#49 – How to make a difference

I know you care about something: a person, a place or an idea. I also know that, whatever it is you care about, you want to help that thing. You prefer to be of use and to act in service of that friend or concept, rather than against it. These two points together mean that some actions serve you more than others: the more aligned your cares and actions, the bigger the difference you make. You don’t need to candy-stripe or be nice to your strange uncle (or his weird kids): to make a difference you simply need to question the value of what you’re doing and do something about your answers.

The ego vs. things that matter

We rarely need big things. As soon as someone starts talking about changing the world or radically reinventing something odds are good he’s talking from his ego, not his heart. Unless he’s working on bringing safety to the scared, health to the sick, or opportunity to the poor, the reinvention serves a want (or an ego), not a need. Technology has diminishing returns when it comes to difference making. Look back at the thing you care about: your friend, your family, your favorite pair of underwear, the idea of free thought, whatever it is. Now think of the last thing you made or the last hour or day you lived. Now, the one before that. What impact did they have on the things you hold most high? Was the reason you did or did not make a difference soley dependent on a technology?

Silly man at teaProgress may be infinite, sure, but in our time (and perhaps class, and country) progress isn’t as dependent on technology as it used to be: now it’s the use of technology that matters more than technology itself. The glaring need for progress is in what we send over the pipes, and not the pipes themselves. Since the telegraph we’ve been sending most bits to most places: where we’re behind is in the quality of what we send each other. For example, here’s some difference making problems whose solutions are not dependent on recent technological advances:

  • You don’t know your neighbors.
  • Its been ages since you helped someone just because they needed it.
  • Your spouse thinks you smell funny.
  • You haven’t spoken to good friends in months.
  • You’re unhappy, burnt-out or bored with your life.
  • You’ve fallen and can’t get up (oh wait)

Everyone I know who has designed something millions of people use, a radically successful product or website, has trouble connecting that accomplishment with difference making. It’s often their first answer, but one they quickly abandon. Instead, they talk about other things: helping friends, sharing advice with someone who needed it, standing up for something they thought was right despite the consequences, helping a friend, or better yet a stranger, laugh at a bad day.

It’s these seemingly small things that have little to do with a particular technology, or science, or business that stand out as most memorable. We can all remember times when someone did something for us that mattered and it’s always these human things. Simple behaviors. Actions not heavily bound by technology. Surprising acts of people not being heartless. So why do we forget that it is these things, not tools and toys, that hold the essence of making a difference?

Forgotten things

On my last day at Microsoft I was invited (thanks to Surya Vanka) to do a last lecture. 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 or read things that mattered to me and how rare it was I’d offered any praise in return.

Books that I loved (or read dozens of times), lectures I enjoyed, good advice I’d recieved, that I’d never thanked the person for. Or never made an effort to champion their work to others. Dozens of people 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 words had. I recognized an infinity of actions that made a difference to me that I had not acknowledged in any way and I was poisoned by it. 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.

These little forgotten things, a short e-mail, A comment on a website, A handshake and a thank you, were not things I’d ever learned. And I realized, in my twisted little attic of a mind, in a hidden dark corner covered in dust, was the belief that offering praise in those contexts was a lessening of my self-opinion. That to compliment was to admit a kind of failure in myself: an association between those kinds of praise and sycophancy. I know now what a fool I’ve been, for it takes a better man to acknowledge goodness in others than it does to merely be good oneself. Anyone can criticize or accept praise, but initiating a positive exchange is a hallmark of a difference maker.

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 trend line. Money can come and go, 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. From at least the selfish view, 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 to me? How many things are there that I claim to care about, but haven’t spent time on in 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 of the most use to their time. Maybe instead of that boxed set of CDs, something nice but not particularly personal, I can make them dinner at my home: give them the gift of shared time. 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.

The existential drive

If we believe in what we care about, the burden is on us to find ways to reward those who provide it. It doesn’t matter how small the scale is: it’s our scale. If all I have in rewards is a thank you, then that’s 100% of what I can give. If I get good service at a bar, I can write a sweet note on the check about how great her service was. If I can’t spare the cash for a beaucoup tip I can spare 15 seconds, some thoughtful words and some ink. Or I can look them in the eye and tell them they gave me the best service I’d had all day (an award, btw, it’s possible to give daily). There’s always some way I can reinforce the things that matter to me in the universe, and I’m the only one that can do it. And if they don’t accept my praise and rewards, or if it means less to them than it does to me, that’s fine. It still keeps my cares and behaviors consistent with each other. I can look someone, or myself, in the eye and say “I am who I think I am.”

But odds are good that acts of self-integrity are significant to others. If an independent musician makes a CD that’s heard by 5000 people, maybe 2500 will listen to more than a few songs, and 30% of those find one song they really like, and 10% of those will bother to tell anyone about it, maybe 1% of the whole pile ever gives any feedback to the person who made the thing in the first place. The result? Of the 5000 people who consumed what was made, a total of 7 people will return something to the originator. That’s less than 1%. A little thank you note may have real power, especially if I don’t come off as a weirdo (e.g. avoiding phrases like “I want to live forever in your pants!” and “Here’s 75,214 pictures of the daily shrine I pray to naked in your honor”) and have thoughtful things to say about how their work was of use, or made a difference.

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 them annonymous flowers, shake their hand and look ’em in the eye, tell others of their work, and acknoweldge the difference they’ve made for me and I’ll try to do the same for others.

None of what I’ve written may matter to you, but I hope you’ll consider what does and do something about it.


  • 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.
  • 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.

31 Responses to “#49 – How to make a difference”

  1. Rieghardt

    Just happy to say sometimes we dont make the difference we can, but can be thankfull that we do care!!!

  2. Hans Lak

    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!

  3. alex w

    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.

  4. Christopher

    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!

    Adelaide, Australia

  5. Sam

    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.

    Thanks :)

  6. Vanessa

    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

  7. jack cleary

    It’s I before E except after C.

  8. Hiromi Watanabe

    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!

  9. Doug

    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.


  10. Judy

    What a great article! So glad I ran across it. Thanks!

  11. LostAwareness


    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.

    Good journeys!

  12. olivia

    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.:)

  13. dlysen

    It is hard to make a difference on the things withing the habit but it is very possible.

  14. Susan Beck

    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.

  15. A

    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.

  16. BobbyG-S

    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

  17. Ognjen

    Very inspiring! Just as the rest of the website and your books btw. You’re a cool dude. Cheers

  18. Chris

    I’m slowly working my way through the best of Berkun and came across this little gem. Made me smile. Thanks for sharing

  19. Barbara

    Beautiful words and very inspirational. Thank you!
    A true reflection of the power of “The Magic of Compassion”.

  20. Geert

    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!

  21. John Stepper

    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. :-)

    1. Scott

      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.

      1. John Stepper

        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. :-)

  22. Laurence Woodcock

    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

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks for the comment Laurence – appreciate it. So far it’s the best one I’ve read all day :)



  1. […] 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 trend line. Money can come and go, 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. From at least the selfish view, giving my time is the most valuable gift I can give. Scott Berkun, essay #49 – How to make a difference […]

Leave a Reply to Scott Berkun

* Required

Click here to cancel reply.