I’m a writer. In my mind, my essays help people think. To see straight in a world that bends our perspective. Maybe they do. Sometimes, they probably don’t. And though I’m proud of the body of work I’ve built, I recently realized that one of the biggest aspects of my career is completely out of my hands:
This is true for any artist, entrepreneur, researcher and self-starter. Most of us have big ambitions. I know I do. We want to change the world. The problem is you can’t do it on purpose. All you can do is lead with intent.
Think about the word ‘movement’ and how often you hear it these days. Everyone seems to be starting a movement. There’s your neighbor’s arts and crafts community, your local micro-gardening Facebook group, and the new hip fusion restaurant everyone raves about. But those are not real movements.
They’re not real movements because they never go anywhere. There’s no cause, no destination. They’re brands and their followers merely tolerate their presence or enjoy it at best. A movement is about what people do after they come in touch with your brand. Do they say “okay” and open their inbox for you? Or do they grab a spear and volunteer to be your second-in-command?
The distinction is as much a matter of motivation as it is of communication. Changing yourself is hard. Changing others is even harder. But if you don’t tell them what change you’re here to make, why would they join? There’s nowhere to go to. No cause, no destination. And because cause is different from brand, most people and companies never consciously choose one.
Brand is what people see, what you can cultivate and create the appearance of. Cause is what people feel. What their gut tells them about why you do what you do. What changes they want to make because of you.
My brand might be about thinking, about learning, about new perspectives and self-improvement. But if a movement were to follow, it’d likely stand for itself. A separate, second entity with a life of its own. Because it’s not based on my brand, but a side-effect, rooted in the cause I stand for.
That cause might be defeating the stereotype of the starving artist. Or finding meaning in disciplined craftsmanship. Or speaking up for the necessity of art in a science-driven world. But it depends on what I’m doing more so than on what I’m creating.
If you follow me, where will I lead you to? It’s “do as I do,” not “do as I say.”
And so it goes that the culture of a movement is never fully intentional. Only the cause is. If anything, trying to dictate the character of a movement hurts your chances. It’s noble to want to leave the world better than we found it, but constantly announcing this takes away a large chunk of that nobleness.
That’s why no one likes the vegans plastering “meat is murder” across the cafeteria wall. Rescuing an animal, not eating one, these are actions that move animal rights forward. Telling everyone they should do the same doesn’t. It’s just presumptuous. You’re branding yourself. But you’re not moving anyone. Because you’re changing what we see, not how we feel.
Your cause is yours to live and yours alone. It’s on us to choose to follow.
We forget this. Partly because our noisy, internet-fueled, global conversations have made it seem like raising awareness is about talking. It’s not. It’s a matter of doing things worth talking about. The other reason we forget is that branding is a lot more comfortable than leading. Leading is lonely.
All you can do is take a stand. And, without the announcement, you don’t get any brownie points for it. You have to hold it. Day-in and day-out. And there’s no guarantee anyone will follow. That’s not fair. But it’s the right thing to do.
Look around and you’ll see it’s true. That that’s how they did it. The greats.
Gandhi promised to walk to Dandi and make salt. The thousands that followed did so of their own accord. Bruce Lee decided to create his own style of martial arts fighting. It was so remarkable that people said: “Teach me.” And if the first Harry Potter book had flopped, I’m sure JK would’ve published the rest anyway. She’d already gone through 12 publishers to do the first.
But the culture of satyagraha, of The Way of the Intercepting Fist, of what makes a Potterhead — that was never theirs to determine.
This is both intimidating and wonderful. It’s scary to admit something’s outside your control, yet keep working for it. But it’s nice to know that, as long as you stand up for what you believe, the world will fall into place.
The truth is most of us will never change the world. Or even a large part of it. Most of us will never start real movements. Because we’re not meant to. Because our timing’s off. Because the spark doesn’t catch fire. That’s okay.
But we all stand for something. We all represent a cause, conscious or not.
Choosing your cause and acting on it, leading the way there with intent, will always be a big service to some of us. We all have friends. Peers, coworkers, families. Don’t underestimate the impact of this service. It’s always worth doing, regardless of who chooses to follow.
But if you really want to change the world, leading with intent towards a certain cause is an absolute necessity. Because 90% of it isn’t up to you, and this is the 10% that is.
Go on. Think hard. It takes time. But when you find something worth standing for, plant your flag. Commit for the long haul. Stay on higher ground. Keep walking until you’re there.
And when you finally turn around, you’ll know if we chose to follow.