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?
Progress 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?
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.
Fairview Middle School
As students, we are constantly making decisions that shape the rest of our lives. Each choice we make can forever affect our future, our impact on society, and the way others perceive us. That’s why it is so important to develop our characters. Even a simple notion can spark a lifetime ideal – positive or negative. When we help out our communities, we are influencing ourselves in a positive way that often follows us throughout our adult lives. Each tiny thought, word, action, and habit, changes YOUR future.
This continuous sequence of events, this transformation of a single thought to one’s destiny, rests solely on you and your willpower. Middle-schoolers are at a pivotal point in their lives – and we can choose the actions that are going to shape our entire future! In my lifetime, I’ve tried to make decisions that will be constructive in the end. Our opportunities are growing, and helping others can only increase these opportunities. I’ve always felt that volunteering and community service are something that we, as citizens, are internally obligated to do. When we find a cause we care about, a cause we connect with, we are able to dedicate some time from our lives for this cause.
For me, this cause was homelessness. When I walk around this city, I see people trying to make it by on the street, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. For the past five years, I’ve dedicated my birthdays to volunteer work – a couple of friends and I hold a lemonade stand, where we raise funds for the shelter, and I accept only gifts of canned food for people who suffer from homelessness. It was a simple thought that has made a big difference in my life, and I hope, someone else’s life. This sympathy for people living in tough situations translated into a little fundraiser, which turned into a yearly tradition. Helping people this way has really inspired me: since, I have volunteered with the Homeless Shelter and other organizations, and I hope it has contributed to making me a more compassionate individual. A quick idea has easily morphed into a cherished ritual, and that alone should demonstrate the impact community service can have on your life.
Something as small as caring about something can change the outlook of your future. Whether you have a half-joking notion to become an actress, or a probing curiosity for science, or a love for animals: this seemingly small idea just might shape your fate. The ongoing transformation of words to actions, actions to habits, habits to character, and character to destiny, is always following us – it’s up to you to decide if you want to make a difference in this world.
“You must be the change you want to see in the world,” Gandhi once said. As a child you think that you could never make a difference in the world, but you can. It all starts with your thoughts. They soon become words, which becomes your actions, which become your habits, which become your character, which becomes your destiny.
Keep your thoughts on what really matters. Don’t clutter your brain with information that has no benefit to your community. If your thoughts are straight, then your words will be too. If you care about a goal it will be in your thoughts. Then, as the words start flowing out you will get closer to making that dream a reality. I sometimes think about how I can better myself and my community. After thinking about it enough I started to talk about it and before I knew it I was in the Hope Community kitchen cooking for the homeless. It’s always a good feeling to know that you can make an impact on someone’s life, but you have to think you can.
As you are acting out your thoughts and words you start to make it a habit to help. At first it may seem like going out of your way, but after a while it just becomes part of your daily life. Last summer I went on a mission trip to Haiti. There, I went to different orphanages and handed out shoes. It was a wonderful experience and you knew that you were making a difference when a child would smile at you. It really warmed my heart to know that I can help the less fortunate. You don’t have to go out of the country to make a difference, you can do activities like that in your home town. You would be surprised how a little goes a long way.
Habits are a major part of your character. If you have good, kind habits it will show in your character. While in the sixth grade I was given an opportunity to join my school’s Junior Beta Club. I joined because I thought it would be a great way to better myself. Since I joined, the club has done many things to help around town. Twice we’ve helped the Guardian Ad Litem by supplying them with Christmas gifts for their children. Even though I never got to meet the children, I knew that I did put a smile on their faces.
When I look back on all I have done in my thirteen years, I’m proud, and I know that I have a destiny to do much more in the future. I was able to take my thoughts and draw them out all the way so that they became my destiny. So even though I’m still young I know that I can make a difference wherever I go. Hopefully, Mahatma Gandhi would have been proud of me.
Fairview Middle School
I always monitor my thoughts, watching for what I think is good, and what isn’t. I do this now because once, a long time ago, so far I can barely remember, I didn’t. My thoughts were mean, targeting others. I didn’t believe that I would ever let them slip, but one day the words in my thoughts flew from my mouth. I gave no thought to the words either, until I started to act upon them. I acted as though I was better than the people closest to me. Soon, I couldn’t help it. The thoughts came in seconds, and a minute later they were flying from my mouth. A minute after that I was acting like someone completely different, someone I never wanted to be.
I never gave much thought to habits, because for me, they were just another part of my day, something unavoidable. Today I spend most of my time erasing those habits and making better ones. It’s hard because those habits I developed so long ago are a part of me. These things that built upon each other are still haunting me today. They threaten my future, torture my past, and are with me in every moment of each day. I never thought that the things I said would still be impacting me so far down the road.
Hurtful things I’ve said to people caused my to ignore them, or them to ignore me, and now, I miss them with all my heart. Those are people I won’t get to speak to again because I hurt them so badly that they do everything in their power to avoid me. They resent me now because I spoke thoughts that were based off of the way they acted, which were just a result of how they spoke, thought and grew up. Today, I see those people and all I see in their eyes is sadness, resentment, and almost hatred because of little words that started as little thoughts.
So today, I monitor every habit, action, word and thought, because they make up the person that I am; the person standing in front of you. In my life I try to think less of the worst things about others, and more about their better qualities. I try to think about the things that they do to make themselves better people. My habits went from horrible; no studying, no homework, screaming and the like; to wonderful. I now work in my community, get straight A’s, and help other people in the position I was in just a year ago.
So on that note, I warn you: “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Choose your words, for they become actions. Understand your actions, for they become habits. Study your habits, for they will become your character. Develop your character, for it becomes your destiny.” And always, always, remember that there is time to change and people willing to help you, no matter what.