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012 Am I Making a Difference for Posterity?

Today we return for the second in our 3-part series exploring the fundamental need to make a difference in the lives of others.  (CLICK HERE to read Part 1)  And in this episode we’re going to consider two fundamental approaches for affecting a change that has far-reaching implications.

The first of these is when we envision exactly the magnitude of the difference we intend to make.

The second and more elusive is when our actions are responsible for future events that we have no way of envisioning from our current position in time and history.

Finally, to put this all into perspective, we’ll analyze the characteristics of those who make such differences in the world and discover that we, too, posses these abilities. 

And that’s what we’ll be talking about today!

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Now, let me be quick to say that our desire to affect change in the world on so grand a scale need not brand us as some sort of megalomaniac!  Even though in many cases, evidence suggests only a fine line between this label and the thoughts and ambition of great men and women.  British philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell appeared to believe this when he wrote,

To this type (megalomania) belong many lunatics and most of the great men of history.­   – Bertrand Russell

 

So, with such negative connotations restrained, we will first discuss and illustrate what I believe are two discrete divisions of large ambition.  And, we shall regard both as the noble undertaking of our best selves.

My intent is that at the end of this post, you will understand that we ALL have the ability to create a major and lasting contribution to humanity.

 

The Premise

After that grandiose introduction, let me congratulate you if you’re still reading or listening to this post!

As loyal subscribers are no doubt aware, I sincerely believe that having been created for greatness, each and every one of us “average” individuals already possesses the basics for making such an impact on the lives of thousands.

What are the facts to support this view?   Let’s begin by examining those universally admired as famous historical agents of change.  These are people such as Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony… and a long list of others.  Simply select your favorite.

Now consider…

Each had 24 hours in their day to accomplish the deeds by which they are remembered.  Are we not allotted the same 24-hour day?

Each was fueled by an all-consuming passion for how they viewed the betterment of humanity.  Do we not all have the seeds of such passion within us?

Invariably, each encountered criticism from those who could not (or would not) see the vision they saw.  Yet in spite of this, not one of them quit (see post number 011 This Day We Sailed On.)  Do you not also have your critics?

Aristotle once said, Criticism is something we can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.

In many cases the price that was demanded for a memorable contribution was the majority of their life.  This could only be achieved through passion which is the constant driving force for every famous person!  Is your passion strong enough to make such a commitment?

In one regard, we have the better of any historical figure you may have chosen because of the time in which we live.  We have immediate access to unlimited information through the Internet and other forms of connectivity to people and ideas; and, the technology of that access continues to increase at a logarithmic rate.

Lastly, through hindsight knowledge of the whole of history, we have the means to visualize and conceptualize on truly a global scale.

Prepared with this mindset, let us now see how great contributions to history can be made through the two methods which are the thesis of this post.  Each will be illustrated from historical records.

 

Method 1.   An Outcome Foreseen

Perhaps the best known method for accomplishing something of broad and lasting value is when the originator goes into it with a specific outcome clearly in mind.

Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and Steve Jobs (for example) all understood a need that existed in their time because they were living in the midst of it!  Each analyzed their situation and determined a plan using the skills they possessed to remedy a situation they believed could be better.  In virtually every case, improving the quality of life for hundreds, or thousands, was the stimulus for such a worthy action.

And, while there are many figures throughout history whom we might cite as illustration, I have selected one whose impact was so profound that the singularity of his accomplishment still resonates with us today.
 

William Wilberforce and the End of Slavery in Great Britain

William Wilberforce was an English politician and philanthropist who became the leading voice against the British Empire’s role in slave trafficking during the 18th Century.  Such trade within the Empire had been ongoing for over 200 years and at its peak was carrying off some 50,000 men, women, and children every year!

Between the 15th and 18th Centuries, Great Britain uprooted an estimated 10 million Africans and sent them to the Americas!

Referred to as the “Triangle Trade”, ships left England bound for Africa with their holds filled with goods to trade for slaves.  The purchased slaves were then crammed into these ships as cargo under horrific conditions and transported to the British West Indies.  Those that survived the journey were sold again, this time for slave-grown products such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton.  And these goods were then carried back to England and English markets.  (See Anthony Hazard YouTube referenced at the end of this post.)

Enter William Wilberforce.  Wilberforce was born in 1759 into a wealthy merchant family and at 21 became the youngest member of the British Parliament.  Ten years after this appointment, following ­­an intense religious conversion, he abandoned his dissolute ways and championed the cause of anti-slavery.  In his words,

God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the Reformation of Manners (i.e., British moral values).       – William Wilberforce

He vowed to end the Empire’s role trafficking in human souls.

Now understand, this was no small task since from the mid 1700’s, income from the Triangle Trade accounted for 80 percent of the English economy!

Yet despite fierce opposition and delaying tactics from all sides, Wilberforce continued to use his position in Parliament to turn public opinion and political leaders against the practice of slavery.  For nearly 20 years he persistently introduced bills and spoke against the immorality of an institution which, at that time, was widely accepted the world over as the "natural order."

Finally the movement he led succeeded, when in 1807 Parliament approved The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act which prohibited British ships from carrying slaves throughout the Empire.

However, while the slave trade was abolished, it did not free those who were already enslaved.  Wilberforce continued with equal fervor for *an additional 26 years*, both within Parliament and after his retirement, to speak out against slavery.  Finally, yielding to pressure – not in small measure due to Wilberforce and his allies – Parliament passed The Slavery Act of 1833 which freed all slaves throughout the British Empire, which at that time ruled 20% of the world's population!

Three days after passage of this bill, having invested 46 years of his life to accomplish a truly noble goal, William Wilberforce died.

 

Method 2.   An Outcome Unforeseen

The second method of achieving something of lasting and far-reaching value is when the originator does not, or cannot, see the full ramifications of their own accomplishment.

As with our first method, numerous examples throughout world history might be cited for illustration. However, we will return to one man of whom we spoke in our last post (This Day We Sailed On).
  

Christopher Columbus and The Columbian Exchange

There is no question that Christopher Columbus is one of the most controversial figures in all of human history.  Was he a hero or simply a man of great avarice with a brutal disregard for the welfare of others?

We circumvent that question by invoking the policy of "Moral Relevance", which maintains that no one has the right to judge the behavior of an individual unless they do so from within the context of that culture and time. 

Rather, our focus will be on the man and the difficulties he overcame and the subsequent outcome of his actions which neither he nor anyone else of his day could have foreseen.

The circumstances of 15th Century Europe in which Christopher Columbus lived were as follow.

Long before the days of refrigeration, Medieval Europe depended upon spices to make food stored over the long winters palatable despite inevitable spoilage.  These spices were sold by merchants who traveled by land to and from India and the Orient over a network of trade routes commonly referred to as the Silk Road.

However, around the time of Columbus’ birth (1451), Islamic conquests in the region were bringing these overland trade routes under control of the Ottoman Empire.  The result was that products from the East were now either denied to Christian Europeans, or obtained only at exorbitant prices.

Thus, Columbus grew up in a time that favored maritime exploration to find new routes to these markets in the East.

Contrary to popular belief, educated Europeans of the time did know from the ancient Greeks that the earth was round.  Even the idea of sailing west to reach lands in the East was not original. 

However, what was original was the passion of one man, Christopher Columbus, to achieve that goal and obtain riches for himself, his descendants, and any monarch who would finance him in this quest.

Born in Genoa, Italy into a reasonably well-off merchant family, Columbus decided at an early age to go to sea.  For many years he gained experience as a mariner and cartographer (map-maker).  Undoubtedly, he was well-acquainted with the economic issues of his day. 

It’s been suggested that the idea for Columbus’ dream of reaching the Orient by sailing west came from his brother, who had sailed with Bartholomew Diaz a few years earlier, east to those lands around the southern tip of Africa under the Portuguese flag.

For nearly 10 years, Columbus repeatedly petitioned the monarchs of his native Italy, Portugal, Great Britain, and Spain to support his voyage west.  Always he met the same argument – that his calculation of 2,400 nautical miles to the Orient was far short of their estimated 12,000 miles, and thus doomed to fail.

Finally, after waiting an additional 6 years for a successful outcome to Spain’s war against the Moors, Columbus made one last petition to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.  This time he was rejected because of what in their view were his exorbitant demands for compensation should he succeed.  However, in the end, Isabella agreed to risk the investment when the treasurer informed her that the Spanish Court spent more in one week entertaining guests than what it would cost to outfit Columbus’ entire expedition!

And so it was that the destiny of the world balanced on a knife edge of erroneous calculations by an intrepid explorer on one side, and the politics and ambitions of empire-building nations on the other.  What held it all together was the perseverance of a single man.

Today we know the mileage estimates of the advisors to monarchs were correct, and those of Columbus were very wrong!

No ship of that era had the capability of sailing continuously for 12,000 miles!  And had Columbus not accidentally bumped into a completely new land, unexpected and previously unknown to Europeans, we certainly would not have heard of him – or Columbus Day – ever again!

Although Christopher Columbus did not succeed in his dream of finding a trade route to India and the Orient, he discovered something of far greater value to Europe of the time – a completely New World.  Certainly, the transfer of cultural ideas, plants, and animals (termed The Columbian Exchange) was the most important outcome of his voyage and why we continue to celebrate Columbus Day.

For example, that “exchange” brought from the New World to Europe:

  • The tomato – which changed forever the cuisine of Italy
  • The potato – which impacted the history of Ireland, allowed populations to increase throughout the Slavic nations of Europe, and made possible the production of Russian vodka
  • Tobacco – which introduced the practice of smoking and its consequences for populations around the world

 

…and from Europe to the New World the Columbian Exchange brought:

  • The horse from Spain – which changed the culture of Native Americans and facilitated western expansion by European colonists
  • Spanish cattle – upon which was built the economy of the 19th Century American West
  • The Spanish language – which more than 500 years later, is still the predominant language of Central and South America

 

Character Analysis

Creating a lasting impact on the world does not come easily.  It often requires huge investments of time and patience, as our two examples clearly demonstrate.  Yet it is possible to do no matter who we are.  Consider also that these two men were hardly saints!  Both had their moral ups and downs, just like you and me.

William Wilberforce was born into a wealthy family and spent his early years spending freely on self-indulgent pleasures.  Christopher Columbus was born into what today we would regard a Middle-Class family.  That circumstance nurtured his driving ambition for personal gain.  These traits would describe any number of individuals born throughout history right up to the present day.

Yet each was influenced by the conditions of his time; Wilberforce by religious teachings of the day, and Columbus by economic forces favoring the risks of exploration by sea.

Two very diverse individuals; yet, the one characteristic they both shared was persistence.  Persistence in seeing what others would not or could not see.  Persistence in achieving a goal that no one before them had ever done.  And, persistence in standing firm in the midst of political and economic conditions.

Despite the delays and constant frustrations, neither ever considered giving up their dream.

There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.   – Paulo Coelha

 

Concluding Remarks

Today I challenge you to create your own plan for leaving a mark on humanity.  Begin with the following steps:

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What circumstances do you feel strongly about that need to be changed?  These are your Passions.

This may be to add benefit to others which they currently do not have (e.g. as Steve Jobs did).  Or, conversely, what circumstances exist that are causing wide-scale pain and suffering that you feel strongly should be changed? (e.g. as Mother Teresa did)

In my own experience I’ve found that the greater the need or greater the injustice, the more individuals will be helped by your successful intervention.  And these interventions are more readily positioned to continue on long after you are gone.  Surprising results happen when we expand our minds to think thoughts greater than ourselves.  (Read David Schwartz’s classic book referenced below, The Magic of Thinking Big.)

Then, as others before you have done, evaluate your Skills.  What are you good at that might be applied to affecting change?  Remember, it’s often something quite simple that can be repeated over and over.

And lastly, determine you Resolve to not quit when the going gets tough.  Today’s entire message has been an illustration of persistence in the face of tremendous odds.  Determine now the level of your commitment to make a change.

 


Weighty thoughts today, perhaps.  Yet nonetheless, I urge you to consider them carefully.  Then share your response with us in the comment section below.

This is Roger Koment at NSR Development encouraging you to go out there now and, in your own unique way, make a difference for posterity!

 

RECOMMENDED READING

          William Hague – William Wilberforce

          Alfred Crosby, Jr. – The Columbian Exchange

          David Schwartz – The Magic of Thinking Big

          Anthony Hazard – (YouTube)   The Atlantic Slave Trade:  What Too Few Textbooks Told You

 

 Our images today are from 123rf.com

 

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