Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by all that’s happening in the world? I know I do. I recently had a shift in perspective that was very valuable. Last week I attended an (online) international business conference on Rethinking Success. Hosted by ebbf – Ethical Business Building the Future, the conference generated discussion on thought-provoking themes. For instance, if you look at the structures, the institutions and the organizations in our world, change seems unlikely and remote. But if you look at the people, change is not only possible, it’s happening now. We are more powerful than we think we are.
We create structures to meet our needs
Humans are an inventive species. When we encounter a need, we figure out a way to fill it. We must eat, sleep and put a roof over our heads, so we create structures to accomplish this—industries, markets, economies. As a society, we need to educate our children, so we create structures to teach them—schools, programs, universities.
We’ve created structures throughout our history. But while we are limitless in our potential, we are also at the very beginning of realizing this potential. So the structures we create tend to be limited and imperfect. Not only that, but we humans continue to develop over time and our needs change. Eventually these structures no longer meet our needs; they constrict and hamper our development. They become entrenched and ossified, seemingly immovable. But these structures are really just a decision. We can change a decision. Indeed, we can even make a new one.
We can change the structures we create
Let me give you an example. After World War II, Germany ended up split into East and West, with East Germany as part of the Communist Bloc under the control of the Soviet Union. Over the next 15 years, so many East Germans fled to the West through Berlin, that the East German government (GDR – German Democratic Republic) decided to put a stop to it.
Overnight on August 12, 1961, the GDR erected a barbed wire fence along the border between East Berlin and West Berlin, dividing the city and separating families. During the next few decades, they reinforced the barrier until it was a 4-foot-thick concrete wall that extended 96 miles and completely enclosed West Berlin. This was the Berlin Wall—a structure that started as a decision to meet the needs of the GDR to keep its people within its borders. But the need for freedom was greater.
On November 9, 1989 the Wall fell. The East German government had intended to ease travel restrictions to West Berlin. But the spokesman who made the announcement wasn’t properly briefed. He basically stated that anyone could travel or emigrate, starting immediately. Within hours a swarm of people flocked to the Berlin Wall, choosing freedom. Overwhelmed, the handful of border guards finally just opened the checkpoints and let the people through. This wall—a structure that had been a near-impenetrable barrier—was suddenly an open gate. A new decision had been made. Within months, the Berlin Wall was demolished and all the roads connecting East and West Berlin were reconstructed.
A friend of mine visited Germany not long afterwards and brought back a piece of rubble from the Wall as a souvenir. I’ll never forget his words as he handed it to me:
“Be careful; it’s fragile.”
It’s the same with all the structures we create. They are man-made constructs. They are basically a collective decision. And decisions can be changed. So can our structures. It starts in the hearts and minds of individual human beings. When enough people choose something, it happens. We are more powerful than we think.