Changing the System

Change the System

I’m back on the road, talking with interesting people every night. Many of them ask questions about “changing the system.” Everyone agrees it’s broken and frustration is expressed all around. But what is this system, why isn’t it working, and how can we change it?

When we talk about “the system” we are talking about a structure and a set of entrenched powers. There’s a political system, which favors incumbents and redistricting along party lines. There’s an educational system, which favors conformity and standardized evaluation. There’s an economic system, which tends to focus revitalization efforts on reviving older industries (auto manufacturing, for example) instead of teaching people new skills (creative self-employment of all kinds).

Systems are broken because they exist to sustain themselves, and the people who run the system rely on the system to stay the same. Why should they change it up? It works well for them.

Thus we ask: When will the system change?

The answer isn’t that complicated, and it’s not about marching on Washington or fighting the man. (Who is this unnamed man? It’s hard to fight a moving and anonymous target.)

The simple answer is that the system will change when people change. As people adapt to something different, as the popular mood shifts, as we move on from old ways of thinking—that’s when change comes about.

If you want something to change, therefore, show us an alternative. Show us a new way of life.

You are the role model. Not the politician, not the celebrity, not the evangelist. Don’t throw up your hands in resignation, and don’t look for another leader.

It’s all on you, in other words. No pressure.

Comments here.


Image: Aleksia

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  • Paul says:

    There’s an interesting challenge between doing and showing a system change. For instance, as someone unhappy with society, I could go live in the woods and become self-sufficient (and no one would be the wiser or learn of my way of doing things). Or, I could go live in the woods, become self-sufficient, and blog about it (still being part of society) and perhaps become a celebrity for living what I know to be a truer life.

    If I truly was sick of the system, I wouldn’t want to blog about it, but if I still had a glimmer of hope for everyone else, perhaps I would.

  • Natasha says:

    I always tell my 16 year old to learn to navigate through the system in order to overcome it. Since he has to get an education, make the most out of it, and adjust it for your life.

    As individuals, we may not necessarily have the power to “change” the system per say, but we can change our approaches, i.e. creative self employment, mobile living, etc.

    Great post….keep on persevering!

  • Clay Myers-Bowman says:

    Even if we think no one is watching or noticing what we do, that’s just not the case. Every day someone will notice how you interact with others, treat animals, or show respect. That’s how you can change the world.

  • Kjersten says:

    Cheers to this nudge! Thanks Chris.

  • Paul Jun says:


  • Jonathan Mead says:

    Well said brother. The system changes when we realize that we are the system.

  • Samantha says:

    Chris, have you noticed that the people around you have changed over time, become more understanding of the idea of living unconventionally?

  • Pat says:

    “Be the Change you wish to see in the World.” -Attributed to Gandhi, but not accurate

    “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. … We need not wait to see what others do.” -Real Gandhi quote

    I was able to offer consulting from Chicago, Tokyo, Mt, Fuji and Taipei over Christmas and New Year’s. It was fantastic. Thanks for your blog and your thoughts. Really- it is within anyone’s grasp.

  • Caroline Frenette says:

    Absolutely 100%. It’s on me.

    Change is good, change is hard. It’s challenging and it brings feelings of insecurity but it’s worth it. It was for me when I closed a retail store & yoga studio.
    The “system”, that way of doing business in Montreal at this time in “this economy” was too restricting.

    Instead of fighting (like everybody else on the street) I changed my outlook, changed my behaviour, listened to my true desires and then I changed direction, drastically. And for the better.

    Amidst all this change I kept an image in my mind: I saw myself sitting still in the eye of the storm. And from that place I could breathe and move through change.

  • Tina says:

    You know you are resinating with others when “Amen” is perfect. Be the light of change. Illuminate the path for others.

  • Jassen Bowman says:

    This is more in reply to Samantha than the original post. I think that as a person clarifies their values, and defines the role they wish to play within societal systems, they either intentionally or (more likely) subconsciously change the types of individuals they choose to associate with.


    Wow! F***ing wow. I was praying for a sign, for clarity, for direction. This article helps me immensely. I am the catalyst of change that I crave for in the world. It’s all on me. Thanks for the inspiration and call to action.

  • Bea says:

    Great post!
    Empowering people.

  • Will says:

    ditto, well said. Wasn’t it Gandhi who said “you must be the change you want to see in the world”

  • RogerEllman says:

    You are absolutely right.

    I think we have an evolving, sprouting and in some cases flowering of new ways, ideas and expectations. These are taking root through the doing and creating of new ventures and adventures.

    A brave new world starts over a coffee where the caffeine induces creative action. This includes art, technology, services and as yet unknown new busineses.

    Every one person contributes to changing Status Quo to Status Go!

  • linda says:

    I think Rosa Parks was an amazing example to the world for so many reasons but for me what I think of most is how she just did it. She stopped waiting for legislation to be made, society to change, racism to diminish, minds to evolve and she just freaking did it and I think a lot of us need to take her beautiful and world altering example and do the same.

  • Leah McClellan says:

    Good one, Chris. Somehow that sounds just a little bit like the slogan often attributed to Ghandi: “Be the change you want to see in the world” or however that goes.

    One of my history professors suggested that it’s not politicians that change the world, not the scientists, not the philosophers–it’s the poets that start the movements. And by “poets” he not only meant the poets who actually write poetry, he also meant the day-to-day thinking people dreaming dreams and doing things their own way, kind of a grassroots thing.

    “Who is this unnamed man?” Exactly. I wonder that every time I hear it. Thanks 🙂

  • Peter Wright says:

    Interesting views Chris. That has to be one of the most sensible and positive articles on the current sense of disenchantment that seems to be paralysing society.

    I am a proudly contrarian baby boomer, love challenging the status quo and conventional wisdom. But can only support changing the systems if those changes have better than average chances of producing better systems and conditions.

    For all their faults, the systems that have been developed since the Industrial Revolution, have lifted millions out of poverty and given the gift of life to millions more who would not have been born if their parents and earlier generations had not themselves benefited from earlier versions of those same systems.

    It’s a case of being careful what we wish for, many inhabitants of North Africa and the Middle East now suffering from the law of unintended consequences, must be wondering why their “old” systems were changed.

  • Bryan Haines says:

    Nicely said. In many senses “the system” is broken. I’m not sure if the system will change – but individually, we can decide to make our own way and not follow the this-is-how-things-are-done mantra.

  • Derek Loudermilk says:

    I’m from Missouri, The “Show Me” state. I agree that if you want change you must show me how you are going to do it. The hard part is knowing what is possible when you operate from within a system- like a fish in the ocean doesn’t notice the water.

  • Lisa says:

    Respectfully disagreeing with you on a point. I don’t think the system always works so well for the people who are enforcing it but it’s “normal,” safe and known.
    Being a trail breaker is dangerous, difficult and there are no assured outcomes. Lots of trail-breakers and non-conformists “fail.” (could this be the dark side of non-conformity?). I wholeheartedly agree with being the change-agent but it takes guts.

  • Dan Waters says:

    What’s that quote? Something like ‘What do you mean one person can’t change the world, that’s all that ever has.” It’s scary to be different and that’s why websites and people like Chris are so important.

  • Antonia Lo Giudice says:

    Absolutely! Sitting there expecting things or people to change to fit in with our values and beliefs is recipe for living a bitter life. Only through our actions can we influence a change. I’ve come to realize that in doing so, it’s also important being clear about your intentions for change. To influence change, it is important to gain an awareness and understanding of ourselves and our surroundings. We will learn and grow so much in the process. Sometimes things and people are not exactly what we believed them to be.

  • Rainer says:

    I am a organizational consultant and I often had the challenge to “change” a system/a company.
    The bad/good news: You can´t change a system according to the will of a single person or a group, even if it is the management. The good/bad news: You can´t change a system because it is a complex (not only complicated) process of the power of structures – formal and informal, the inner logic or our picture of the “real” reality which also shows us our borders – even if they are only in our own heads.
    So I try to train “reality-stretching” looking beyond our own horizons – learn to see the unthinkable!
    Usually after this you get a boost of what is possible because you see potentials and possibilities the first time and they are often closer or easier to reach than we expected…
    So I think the way to change a system – especially a society is to loose our knowing about what it normal or reality or possible and explore, travel and experiment!

  • Paula Grieco says:

    Love this and as always thought-provoking. Definitely have to work to be the “change we want to see”, otherwise our voices ring pretty hollow.

    I am stuck on one detail though… that the answer is not “marching on Washington” I think Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Elizabeth Stanton would likely respectuflly disagree with you because often that’s a core part of creating change. When injustices have been institutionalized, the people do need to gather in a peaceful and very public campaign to change the system including through protest.

    Thanks as always for talking about what matters.

  • Jeffrey Bunn says:

    Nice post Chris! As to Lisa’s comment, I both agree and disagree. It is very difficult to be a trail breaker – however failure is simply a matter of definition. I think if something was learned, the undertaking wasn’t a failure at all – IF you use that knowledge to intelligently break a new trail in the future. Constantly doing things even a little bit different, and using the feedback and knowledge gained to improve for the future is success, in my mind.

    And I totally agree that you’ve got to do it on your own. Waiting for someone else to do it will keep you waiting a long time.

  • Matt says:

    Spot on! I would love change to the system but I am not a martyr, and I have my goals. The systems are large and people are invested in keeping them the way they are. So my goal is to first live the life you want, then if you have energy to spare, work on changing the system. This is a tough pill to swallow particularly when you are young.

  • James says:

    Changing the system = changing myself

  • Lori Peters says:

    Agreed! Great article. I spent 16 years in public education, and tried to change the system, while my job got harder and harder every year, and I would do less and less for students. I lost faith in the union, as it’s yet another entrenched system you describe here. In year 15, I decided to start a charter school to try and reform our local system, but resigned after one year in disillusionment, and left public education for good, giving up my salary, benefits, and the STRESS that was killing my spirit. A month later I started a private learning center for homeschool kids (, and have not looked back. Had I known that it was futile to change a system so rooted in conformity from within, I would have started my big idea a long time ago! We’re still building, but thankfully I can do so much more, so much faster, and much better than we could have ever done in public ed. Yes, I had to change myself first, but I see the system around me slowly responding.

  • Natalie the Singingfool says:

    The system is definitely broken for people like me, but it’s exciting to jump into the chance for a different life. It’s hard work, but I’m holding on to the hope that it will pan out!
    Great observations!

  • Tom Allen says:

    This reminds me of a lovely quote by Richard Buckminster Fuller:

    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    The interesting thing is that this ‘new model’ can be internal as well as external; a way of looking at the world as much as the world itself. It’s possible to exist in parallel with the broken system, as long as you’re prepared to quit blaming it for your circumstances, accept that there are many things about the world you alone cannot change, and focus instead on creating an alternative that works for you.

  • Mike Ruman says:

    Thanks for sharing that Chris. A good kick in the pants to “do something”, whatever that is.

  • Joseph Bernard says:

    Thank you Chris for so clearly stating the bigger picture that we are all the creators of the world.

    Change is really one of my favorite topics because it is always going on and it can be conscious or unconscious. My work for all my adult life has been to bring awareness to the change process.

    Awareness = choices = change

    Without awareness we don’t even know we have choices. With awareness we can choose differently and bring about change.

    Global, national, community, personal changes take place because we are aware or conscious enough to see change is needed. The raising of the collective consciousness is the only way the dominate paradigm will change.

    We can change education, government, the economic system, social structures etc by seeing ourselves as the co-creators. Together we question what is and expand understand and awareness, then creatively and intuitively seek solutions beyond the present systems.

    The Zeitgeist series of movies available (free online) will invite many questions about the present system.

    Change takes place with an open heart and an expanded mind. Peace to each of you.

  • George Millo says:

    I stopped caring about or paying attention to politics a long time ago, and this post expresses why. The world can only be changed from the bottom up, not the top down.

  • Holly says:

    Great post, Chris. The answer is so simple and beautiful, isn’t it?

    I used to think that the key to making a better world must be much more complicated than simply changing myself. I lived my life as a powerless cog for many years, fighting the “system” the whole way – not realizing that the way I went about it was really hurting and disempowering myself in the process.

    Fortunately, I am evolving beyond that mindset into something completely new and challenging and thrilling – into a way of being that uses my power in a conscious, positive way. It’s a very exciting time to be alive.

    Thanks so much for your inspiration, Chris!

  • Dan the Man says:

    I’ve thought and read about this sort of thing for a while – self-perpetuating, antiquated structures in society – and how they stifle innovation and progress. And I’ve wondered what one can do about it. I don’t think I’ve seen the problem as well-defined in such a simple, clear way. So nicely done!

    And yes, that of course is the answer: don’t try to change them; innovate on your own with things you’re passionate about. The old systems can’t help but change.

  • Pat says:

    It’s said the only person who likes change is a wet baby… which is why “the system” is slow to change. Rather than see change as the enemy, embrace it and look forward to change. Go with the flow and change yourself, your attitudes, your old habits. And as those change piece by piece, so does the world around you, and your example inspires others to change. Change scares many because of the unknown factor… many would rather have things stay the same, even if they are awful, rather than face change. But when you embrace change, even though it’s uncomfortable for a while, in the end you find yourself in a better place. just look at how much our world has changed over the past 50 years… little changes add up.

  • Laurie says:

    I love it when things are simple. 🙂

    Gandhi’s famous quote gets thrown around a lot, but it’s still golden: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I still love that, and find I’m much more effective when I honor it.

    Thanks Chris, I love how you get right to the point!

  • bluffbear says:

    Ah! Refreshing!
    Thank you for your time.
    And thank you to your parents…they must have something to do with you!

  • Jen Gresham says:

    I agree, Chris, whole-heartedly. But I would add one thing. Sometimes the systems don’t change because the solution isn’t obvious, simple, or scalable. Sometimes, as a part of the system we are frustrated by factors we don’t completely know or understand. One of the best things that happened to me was when I became a boss, and I realized that all those issues that seemed so simple as a regular employee were anything but. It’s easy to complain. It’s easy to dream. Only by going out and doing will you realize the satisfaction of doing something that’s honestly hard.

  • Kerry says:

    Innovation is definitely one *aspect* of changing old systems. Yes, definitely, you need new visions for change. However, I am also going to respectfully disagree on this one. You still need protesters, lobbyists, politicians who are going to fight some really entrenched battles. You need documentary filmmakers. You need courageous journalists. You need people to point out what’s really happening within the current system, so that others can understand. Those are still important roles.

    There are some pretty scary laws being formed right now, laws that take away a lot of our rights and civil liberties (including laws related to internet business), laws that remove environmental protections, etc. If corporations can rewrite laws for themselves and write out the little guys, if they can throw unlimited amounts of money at anything, if they control the banks, the media, to some degree the surveillance, what chance does any single innovator have? You need people willing to speak up and bring light to corruption and greed as well. You need to address the original system as well as plant the seeds for new systems. You can’t just ignore the first.

  • Jean Burman says:

    I agree with Kerry. I think it’s pretty hard to change an entrenched system [be it political social religious or whatever] when strong vested interests hold sway. It’s even harder to change an entrenched system when there is very little consensus because the population is divided almost precisely down the middle on pretty much every major ethical moral political and social issue. Sure… an individual can inspire and facilitate change… but it will take an army of inspired individuals with real drive determination and a courageous bloody minded attitude to effect the changes we might all agree are needed. Most seriously effective change will require long pockets and good legal representation in a world dominated by corporate juggernauts who manipulate the truth and put out of action anyone who gets in their way. But yes… you are right… innovative individuals can work to bring change. It might take time… but I guess change has to start somewhere. And now would seem like a good time 🙂

  • Clay says:

    I vehemently agree with you on this one Chris 🙂

    What really inspires me is to see the next generation of youth and young adults choosing to NOT continue to support the status quo and actively seeking better, holistic solutions that take into account the needs of the many and not just a few.

    There’s a growing critical mass of people becoming aware of the necessity for change, and are living it into existence.

    I see a changing of the guards, so to speak. The generation coming of age is more interested in decentralized, non-bureaucratic forms of human collaboration, rather than out-dated, top-down, authority-based educational, institutional, and political systems.

    Such exciting times we live in! Looking forward to the future we’re collectively creating!

  • Therese says:

    Absolutely! But be patient with yourself, it is hard to change old ways of thinking and being and behaving. Like anything though, it gets easier with practice.
    Thanks for this post Chris.

  • Maia Duerr/Liberated Life Project says:

    I was going to share the quote by Buckminister Fuller, but saw that Tom already got it, above! Great minds think alike…

    I actually don’t think it’s enough to just change ourselves, though it is a necessary step. We do need to think at the level of systems and figure out skillful interventions. Or better yet, build a new model that renders the old one obsolete, as Bucky said.

    More and more these days, I see that current systems are collapsing under their own weight (e.g. the economy) and are simply unsustainable. So I beieve the way forward is to create parallel systems that are smaller, more responsive, and more nimble. I’m kind of an anarchist at heart, so to me, the smaller the better.

  • Lauren says:

    I struggled in my attempts to be like other people; I love to learn and am as curious now as when I was a child. As far as the system, I worked a few jobs that were right in line with how other people see that you should have a job to make money…with no sense of real fulfillment. I see fullfillment as being something you do with your innate talents and interests. Our system, or perhaps, more likely, our culture determine a path that is “secure” and “stable”. At least that is what I heard from my parents(who both weathered the Great Depression as children). World War II was the catalyst as more women worked at jobs formerly thought of as “men’s work”. The 50s went back to pre-war culture, but the ground was laid for women who were not content with the status quo. We are in the midst of change, and as the saying goes, “Things will get worse before they get better.” I am interested in a more entrepenurial system and people working in a network rather like the World Wide Web. There is much more of a spirit of people doing work that brings out the best in them through their loves and taking risks. Developing ourselves is the key factor into developing a system that works for everyone.

  • Matt says:

    Great post, this is something I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating. My favorite answer (though I love this one because it places all the onus on me and I think this empowered perspective is the right one to hold) comes from Philosopher Ken Wilber and is as follows:

    “In order for this transcendence [changing the system] to take place we must (I) be open to modes of consciousness that move beyond mere rationality, and (2) embed them in modes of techno-economic structures that move beyond industrialization. In other words, a change of consciousness embedded in a change of institutions. Either one alone will not work.”

    “It will actually involve a new worldview, set in a new techno-economic base, with a new mode of self-sense, possessing new behavioral patterns.”

    But to bring it home, how do techno-economic bases, self-sense (culture), and behaviorial patterns change? With us.


  • Kashif says:

    One person can’t change the system, seriously. Do we want to change the system, or the status quo?

    Having said that, if a person changes himself, his family, friends, associates, and acquaintances, then surely there is change. It could be a parallel system or something that forms a resistance against the status quo.

    Slow and steady, comes the Rise of the Planet of Apes 🙂

  • David Kirshbaum says:

    This conversation is a reflection of the change. A system in which an exponentially growing number of players are connecting, recognizing a need for change, cannot help but change. It’s happening. It’s us. It’s on. Keep it up.

  • Chel says:

    Good post. Change is constant, inevitable and healthy in our lives – we grow and develop through all ages. The way to handle it is to decide which changes we want to make to create the life we wish to live. That way we can bring all our lives into balance/alignment. How we contribute to society and make a living can tie in with our base tenets if we actively follow through on our ideas.
    An old definition of being different, a crank – cranks turn and thus create momentum for change. 😉

  • Katharina says:

    Great article, and thanks for all the comments and stories shared. I strongly believe that changing your own behaviour has an impact on your immediate surrounding and can spread from there.

    I have met a few very different, very strong people who dared to live their way of life according to principles that were not defined by power or money, and they have changed my own view on the world dramatically. I believe that everybody can be an “agent of change”, and every little helps.

  • Aline says:

    I like your point:

    “If you want something to change, therefore, show us an alternative. Show us a new way of life.”

    As a sugestion, in the freetime try to watch ‘Zeitgeist: Addendum’ 😉 There are some ideas for the ‘broken system’.

  • Brett Henley says:

    Truth x1000.

    It’s baffling to me that we place so much faith in the system, mostly without realizing we are doing so.

    The economy is the perfect example of this. We accept that things are terrible because the system was built to cattle herd the status quo.

    Yet if we stand up and rely on ourselves and each other to make changes, to take action, then the system is in our hands to shape.

  • Brandi J. Waits says:

    This is a great post (very thought provoking). I recently had the opportunity to travel outside of the U.S. and share conversations with many people from all over the world. Each of the people whom I met along the way were in different places in their respective lives (wanderers, retirees, people enjoying a break while on vacation). Alas, the one common theme that continually came into the discussion was a lack of trust in respect to the systems that are currently in place. In the end, I think it is about finding a way to live inside the system while living/finding your own dreams/passion (through creativity, creating the life that you want, and thinking outside of the box to get there) i.e. the non-conformity way of life. I think (like many) the system has to break (and I believe it is happening at the present time) for things to get better. Be your own change agent! In my experience, it WILL impact the people around you. Living simple and creating a life that YOU can be proud of is important! You only get ONE SHOT at life! So, don’t waste time sitting around talking about how broken the system is. Change the only thing that you can change – YOU! Best of luck in your endeavors!

  • Alan says:

    Great post Chris,

    I think that “Change” happens most times out of necessity. A river swells and erodes into a bank, not because it wants to, but because the sheer volume of water dictates that it has to. It has to find a new way to move and flow.

    I believe that for most of us whether we are undertaking personal or witnessing global change we do so out of necessity. We are compelled just like the swelling river, we have no choice, we have to react. The challenge for most people however is to act with purpose and clarity. We are not as outwardly simple as the river for we have many needs, wants and desires that keep us from simply “flowing”.

    Once that necessity reaches the tipping point you will change. It is out of your control but what you can change is the result. In my opinion this is where the fun starts.

  • Jassen Bowman says:

    Brett wrote: “Yet if we stand up and rely on ourselves and each other to make changes, to take action, then the system is in our hands to shape.”

    This is spot on, and in my mind, the key to being a “non-conformist” or a “change agent”. Although I dislike the phrase “thought leaders”, it really is up to people like us, and always has been, to stand up and facilitate change. Most of us reading this blog are most likely the kind of people that make a deliberate choice to simply step outside the boundaries of the system, and portend that certain aspects of the system no longer applies to us.

    Example, the M-F, 8-5, two weeks off American paradigm. Or the 4 walls in the ‘burbs norm. These two in particular are paradigms that I chose years ago to simply blow off and not believe in, and definitely not practice. As more people do similar things, society itself will shift.

  • ~Christy @ wonderofallthings says:

    Love this. So very true. Here’s to doing our part!

  • Janet says:

    And that’s the most difficult part, showing an alternative. How can it not change when all of us, the links in the chain, upgrade our thinking? It’s happening now.

  • Avant says:

    Change is constant but the hardest thing to accept! Changing society takes one person at a time, so institutional change is not possible. Just look at massive government programs that once created that never go away. I am a “Jeffersonian” – Old Thomas believed we are all responsible for ourselves, our liberty and freedom is ours to protect and defend. So if you want to change society, first change your ways, your attitude, your lifestyle and change your world.

  • Kim Lisson says:

    While there is much to like in this article, thank you, I am thinking about and comparing your points to those made by Margaret Wheatley in her latest book “So Far From Home”.

    There is a common link in focusing on simply “BEING the change” so to speak, by simply being people who embody “insight” (into the complex interrelatedness of everything) and “compassion” (suffering with the pain of others, even our ‘enemies’).

    But the difference, I think, is that we do this not in order to sustain hope of change for a better future. Rather, that we do it anyway, even while knowing that ‘the system’ is irretrievably broken and leading us to disaster, particularly environmentally. To rise above the fear and despair that inevitably accompanies hope of a more life-giving future, and to simply be what she terms (Shambhala) “warriors”.

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