How to change the world: what can one person do?

North London Collegiate School recently came top of the national exam tables (again). The girls here are very bright, and much is expected of them. I came to talk, at the opening of the new school year, to Years 11, 12 and 13 about How To Change The World: What can one person do?

I started by asking: if you had the chance, would you change the world? There was long silence then a few voices called out yes. I asked for a show of hands. Pretty well everybody put their hands up. I said, keep your hand up if you know how you would like to change the world.

About four people out of 350 or so kept their hands up. One or two started raising their hands, but then lowered them.

I then ran through some of the ideas and stories in my book How To Change The World. And after about 40 minutes, I asked if there were any questions. There were several. I particularly liked being asked what my own mission or purpose is (by somebody who seemed a little confused by the variety of things I have done).

The last question, from one of the Year 11 girls, was: “What about failure? What do you do about that?”

Great question, I said. And I told a story about how I was filmed falling on my face in Mexico, in front of some very famous people, and how I was lucky enough to move from seeing that as a terrible, embarrassing failure – how I was able to use it. (You can see the film here.)

I said, failure always hurts at the time, but often it turns out not to have been failure after all, just a step towards the outcome you want.

In scientific method, I said, we can see that very clearly. Marie Curie boiled up all kinds of things to find radium. If she boiled up an old carpet and found no radium, was that failure? Or was it just an experiment that helped her to move on?

It may not have been the perfect answer, but it was the best I could come up with at the time. Perhaps writing about it here will enable me to find a better one next time.