How to Make a Difference
"Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does." (William James)
I used to think there was wisdom in the expression, "Go big or go home." I'm not so sure anymore. I get the draw of doing big things. I like to think that my writings, for example, will be read by millions and that the world will be different as a result of what I do. I want to write political speeches for important people. I want to be an opinion maker, a thought leader, featured on CNN and Huffington Post and all that. I want to leave a legacy -- something that will live on beyond my own lifetime. I want to leave an indelible mark before I shuffle off this mortal coil.
So...yeah...I get the allure of doing really big things.
I'm coming to see that much of the "Go big or go home" mindset is deeply flawed. It's not always a three-run homer; small ball can win a lot of games, too. In fact, I think it's often small investments made consistently over time that pay the biggest dividends. More people grow wealthy as a result of those small, incremental steps than people who win the lottery. So...sure...buy a lottery ticket if you like, but don't think that's the only way -- or even the best way -- to build wealth.
Changing the world is the same. Yes, Oprah and Bill Gates and Ted Turner make huge contributions to the betterment of society, but the world also advances when parents listen to their children patiently and teachers inspire their students creatively and people love one another with honesty and vulnerability. These may seem like small things, but small things done consistently over time pay huge dividends.
You could make a huge difference in someone's life today. It doesn't take a fortune in the bank or a corner office. Your presence, your demeanor, your hands could change the world for someone today. Here are some suggestions for how you could make a difference today:
Talk to an elderly person. Ask him about his life, his children, his job. It's a sad fact that many elderly people are isolated from the rest of us. Sometimes they don't even see their own families anymore. They crave meaningful connections. They still have passion. They have memories, which means they have wisdom to share. You may think you're the one giving them a gift by giving them some attention, but you may end up surprised at what you get in return. Even if they don't share someone earth-shattering with you, you'll have given someone small but immensely powerful to someone else.
Find a blog about a topic you enjoy -- one whose author you've never met -- and leave them a positive comment. There are more than 100 million blogs on the internet. Most of them are written by people who don't care about advertising revenue. They're just folks who want to share their passion with the world. You could google a topic, find a blog, and leave a thoughtful comment. I can tell you from experience -- that's like a getting a gold star from your 1st Grade Teacher!
Ask a homeless person if there's someone you could call for them. There are a lot of folks in our world who are homeless by choice. But sometimes life just caves in on a person, and things unravel to such an extent that they end up on the streets. They may be alienated from their families. Maybe they're too proud to ask for help. Maybe they're afraid their families won't be receptive. Pride and fear are often at the root of our biggest mistakes in life. You could help someone overcome that. If they don't want you to call, or if they can't think of anyone for you to call, maybe you could just listen. Sometimes telling someone our story reminds us of whatever it is we need to remember in order to get the help we need.
Prove a cynic wrong. I was recently watching an interview with Rainn Wilson, and he was talking about what he misses most about being five-years-old. That's a great question worth pondering, but his response was enlightening. He said he misses being uncynical. I personally believe cynicism has jumped the shark in popular culture. David Letterman -- the man who probably brought cynicism to more college students than any other human being in history -- has retired. Jay Leno made his living rolling his eyes and shrugging his shoulders has also retired. Jon Stewart? Retired. We're in the era of Jimmy Fallon now. Is there anyone having more honest-to-goodness fun on TV than Jimmy Fallon? The most popular song of the last four years is a song called "Happy" -- with absolutely no trace of irony to be heard. Sure, there are still people out there who believe people are basically selfish, that no one does anything to be helpful or kind. But cynicism is perhaps the saddest lifestyle imaginable. Find someone who is cynical and do something completely selfless for that person. It may not change their worldview, but it might challenge it. One simple act of kindness can be the thing that softens the anger or pain someone has been holding for a long time.
Finally, put this on your social media: "Is there anything I can do to help or support you today?" Sometimes the best way to make a difference is to let people know you're willing to. The most meaningful acts are often the ones we do without a plan -- things we do because they present themselves to us.
You have far more power than you think. You can lend a hand. You can give someone a shoulder to lean on. You can give an ear to their story. You have eyes. You have feet. One act of kindness and generosity can remind others (and yourself) that people have the capacity to do great good in this world -- and it doesn't take a big network, industry, organization, or institution to get it done. People do care. Or they can. People can touch our lives. We can touch theirs.
That's what gives life its deepest meaning.
Photo Credit: Diego Zarpellon