The Only Thing that Has Changed the World

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

– Margaret Mead

I’ve always been a big fan of this quote. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll realize it aligns well with my belief that individual actions can create real change. This quote came to mind again today and I wondered for the first time about its origins. Who is Margaret Mead? What was the context for the quote? Is she really saying what it sounds like she’s saying?

Margaret Mead in 1948

Margaret Mead in 1948

Margaret Mead was a cultural anthropologist the the mid-1900s. She was a controversial figure throughout much of her career for her reports about sexual behavior in various traditional cultures in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. Her work helped inspire feminism, the sexual revolution and other movements in the 1960s.

According to the Institute of Intercultural Studies, which was founded by Mead in the 1940s but shuttered in 2009, there is no definitive source for the widely attributed quote: “We believe it probably came into circulation through a newspaper report of something said spontaneously and informally. We know, however, that it was firmly rooted in her professional work and that it reflected a conviction that she expressed often, in different contexts and phrasings.”

I was disappointed to learn that the quote wasn’t intentionally composed in a specific context and likely has been altered from its original phrasing. However, I was reassured to learn on the IIS website that Mead did actual research into the role of small groups in cultural change in her 1964 book Continuities in Cultural Evolution. She believed in the power of small groups not from wishful thinking but from her research.

I appreciate this quote because I know of so many small organizations and companies working to do things differently to make the world a better place. From fair trade cooperatives to neighborhood revitalization committees, each group has the power to make positive change and grow a small movement into a big one.

Margaret Mead quote

What’s your favorite quote that inspires you to change the world?

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