The Outsized Power of Young People to Change The World

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It surprises me how many people believe that their individual actions make no difference to the world.

In a recent poll on this site, 45% felt that their personal actions “make no difference” with respect to Global Warming. (Of course, many of those responses were from Digg readers, who don’t represent the average reader on this site.)

I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I believe exactly the opposite to be true: Individuals can change the world, and for us to change the course that society is on it will be individuals that will have to lead the changes.

Corporations and Governments are going to change the world — that’s something that us individuals are going to have to do. Governments follow the lead of the people who fund elections, and corporations are focussed on making sure they continue to have short term profits. It’s only individual people who have the ability to change the world when it comes to environmental issues.

I also believe that young people have a dramatically outsized ability to change the world. Here are some examples:

1. Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King was only 24 years old when he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Two years later when the black woman Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus, King became spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. During the boycott he was arrested and his house was bombed, but he refused to quit — even though he had a young wife and child who, along with him, received constant death threats.

King was the youngest man to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize when he received it in 1964. His “I have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., is widely recognized as one of greatest American speeches of the 20th Century.

2. Bill Gates

Bill Gates was only 19 years old when he read in Popular Electronics about a new ‘personal’ computer that had been designed. He decided, along with his friend Paul Allen, to write software for it. They contacted the maker of the new machine and, within a year, he had taken a leave of absence from Harvard Colege and ‘Micro-soft’ had been founded.

The company they founded changed personal computing and the way people used computers forever. Today, Microsoft products are used worldwide and Bill Gates has become one of the richest people in the history of the world.

3. Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was 26 years old in 1905 when, while working in the patent office as an ‘Assistant Examiner’ when he wrote and got published 4 papers on Physics. Among these papers were groundbreaking ideas on “The Photoelectric Effect”, a important discovery in Physics at that time.

In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work — with special mention of his early work on the photoelectric effect. In 1999 Einstein was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Century“. A poll of prominent physicists named him the greatest physicist of all time.

Einstein also made important contributions in other areas. His early warnings to US President Franklin Roosevelt regarding the potential for Germany to develop a Nuclear Bomb helped to spur the Manhattan Project. He was an ardent supporter of peace and spoke out for it throughout his life — he once was quoted as saying, “I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.

4. Rebecca Hoskings

Rebecca Hoskings was 31 years old when she traveled to Hawaii to film a documentary on its people and wildlife. But when she witnessed thousands of albatross chicks dying as a direct result of discarded plastics, she was both hurt and mad — and made a decision to make a difference.

Plastic grocery bags were a major culprit — the adult albatrosses saw plastic bags in the water and thought they were squid, so they scooped them up and fed them to the chicks. The chicks stomachs would then be filled with undigestible plastic which would eventually kill them.

So she organized a drive to ban plastic grocery bags in her home town of Modbury in the UK. Her efforts were successful and as of May 1, 2007 non-biodegradable plastic grocery bags are officially banned in her town. Moreover, publicity from this effort has made its way around the world and now many other cities are considering similar bans.

5. Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi

Mohandas Gandhi was just 24 years old when he moved to South Africa for a 1 year job in South Africa. While there, he witnessed first-hand the discrimination and violence against Indians that was occurring in South Africa at that time. At the end of his 1 year job, he decided to stay on and help organize the fight against a law that was being passed to deprive Indians the right to vote.

A year later he founded the Natal Indian Congress to help organize Indians in South Africa as a political force. He continued to work for the rights of Indians in South Africa for 10 more years, during which time he developed his approach for non-violent demonstration. Eventually, Gandhi’s movement was successful and forced authorities to recognize the rights of Indians in that country.

The organizing skills and approaches developed by Gandhi during this time in his life helped him later when he used the same approaches to work for Independence in India itself. Today he is known as Father of the Nation in India and is recognized around the world as one of the great leaders of the 20th century.

6. Marie Curie

Marie Curie was in her late 20s when she and her husband Pierre began their groundbreaking research into radioactivity. When she was 30, they published a paper announcing the existence of Polonium, a new element. Later that year, they announced their discovery of Radium, another new element. In 1903, at the age of 35 she received the Nobel Prize in Physics for the work she had done in her late 20′s and early 30′s on radioactivity.

Marie also had to overcome discrimination against her for being a woman. Despite graduating first in her high school class, she was initially denied entrance to college because she was female. Despite this, she eventually found her way into the University of Paris where she again graduated first in her class (and later became the first female professor at that university). In 1902 she became the first woman in France to earn a Doctorate degree.

Marie Curie later earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, making her the only person to have ever won a Nobel Prize in more than one scientific discipline.

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32 thoughts on “The Outsized Power of Young People to Change The World

  1. The every day person can make a difference and change the world even if it is one person at a time. People can do it by being a scout leader, doing community service, or doing out reach through a church. I am an active member of an Amnesty International group. Even taking the time out to write a single letter can make a difference in the life of someone who is imprisoned. So before you just look at the famous people and think that you could never attain that stature, start small in your own community and try making a difference with one person to start. They will thank you for it.

  2. Suzanne -
    Thanks for the comment! I really appreciate your thoughts –
    The point I’m trying to make here is really that, although you’re absolutely right in that we can all be leaders and heros in our own way, the ability to change society in a dramatic way shouldnt be assumed to be outside the reach of all of us.
    Gandhi wasn’t a world famous peace maker when he arrived in South Africa fresh out of school. And Bill Gates was smart, but it’s the initiative he took that made him rich.
    And Rebecca Hoskings is really not much more than you or I except for the action she took this within te last year or so. She’s had an impact far beyond herself, her town or even her country.
    So, yes – we can all change the world in small ways. But, just as importantly, the ability to change he world in big, dramatic ways lies inside of individual people as well. That’s th epoint I’m trying to make.
    Thanks again for the comment!

  3. i love this myth that Bill Gates took a “leave of absence” from Harvard. he was forced out for mis-using school computing resources in pursuit of the products he then began selling upon his leaving school. if we’re going to talk about how individual actions impact the world, let’s not white wash those individual actions.

  4. ugggg when will you people realize that the above mentioned are the exception to the rule…. you don’t matter and nothing that you do will change the outcome of anything… unless, of course, you have a shit ton of money then ja you can change things maby… besides that all you can do is get pissed off at things and raise your blood pressure. stop giving people hope …. it will only let them down

  5. jhimm –
    I’d always heard Gates took a leave of absence. I searched as much as I could and I couldn’t find anything about him being forced out.
    While Wikipedia isn’t perfect, I usually accept it as pretty good for most information — and Wikipedia describes his leaving as ‘taking a leave of absence’. I’d be interested in any sources you could share that give a different story.
    But let’s also not miss the overall point — regardless of why he left, he’s was a young person who saw an opportunity to change the world and took it. He rode it hard and succeeded by many measures.
    The point is that each person may have inside themselves the ability to change the world like Bill Gates did. Bill probably didn’t think he was going to change the world when he took the steps he did — any more than Gandhi thought he was going to liberate India when he was in South Africa — but they took chances and went for it.
    Thanks for the comment and let me know if you have any sources for the information – thanks!

  6. Stephen -
    Thanks for coming by the site to leave that very nice comment. It gives me the grand opportunity to call you a mindless schmuck and an idiot.
    If you look at all the people above, *none of them* was rich or had a lot of money before they were adults. Yet all of them changed the world.
    It’s arguable that Gates’ parents had money, but not a great deal.
    And none of them thought they were going to change the world when they started.
    These are perfect examples of why your advice and thoughts are so stupid. I have to wonder if you’re just a troll or if you really are such a moron. My bet, of course, is moron.
    Each person may or may not be able to change the course of history. But to tell everyone ahead of time to simply give it up because it’s predetermined that their lives are meaningless — well, that’s plain stupid.
    I’d recommend at this point you go back and spend the next 10 years in front of your Nintendo game (as you’ve likely spent the last) and keep yourself away from anyone with ambition that you might ruin.

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  10. Kevin,

    Great post. And truthful no less. Keep up the good posts. Poor Stephen…

    What is the “change” that people want to see? That is my question? People want to change, but to/for what? What will be different?

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  12. Haha well what do you know, another Kevin that fully supports my ideology and my dream that young people can change the world. I am still a teenager in high school and people call me a dreamer. Well I’m tired of dreaming so I decided to take action. I want to change the world and the first step I took was starting a blog along with my friends called CanTheWorldHearMe. Please check it out and see what we are all about. I put my heart into my dream and it really will show. I might sound ambitious but I’m not going to take some easy way but really earn the ability to change the world.

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  14. Well in regards to bill s “Leave of Absence”, both stories are correct in the repects yes he was cought using uni computer resources, but instead of kick him out they allowed him to take a “Leave of Absence” allowing both parties to save themselfs some trouble

  15. I also think that this is false hope. Looking at the examples, I pretty much have to either have some money (enough to go shoot a movie) or be incredibly smart (go to harvard, be the first in the class, know a lot about physics, and chemistry, etc…) And all this happened in a time when technology was just evolving. Nowadays, it’s pretty hard to invent something new, or discover a new element. Just about everything that could be discovered has been. Not everything, but most. And I want change, just not the “discover something” change. I want to change the way the country and soon world is headed towards. I want the population to stand up for its rights and fight the government if they must. To not bow to everything in fear. The power of many can outdo the power of the government. Everyone just needs to work together. There is my goal, for all to see. I want to lead people away from the direction America is going towards right now. I want to open people’s eyes. I want to take back real freedom from power crazy officials such as the elite. I want there to stop being secrets in the government. Secrets that are kept from the public. But, this will never happen. I will never be able to have a voice, as I do not have the know how of what I should do to get started. I also do not vote, as I don’t think that my one single vote will count. I am only 20, and know that will spend my life in a normal job, fighting to get a great job with great pay. Living with a wife and some children in a house, as the world continues to turn, things continue to be wrong and unjust, and no one to stand up for it.

    If anyone would like to continue to talk to me about this, you can feel free to e-mail me at:

    P.S. I also agree that if we tell everyone that they should quit because they have no chance, then no one will try, and those who do have a chance will never attain such change that they could’ve gotten. It’s not that no one can become great, it’s that some people will be able to change the world, while others are just going to sit idly by. And those who will sit, already now their part.

  16. Yes, you do have a voice. Yes, change is possible. Yes, we have been to the place change will take us before. Yes, we keep repeating the same drama over and over. Why? Peace is boring. Once you have dealt with that then and only then will change happen on a permanant lasting basis.

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  18. Hello. Great post. I would just like to point out that it is irrelevant how the prople mentioned above came to make a difference and whether they are an exeption to the rule or not. One does not have to win a nobel prize or become famous or make a million to make a difference. Everybody can contribute in a small way by just talking to people, setting an example, asking the right questions or having a blog (like this one). If you care about the world and about how society developes, all of these options are better than doing nothing.

  19. i think you should take out bill gates and add steve jobs, not being a apple fanboy, just saying that bill gates had no machine to put his software in, and even then the term “windows” was created already b4 bill gates wrote windows..
    just he became really successful and gates was left out

  20. Kevin, Unfortunately nothing I can cite in an official way. When I lived in Cambridge I used to know people who were working at the school at the time who were directly involved in the “incident” which resulted in his “leave of absence”. I suspect that is technically the correct term for it, but it was not a voluntary levae. Gates has done an amazing job of white washing the truth over the years, and I am sure once he had money in his pocket he “made it up” to Big Crimson to ensure they never played sour grapes.

    My concern is that you put a man who single-handedly destroyed something very beautiful in the world of early personal computing through his own greed and thus “changed the world” along side people like Ghandi, MLK and Einstein. It just seems like a very strange choice.

  21. The ting is though are these people really changing the world, I don’t think so. Sure Bill Gates made Microsoft but that was bound to happen someone had to do it Gates just happened to be the most famous and it wasn’t like he was the only one either. These people didn’t have any special powers or skills that allowed them to change the course of history because they never did, history could care less about them because it had already decided to change. technologies are created regardless of there being the right person, radium and polonium weren’t going to stay hidden just because Marie never thought to look for them, relativity would have come about without Einstien. Things happen not because what one person decides to do but because there are so many working in the right direction that someone is bound to get it done. Of course you still need to try because if no one trys then nothing happens.

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