How to make a difference
[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.
Just happy to say sometimes we dont make the difference we can, but can be thankfull that we do care!!!
Scott this is such a great story that i had to post it in Care2! It will be front page news tomorrow i am sure! The links from Care2 should bring you some extra traffic since Care2 is a community of 10 million members making a difference!
check the comments realy great….
Like this one:
Thank you so much for this wonderful and true story of the meaning of life. We don’t need to be millionaires to give away or doing precious things. Most of the beautiful things are small and very easy, but it gives you such a sparkling feeling deep inside and to others who receive this. It is not always gold, money or diamonds…the most precious thing to give away is something from yourselves.
Thank you Scott you realy rock!
Thanks for providing this insight. It is easy to let things such as money and material things fog our perception of what can make a difference in this world.in this short couple minutes you have brought us back to reality, and reminded us that is it WE who can touch the lives of others.
Thanks for the good advice Scott!
Being at somewhat of a crossroads in my life (looking for work) it’s good to get some perspective on this question. I’ve always wanted to find a career that “makes a difference” but in focusing on the “big picture” (read: world poverty, AIDS, global warming etc) I sometimes lose sight of the “small picture”.
A friend of mine told a story about when he was a teenager, wanting to have influence and make a difference in the world. His mother told him he should start by keeping his room tidy – wise words. Having taken her advice, he is now making a real difference and is an encouragement to many. Though the big issues in this world are definitely important, the “little” things (like saying hello to your neighbour) should not be neglected.
Keep up the good words!
Brilliant. To know you have made a difference in one person is better than nothing, you’ve certainly made me sit up straight. A real help.
This was an amazing article.
I googled, “what matters in the world?” and “how to make a difference?” because I felt so completely worthless. I want to make a difference in the world, I’m continuously thinking about it; how can i make a difference? what do I have to invent? i’m not smart enough to be a scientist, or mathematician!! And now, I found your article and it is really amazing because you’re right. To make a difference you have to really want to do it, and apply it in your life every day, and just do whatever comes right from you and not just ‘invent’ a new technology to help the world be better. You have to be that technology yourself and just do something for the world.
Thank you. <3
It’s I before E except after C.
First of all and to be consistent with the essay…THANK YOU!!
Through the years I’ve been lucky to find your website and start reading everything (The essays took a little, but the books were finished in a couple of hours) and reading inbetween the lines the optimism and humanity have made a huge difference in my perception of the world.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
Thanks for the article. I’ve read it a couple of times now after searching How to Make a Difference. It was a perfect match to what I was asking and you gave real concrete ways to get started. Thanks for such a good article and the rest of your work seems just as great.
What a great article! So glad I ran across it. Thanks!
This voiced something I resonate with and would have liked to have said myself.
I appreciate your saying it so eloquently.
I appreciate fiding something on the web I feel akin with.
I appreciate the time and energy you took to write it up.
I appreciate that it’s still here nearly five years after you wrote it.
Thank you Scott,
You just fed me some good food for thought!! May abundance, love and your fantastic thoughts and words continue to come your way.:)
It is hard to make a difference on the things withing the habit but it is very possible.
Um…thanks. Seriously, I very much enjoyed reading your article #49 How to make a difference. Much food for thought. Something I try to do anyway but feeling the desire to improve, it was well put.
Thank you for writing this and inspiring some of us. Ive been doing some soul searching and finding it really difficult to “do good for the world” being a full time student and mostly poor its hard to “make a difference”, but you’ve mentioned some things on here that have got me thinking and I will definitely implement some changes in my life.
Well I think the majority of people reading this will leave a ‘thank you’ comment, because it is well written, empowering, and encourages people giving thanks for the effort and time people such as the author put in! Tusen Takk
Very inspiring! Just as the rest of the website and your books btw. You’re a cool dude. Cheers
I’m slowly working my way through the best of Berkun and came across this little gem. Made me smile. Thanks for sharing
Beautiful words and very inspirational. Thank you!
A true reflection of the power of “The Magic of Compassion”.
Hi, thanks a lot for this amazing essay. I have been reading this blog for a few days now but this made me realise that a quick comment is the least I can do.
So, again, thank you for this extremely inspiring blog!
I loved this post. I first read it last month in “Mindfire” and then came back to it here. Since then, I’ve retold your story and used “Annoy me with praise!” to show how rarely we offer the universal gifts of appreciation and recognition. I hope to use the story in a book I’m writing called “Working Out Loud.”
One particular line struck me. “These little forgotten things…were not things I’d ever learned.” I think the general lack of appreciation we experience isn’t due to some flaw in our make-up or some sinister reasoning but simply ignorance: most people don’t know how to do it. And even those who do tend not to have a method or practice for doing it consistently.
Those are easier problems to solve. And that gives me hope.
I know you wrote this 6 years ago, but I’ll take the risk of annoying you with praise and say thanks again for a great post. :-)
Thanks John. As corny as it sounds I reread this essay now and then as I I know I forget to take its advice. Many of these philosophical essays were/are written to help me remind myself of things I forget.
That’s interesting. I find myself often writing for the same reason. Self-help posts like “Do you think today is just another day in your life?” or “The prisons I build myself” or “Taming the hamsters in my head” I wrote because I discovered something that might be useful to others, including my future self. :-)
I dont normally respond to blogs but youve inspired me to say thank you for writing this-interesting and yes i think its important that we do thank people
Thanks for the comment Laurence – appreciate it. So far it’s the best one I’ve read all day :)