Today I was touched by an e-mail forwarded to me by a dear friend Dr Leann Munian. She is a Paediatrician who was writing a farewell note to her colleagues before transferring to another hospital.

In the note she wrote a fascinating line about a major shift in her thinking and her career that took place some time ago after a stint in Syria with Gift of the Givers:

“…I returned to the hospital of my birth, “to save the world”, “one baby at a time”.” What a remarkable thought process; that changing something as huge as the world can happen one very small baby at a time.

But it jogged my memory, because my dear friend and colleague Dr Rama Naidu puts the same thought in a slightly different way. Now for some context, this man is a world class agent of change who has impacted on countless numbers of people during his remarkable career. But he works in small groups of between 8 and 80 people at a time, facilitating their growth and development. He says: “We change the world one conversation at a time.” This echoes one of my gurus Peter Block who talks about changing the world “one room at a time; the room you are in.”

Another friend and colleague Dr Louise van Rhyn founder of Partners for Possibility – the world-renowned South African program that pairs school Principals from under resourced schools with business leaders in a transformative co-learnership – talks about changing the world “one partnership at a time.” There simply must be something in this thinking if all these doctors are saying the same thing!

But it sounds fanciful, even flaky, especially within the parameters of our Western thinking that is so dominated by outcomes, measurement and numbers. In the NGO field, tell a potential funder you save the world “one baby, one conversation, one partnership at a time”, they will smile and tell you to come back and talk when you have “taken your project to scale”. In the business world, have a conversation that is about change outside of the context of a rising bottom-line and you will quickly hear terms like “soft skills” being used.

We play this game because we must – or must we? It seems that all of us in any form of people-based, healing, transformation/change, “nation building” work have been on a journey to understand and accept that change and growth can only happen one of anything at a time. And this is on the positive spectrum. Just ask Adam Catzavalos how one racist WhatsApp message can change your life for the worse.

This may seem frustrating because we want positive change to happen quicker than this. It just doesn’t satisfy our hard-wired need – and the world’s expectation – for us to “deliver results” (aka numbers). It has taken me literally years to come to terms with this “one-by-one” thinking and I thank my friends above for always reminding me about this when I get frustrated by my own or our country’s seeming “lack of progress”.   

This column is about each of us playing our part in the change we wish to see for our country and our world. So, the question is what is your “one at a time”? For my paediatrician friend it is a baby. For Rama it is a conversation. For Louise it is a partnership. For you it could be one customer at a time, one article at a time, one learner, one client, one staff member, one patient, one child.

The trick? Be for that person or situation everything you wish to see the world become. 

Then the world will change. Not tomorrow or next week. But right now.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

His writing is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered and Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.