Should you clean your room before changing the world?

15 June 2018

Man working in messy room

The most effective critique I heard against corporate social responsibility was one that played to the notion of the incompetent CEO. 

It was that businesses don’t know how to make positive social impact, they only know how to make a profit. Therefore, they should stay away from attempting things for which they have no competence.

Such arguments are easy to answer when it comes to businesses - after all, they are used to buying in the expertise they need to do all sorts of things where they don’t start off with the necessary skills. It’s why so many effective CSR programmes involve partnerships. 

But as a sentiment to change-agents generally, it has become a big talking point in recent months largely because of the best-selling book ’12 Rules for Life’ by Jordan B. Peterson.

Peterson’s well-articulated attacks on the excesses of political correctness and identity politics has earned him a high profile place in recent public discourse, fuelled by his immensely popular YouTube channel. His perspective is that of the university professor, and his ‘clean your room before changing the world’ theme is prompted by direct experience of social justice activists on campus, some of whom protest his own lectures and talks for reasons largely unconnected to things he has actually said.

And in many ways, that is actually the point. Change is hard, and if you think you’re going to change the world for the better, you need to make sure that you (a) actually understand how the world is, because if you don’t you’re just as likely to change it for the worse and (b) understand how to be effective in making change happen.

Young protestors may be full of passion for change, but they’re likely to get taken in by the lure of easy solutions to complex problems. And they’re probably a hot mess in their own lives while thinking they can solve the problems of the world. ‘Clean your room’ becomes a practical injunction, but also a metaphor for sorting out the things closest to hand, create an orderly life and immediate local environment before going out wider. Once you have conquered chaos in your immediate domain, you might move onto to address chaos in the next logical space.

The principle behind the message is really that there is a lot to value about the way things are. Change is coming, for sure. What got us here isn’t going to get us through the challenges of sustainability. But if you fail to see the things that are of value, then you’re likely to create damage you didn’t anticipate. And that’s not good enough. Because such things can be anticipated and avoided if you take the time.

So, for instance, the ‘old-style’ businesses are seen as the problem. What we need are funky new challengers - people that will rewrite the rules of business, and do it in an intuitively better way.

Because, obviously, it’s that easy.

And yet, if you look at the Glassdoor rankings of the highest rated CEOs based on employee reviews, in the UK it’s currently led by Peter Simpson, CEO of Anglian Water. In the US, it’s Benno Dorer of the Clorox Company. Solid establishment companies with a progressive outlook on sustainability, but nevertheless very traditional firms. Such firms are well represented in the top group, along with mature tech companies such as Apple, Google and Salesforce.

The new breed of internet entrepreneurs fare less well. The highest profile new-style business-of-the-future figure, Gary Vaynerchuk, scores just 57% approval ratings (versus 99% for the leaders). That isn’t really to bash one individual and praise another - just to recognise that many traditional firms have spent a lot of time understanding leadership, good process and development. Such things are - or should be - important.

We have two movies playing at the same time. In one movie, the world has never been in better shape. We have longer expected lifespans of any previous time in human history. We’ve halved absolute poverty and moved the needle in the right direction for a multitude of other measures. In the 1980s, we set out to change the world and by and large, bit by bit, we have been successfully and incrementally moving the human race into a significantly better space.

In the other movie, we’re cruising to destruction. We’re living beyond the planet’s means and if we don’t change course radically then we will see natural systems failure and all those hard-won gains will be wiped out.

Both movies can be true, by the way. The people who focus on the first movie (which includes Peterson) tend to downplay the seriousness of the second. People who focus on the second tend to see everything as being in decline and discount or fail to register the value of the first.

If you can value both, then you ask yourself what’s driving the improvements in the first, and how can they be preserved in addressing the problems of the second? That is not an easy question to answer. It forces you to identify the value of the status quo, and the things that make it work before tinkering with it.

That is much less fun than demanding obviously intuitively right (in your world-view) change RIGHT NOW and demonising all those who think differently. 

The question is whether we’re serious about creating positive change, or it’s simply a form of recreation that we use to help establish our identity amongst our peers.

If we aspire to the former, then the injunction to ‘clean your room’ - start with the things closest to you and build a stable life and way of being - is not a bad basic rule of thumb to adopt.