[Published March 12, 2007, revised April 11, 2020]
I know you care about something: a person, a place or an idea. And whatever you care about is something you want to help. This means some actions serve you more than others: the more aligned your choices and beliefs, the bigger the difference you make. You don’t need to be a martyr or make grand sacrifices. To make a difference you must simply clarify what you care about, examine your behavior and do something about the gaps you find.
The ego vs. things that matter
As soon as someone starts talking about changing the world or radically reinventing something they’re talking about the future. Unless they’re working today to bring safety to the scared, health to the sick, or opportunity to the poor, their reinventions mostly serve their egos. Passionate speculation about the future doesn’t help someone in need right now. It’s can be healthy to vent and rant, but to make a real difference requires a different kind of effort.
Technology feeds our egos into making us feel powerful. One click, one touch, and wow! But technology has diminishing returns when it comes to difference making. In our time (and perhaps class, and country) progress isn’t as dependent on technology as it used to be. The glaring need for progress is more in what doesn’t fit through technological tubes, rather than the tubes themselves. Since the telegraph we’ve been sending bits to different places: where we’re behind is in the quality of what we’re sending. Here’s some difference making problems whose solutions are not dependent on recent technological advances:
- You don’t know your neighbors.
- It’s been ages since you helped someone just because they needed it.
- People in your society are having a very hard time.
- You’re having a hard time and no one seems to care.
- You haven’t literally spoken to a good friend in months.
- Your partner thinks you smell funny.
- You’ve fallen and can’t get up (oh wait).
Everyone who has made something millions of people use, a radically successful product or website, struggles to connect that accomplishment with difference making. Their default answer is often “Well, I made something millions of people use”, but use to do what? Save time? And what did those people do with the time they saved? Was that time used to make a difference? It’s an empty answer because it’s about scale, not quality.
When you prod just a bit they’ll abandon that answer. Instead, they talk about other things: helping friends, sharing advice with someone who needed it, standing up for what’s right despite the consequences, helping a friend, or better yet a stranger, get through a tough time or laugh on a bad day. Those are difference making acts.
We all remember times when someone did something for us that mattered. It’s usually simple humane things. Actions not bound by technology or grand wealth. Just simple acts of people not being heartless and how powerful they can be. So why do we forget that it is these things, not tools and toys, that hold the essence of making a difference?
On my last day of a ten year career I was invited to give a last lecture (thanks to Surya Vanka). It was a wonderful event and I talked about important things to a friendly crowd. Afterwards, a peer I respected but didn’t know walked my way. He thanked me for the work I’d done. I asked why he’d never said anything before. He told me (get this) he thought I already knew. He figured I probably heard that sort of thing all the time. In essence, he didn’t want to annoy me with praise. Annoy me with praise! Is there a more absurd phrase in the English language?
It made me think how many times I’d seen, read or experienced acts of generosity that mattered to me and how rare it was I’d offered any praise in return.
Books I read a dozen times, good advice I’d received, bus drivers who got me to work on time, police who kept me safe, people who made the food I ate, a waiter who made for a great evening, people I’d never sufficiently thanked for what they did. Coworkers and friends who who said honest things that changed me for the better, or who stuck up for me when others didn’t, who never learned the value their choices had. I recognized an infinity of actions that made a difference to me that I had not acknowledged, not really. Not in proportion to the difference they made. I was less than the man who’d thanked me on my way out of the company. He did something about what mattered to him. He walked straight up, looked me in the eye, and offered his thanks, something, I realized, I didn’t know how to do. Or more accurately, that I didn’t want to do for some reason.
I realized there was a selfishness to me. That I was embarrassed to thank or help people in a way. That it made me feel embarrassed for some reason. And it was a surprise. I had a clear idea of what I thought was the right way to behave, I’d just never done the much harder part of honestly accounting how my daily actions lived up to that idea. They didn’t.
The gift of time
I buy more things than I make. I used to think it was a sign of some kind of capitalistic progress to be able to buy food and gifts instead of making them myself, but I’m not sure anymore. When it comes to difference making there is a different path. Money comes and goes, but my time on this planet is finite. How I spend my time, or who I spend it with means more than anything else in my universe. Giving my time is the most valuable gift I can give.
So when it comes to whatever it is I care about, I have to ask myself how much of my time, the ultimate commodity, I give to it. An hour a day? A day a week? A week a year? How many of my remaining minutes on this curious little planet will I invest in what matters most? How many things are there that I claim to care about, but haven’t spent time on in months? years? decades? Ever?
And if some of the things I care most about are people, I have to ask how I can best use my time to be most useful to their time. For people I know, maybe instead of that gift card, I make them dinner. Or perhaps a night at the theater for them and their spouse (sans me). How about a babysitter for a day, or a gift certificate for an hour of my time to do whatever they ask me to do (including volunteering me wherever they want). Money and things sure are nice but there is always a simpler more personal way, that if done well, makes the largest possible difference. And for people I don’t know, but who are part of my society, who do things I depend on but overlook, I have to do what I can to help them get by.
The existential drive
We’re obsessed with scale. If all I have to give is a thank you, then that’s 100% of what I can give. If I can only donate $5 to an important cause, that might be small in the grand scheme, but enough to feed one more person. If I get good service at a bar, I can write a sweet note on the check about how great the service was, and match it with a beaucoup tip. There’s always some way I can reinforce the things that matter to me in the universe, no matter how small, and I’m the only one that can do it. And if it means less to them than it does to me, that’s OK. It still keeps my choices and beliefs consistent with each other. I can look someone, or myself, in the eye and feel that on this day I am who I think I am.
But the odds are good these small acts of self-integrity are significant to others. If an independent musician makes a song that’s heard by 5000 people, maybe 1000 will listen to it again, and 10% of them will share it to friends. But who will pay the musician? Or send them a note of thanks? Maybe 1% of those thousands of people will ever give any praise directly to the person who made the thing in the first place. A little thank you note may have more power than you know.
I’m pledging to myself, and to any of you that have read this far, that I’m going to thank people who do things I value (For starters, thanks for reading). I’ll leave funny thank you notes, buy anonymous flowers, tell others of their work, consider their needs and what I buy and who I vote for, and acknowledge the difference they’ve made for me.
None of what I’ve written may matter to you, but I hope you’ll consider what does and do something about it.
- How To Help or Get Help during Pandemic
- Volunteer match: An easy way to difference making is to go find people who need help. This is a dating service type thing for matching volunteers to things that need them, searchable by zip code (Pandemic specific opportunities).
- Make a difference day: What do you know: a whole day where people try to do stuff they think matters. I just wish there was a day like this, but with less goody-two-shoes polish, something aimed at getting sarcastic wise-ass people like myself to volunteer (finger on nose).
- The myth of Sisyphus, Camus. I can’t entirely explain why but this is the unit of existential philosophy I go return to (Camus is to Satre, as cheesecake is to flan).
- What should I do with my life?, by Po Bronson. This is the only what should I do book I’ve found that centers on real people’s stories: some happy, some sad, some confused, but since they’re all asking “what should I do” it’s more powerful and real than any prescriptive book.