed even to ask for what they want,” Flintoff said.

Acknowledging what we want – and that our wants may change, constantly – is a huge part of changing our world.

“If you talk about changing [the world], you can keep challenging yourself to be precise about what exactly the problem is that you want to fix,” Flintoff said, then asked, “If you don’t know what the problem is, how can you possibly find a solution?”

If Flintoff could go back in time and tell his 20-year-old self something wise, it would be: “You don’t need to footle about doing things you don’t care about all that much, just to prove to some imaginary person that you can do them. Nobody cares! Just do the thing you want to do. Dare to name it, don’t be shy! Get on with it. Have fun.”

How you feel reading that above quote – perhaps empowered, inspired, in control, happy – is how I felt after completing How to Change the World.

I may not be Beyoncé, Michelle Obama or Emma Watson, but I am myself and I have the same hours in each day as every one of the aforementioned ladies do. Just as they make change – supported by their millions – I can make change in my own world, with a lasting effect on the people around me, ultimately changing the world on a global scale. So can you!

Every action we take or word we speak is similar to a small drop of water spilling into a larger body of water. From afar, this small droplet of water looks like it hasn’t made any change. Really, though, there are ripples expanding and circling around the spot where the droplet fell, eventually impacting all the water in that grand space.

We are that droplet.

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