The illusion of insignificance

A possible consequence of living in the 21st century is a feeling of insignificance. The more interconnected the world is, the more of its vastness we see. As individuals, we are then left with the feeling that our own actions count for nothing. This often leads to cynicism, perhaps demonstrated by low voter turnouts or by how most people do not particularly care for the environment. How much can one person change things, after all?

However, this feeling of insignificance is a powerful illusion. One of the prime reasons for this illusion is the human nature to personify. It is second nature for us to treat everything around us like people – we name animals, birds and plants. We talk about how the sun rises and moves across the sky. Most civilizations personified almost every aspect of nature they encountered – wind, water, constellations and so on. Our stories are filled with talking crocodiles outwitted by clever monkeys.

In the same vein, we also personify every movement that captures our attention. The movement for Indian independence had many prominent leaders, but Mahatma Gandhi was its face. Martin Luther King’s led the American civil rights movement, just as Mother Theresa was the symbol of the missionaries of charity. Rock bands have their front-men. The conductor of an orchestra receives applause on its behalf. Christianity is synonymous with the life of Jesus, and needed several Popes to continue flying its flag. Every company needs a CEO, just as every country needs a head of state. The same applies for negative movements too. Every terrorist outfit has a face. Hence the obsession of the US government with hunting down Osama bin Laden to avenge 9/11. We understand the world in the form of stories, and every story inevitably needs protagonists and antagonists.

Just as prominent as all these leaders are, they would have amounted to nothing without their faceless followers. Gandhi would have remained a loon with strange ideas but for the support of the Indian community in South Africa. A conductor without his orchestra is but a comical mime artist. Front-men such as Freddie Mercury or Jim Morrison would have never risen to prominence. While every movement has a face and an identity, it is but a mere shell without its followers. Moreover, the person chosen to lead a movement is often driven by chance and unique circumstances. A face of a movement isn’t necessarily the most devoted or the most capable person – it is just somebody who happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Therefore, every member of a movement makes their valuable contribution. The reason people still feel insignificant is due to the errors of attribution we make due to our nature of transforming movements into stories and anointing them with a protagonist.

Following is underrated, as Derek Sivers points out here. Most movements can have only a handful of leaders, but every one of its followers make a powerful impact, however insignificant they seem in comparison.

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