Changing the Arc of History

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 12, Issue No. 12
March, 2014

By Dan Coughlin



If you’re like me, and I’m guessing we have at least a few things in common, you’re working hard at your day job and you’re working hard in your personal life. You’re trying to provide real quality to your boss, your employees, and your customers, and you’re trying to do your best for your spouse, children, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and your closest friends. On top of that, I’m guessing you’re volunteering your time with two or three not-for-profit organizations to try to contribute something meaningful in your community. Finally I believe that somewhere buried deep in this boiling pot of activities there’s some part of you that still wants to change the world, to make it a better place in some way beyond just your work and your immediate relationships. In this article I hope to give that part of you a nudge to swim to the top and get some fresh air and become rejuvenated.

When our lives are filled with meaningful activities at work and in our personal lives, days fly by, weeks get consumed, months roll off the calendar, and a decade is gone. If we don’t get very focused about making the impact on the world that we want to make, then several decades zoom past us and an important opportunity of a lifetime is gone. Our moment to make our dint in the universe has passed us by. Sometimes we have to reach up and grab that sense of mission to change the arc of history and pull it to the ground in order to make it a reality.


Before you try to change the future of some part of the world, I encourage you to focus on taking care of the fundamentals in your life. Take care of your body, your mind, your sense of integrity, your relationships, and your finances. Do your work as well as you can and fulfill your responsibilities in your community just as you promised to do. Keep your personal and professional house in order. When you do that consistently over the long term your foundation will be ready to accept the even bigger challenge of altering the arc of history. It does no good to try to influence the future when you’re not executing the fundamentals in your life to at least a reasonable degree.


What will the future look like if the world continues on unabated, if no one steps in to change it? That’s what I’m calling the current arc of history. This is a crucially important question to consider because in answering it you may see the opportunities where you will want to step in and try to change some part of it. Step back, carve out some time to really think, and when you get to that time think broader than just your own life and the lives of the people closest to you.

If the world were to continue rolling along at its current pace, what will the future look like?

After you’ve given that question some serious consideration, ask yourself what part of that future you’re not okay with. Which part do you want to see have a different future than it currently has? What arc do you want to bend?

In creating a democracy in the U.S., both legendary figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and tens of thousands of unknown people reached up and grabbed the arc and said the future of the American colonies needed to be changed.

In fighting for equal rights for people of all races and both genders, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and many, many other people whose names did not become famous saw the unfolding future and decided to alter it.

In digital technology, transportation, and medical care, people saw how things would go if they didn’t step in and they didn’t like what they saw. So they changed it.

I have a friend who is trying to change the history of uneducated children in the poorest parts of Africa. I have another friend who is trying to alter the way college education is paid for to change the arc of unrelenting and dramatic rises in the cost of a college degree. I have another friend who is trying to start up a basketball academy for kids of all abilities to have meaningful activities that can strengthen their self-discipline and self-esteem. The world doesn’t have to include the whole planet Earth. Your world can be however you define it. One more friend is trying to get people back to the concept of “backyard sports” as opposed to the infiltration of “select” teams that have taken over young people’s and their parents’ lives starting in kindergarten.


Apple, Inc. recently ran an ad that featured one of my favorite quotes from the movie, Dead Poet’s Society. Robin Williams said, “You are here and life exists. The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

What arc of history do you want to change?

Give this serious thought. The future of the world needs arc-changers if things are going to be better for our children and their children around the world.


In implementing significant change in an organization, the starting point is for you to answer these four questions and then to clearly communicate your answers to the members of your organization. Here are the questions:

  1. What are we not changing and why are we not changing it?
  2. What are we going to change from and why are we going to change from that?
  3. What are we going to change to and why are we going to change to that?
  4. How is this change going to happen?

Inevitably people don’t like changing anything. It’s hard. It’s messy. A lot of people during the time of the American Revolution did not want to separate from England. The future was scary and people were going to die over it. As crazy as it seems today to deny anybody anything over something as silly as the color of their skin or their gender, some people found it very, very hard to change old racist and sexist ways of thinking. Some still do.

If you’re going to implement change, you have to know the answers to those four questions and you have to be able to answer them clearly so that you remove the lack of clarity that causes people to become anxious over the unknown. People can deal with a great deal of change. The hard part is dealing with the unknown.

This process of managing change is difficult in an organization, and it’s even harder to change in society when multiple organizations and multiple groups of people are involved. This requires the best of leadership. It requires you explaining in a compelling way what is not going to change and what needs to change and why this is so. It can take decades for people to see the future in a new way. That’s why there’s no time to waste.

Step One: What part of history do you want changed?

Be clear about this. What topic are you going to take on? What within that topic do you want to stay the same and what do you want altered?

Step Two: What do you want that history to say instead when you are all done?

Be clear about this as well. It’s difficult enough to make changes when you know what you’re trying to create, but it’s basically impossible if you don’t know what the change is supposed to look like when you’re done.

Step Three: What needs to be done and who needs to be influenced in order to change this particular arc of history?

Now we’re getting into the details and the grunt work involved to reach up and grab that arc and bend it in a new way. Write down five things you need to do to begin to change the future and five people you need to influence who can help you in this cause.

Step Four: Get started.

Don’t wait for perfection. Begin. Move into action. It’s going to be a very bumpy ride, but don’t wait for it to get smoother. Just jump and go. The next two decades are going to roll by whether or not you try to change the arc of history. Why not leave your indelible imprint on the future by starting now.


My day job since 1998 has been to work with executives and managers to help them generate sustainable success for their organizations. That’s not going to change.

But I’ve realized over and over lately that there is a bigger dream for me to pursue. There’s a reason why I’ve been reading biographies and autobiographies of arc-changers since I was eight years old. There’s a reason boiling inside of me for why I’m constantly searching for and developing ideas and simple processes that people can use to improve results in a sustainable way. I think that purpose extends beyond my clients. I think it includes people around the world.

The arc of history that I want to change is for significantly more people to achieve their desired success in a sustainable way. I hate the idea of lottery tickets. It’s a tease. It says if you’re lucky, you get the winning ticket and you become a multi-millionaire and all your problems are taken care of. Not. That’s not sustainable and there’s only a couple of winners. I believe there’s got to be a better way. There has to be a way for many more people to achieve sustainable success. I don’t think the answer is massive government intervention. I have a different idea in mind. I think the answer lies in changes of attitude toward education, health, and creating significant opportunities for more people to lead in meaningful ways. It also lies in understanding what it takes to generate sustainable success.

This will be the arc of history I want to change. This article was step one. And we go from here. I hope you’ll visit the section on my website called Changing the Arc of History from time to time in the months and years to come. You might find an idea or two on how you and the people you know can generate sustainable success not only in your work, but in your life.

Good luck to you as you take on your arc and make the future world a better place. Let me know how you’re doing from time to time. I’m going to be very interested as to how this all turns out.

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