Do You Believe You Can Improve Human Nature Before You’ve Changed The System? And Vice Versa.

“Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing…Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time.”

–George Orwell, “Charles Dickens” in A Collection of Essays

This is one of my favorite essays by George Orwell, and that’s saying a lot.

I think about this quotation often, because I spend most of my time thinking about individual change. How steps can each of us take, in our own lives, to become happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative?

Which is not to say that I don’t think that the system should change — just that, for whatever reason, it’s the second question that interests me more.

How about you?

  • What a timely post! I’ve been thinking lately about this very issue. Thanks for sharing the Orwell quotation!

    I come down on the side of changing the system before getting to work on human nature, for two reasons: First, so much wrong that we chalk up to human nature is just people going along with the system—to paraphrase Dumbledore, more of us would choose Right if it were easier—so trying to work on human nature first means fighting a needlessly hard battle. Second, having a good system in place makes it easier to measure and manage the lapses in judgment that do occur: if you move the candy from your desk to a high shelf, then not only will you indulge yourself less, but the times you do indulge become discrete events you can track, letting you know whether the overall trend is in the right direction.