Opinion Forum

Justin Fox: Want to 'change the world'? Keep it to yourself

Whenever I hear people saying they want to "change the world," I get suspicious. Do they want to change it for the better or for the worse? If it's the former, what makes them think they know enough to do that? Wouldn't it be more realistic and less arrogant to try to change their companies or their neighborhoods -- or maybe just themselves?

Still, it's a popular goal. There are books, college courses and conferences on how to do it. There's also a new documentary film called "How to Change the World" (it's about the origins of Greenpeace), and a not-so-new Eric Clapton song called "Change the World" (I think it's about love). In a related and timely vein, the World Economic Forum, meeting in Davos, Switzerland, this week, tells us that it is "committed to improving the state of the world."

Changing the world seems to be most popular, though, in and around Silicon Valley. The Wall Street Journal's Yuliya Chernova once did an analysis of LinkedIn profiles and found that "change the world" was far more likely to show up in San Francisco Bay area profiles than those from any other region. "Here, the goal is to change the world," LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman matter-of-factly wrote in October. "We have a greater capacity to change the world today than the kings and presidents of just 50 years ago," former Facebooker Justin Rosenstein declared, somewhat more grandiosely, in 2012.

There is much to mock in such statements. Still, I was able to find them and every other piece of information in the preceding paragraphs in a few minutes thanks to the World Wide Web and to Google, neither of which was around when I started work as a journalist. That aspect of my world has changed.

Another way of putting it is that the information-gathering equilibrium has shifted. In the early 1990s a journalist aiming to write about a topic like this might have been able to search an expensive media database such as Nexis or ProQuest but otherwise made do with interviews and quotes collected over time from newspapers, magazines and books. That was the status quo, and I don't remember anybody clamoring for it to change.

Now, though, there's a new information-gathering equilibrium in which Googling is usually the first step. This equilibrium isn't always better -- the

cost of looking stuff up online is so low that it discourages people from picking up the phone even when that would help -- but it's definitely more efficient. There is no way I could have written a daily column like this is in the pre-Internet age.

I got the idea of equilibrium shifting from "Getting Beyond Better," a new(ish) book on social entrepreneurship by Roger L. Martin, the former dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Sally R. Osberg, chief executive officer of the social-enterprise-focused Skoll Foundation.

(It was published by Harvard Business Review Press, of which I was once the editorial director, but I had nothing to do with its acquisition or its editing.)

Shifting an equilibrium is their definition of entrepreneurship, at least the kind of entrepreneurship that they think matters. "Entrepreneurs take crummy equilibria and make them into better ones," Martin said during a visit to Bloomberg a few months ago.

This reminded me of Peter Thiel's "Zero to One." That's the title of the San Francisco billionaire's 2014 book on startups, written with his former Stanford student Blake Masters, but it's also his idea of what entrepreneurship is good for:

"Doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. Unless they invest in the difficult task of creating new things, American companies will fail in the future no matter how big their profits remain today."

That, in turn, sounds a bit like Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen's famous distinction between sustaining innovation, which is what most companies do most of the time, and disruptive innovation.

There are also echoes of this idea in the economics literature on productivity growth. Productivity makes big leaps, which in turn raise living standards, when new technologies allow for better ways of arranging our economic lives. These new, more productive arrangements tend to be pioneered by startups.

That's not all there is to it -- Christopher Mims was right to argue in the Wall Street Journal this week that new public infrastructure is often essential as well. But startups, from Silicon Valley and elsewhere, actually do change the world. Some even make it richer, and probably better.

Does it matter whether they intend to or not? I've always kind of liked this passage (which comes right after the famous line about the "invisible hand") in Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations": "By pursuing his own interest 'the merchant' frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it."

Smith wasn't saying that nobody could intentionally and successfully promote the public good, just that entrepreneurs who claimed to be doing so usually weren't.

This makes it sound like the ambiguity of "change the world" might actually be a good thing. The goal isn't necessarily to make the world better, just to have an impact. It's a statement of ambition more than anything else. Steve Jobs' famous line about wanting to "make a little dent in the universe" is an even better expression of this aim. A dent is usually a bad thing, but it is memorable.

Still, are entrepreneurs better off with such grand goals or realism and lots of hustle? Over the last few years, "lean startup" methods that emphasize minimum viable products, iteration and pivoting when a business plan isn't working have overrun Silicon Valley and other entrepreneurial redoubts. This approach would seem to preclude boldness, which is why Thiel takes a few shots at it in his book: "iteration without a bold plan won't get you from 0 to 1."

Last week I was talking to the godfather of the lean-startup approach, veteran entrepreneur Steve Blank, and asked whether he thought changing the world was a legitimate goal for an entrepreneur. His answer surprised me a little. "I look back on my career and I didn't change the world as an entrepreneur," he said. "I did as an educator. So I'm a little wistful." Now, he went on, "My charge for twentysomething entrepreneurs is, do you want to be known as the guy who makes the next porn app or fart app or do you want to put men on Mars?"

OK, OK, people of Silicon Valley. Go ahead and try to change the world.

But maybe don't talk about it quite so much.

Justin Fox, Bloomberg View; www.bloomberg.com/view.