“It’s easy to make a buck.
It’s a lot tougher to make a difference.”
“In a dream world, everyone is treated with the same amount of respect. But until we reach that goal, I will lend my ear, I will lend my voice to any boy, girl, man or woman who does not feel like they can protect themselves.”
Well. When you get to my age you sometimes pause and think “has anything I have done really made a difference.”
I tend to believe it is a reflective thing we naturally do because most of us have invested gobs of energy in some career, gobs of energy outside of the workplace with home & family responsibilities as well as gobs of energy in at least some ‘self fulfillment’ stuff.
We kind of want to assess life in maybe an ROI type way. That ROI idea may sound a little weird, but starting all the way in grade school where they pound into your head you should be involved in extracurricular activities <on top of schoolwork> all the way throughout your career you tend to measure your Life in an “energy-to-achievement” ratio way.
To be clear <part 1>.
We draft resumes being encouraged to espouse “differences we made on a business” wherein we take basic responsibilities, shit we are paid to do, and stretch it out into some dramatic outcome. Our professional lives seem to be driven into some simplistic ‘where I made a difference’ encapsulation which sadly derives it of the true rich & royal hues.
And, yeah, that matters. It matters because it is, more often than not, in those swirling colors where you personally find satisfaction – and meaning. Yet, almost all of us distill our differences into simplistic black & white terms, or, in other words, we are encouraged to sell ourselves as “I am a good ROI.”
To be clear <part 2>.
This ‘pause & think’ isn’t about doubting any personal ability, or smarts or even accomplishments. I assume I am not that different than most people my age that I assume I have some ability, some smarts and some accomplishments.
The ‘pause & think’ is more about the ‘degree of.’
Am I really that good?
Am I really that smart?
Are my accomplishments really that good?
You start thinking about whether you have truly made a difference or if your “wins & accomplishments” were simply pedantic grind-it-out every day shit and that your losses were losses that didn’t mean anything anyway. Or, in other words, we are encouraged to think of our lives as “was I a good ROI.”
If you truly think about that you start thinking about what you have done and ROI.
“Hey, if I am going to lose, let me lose doing something.”
Ok. I say all that because I received a couple of unexpected messages recently. The kind of messages that makes you pause & think … “maybe I did make a little bit of difference in some corner of the world”:
Hi Bruce! I hope you’re doing well! It’s been a little while since we’ve talked. I just caught up with +++++ and a group of <college> students in Chicago last week. You set such a great example of leadership and teaching young people, including myself, a few years ago. I can only hope to have the same impact on this new group of students. I sincerely hope you’re doing well and I hope to keep in touch!
Thank you so much, Bruce. You know I think about the day you pulled me into that little conference room at 151 W. 4th Street to tell me you were bringing me on to +++++++ – a lot. You saved my career that day. I will always be grateful to you for teaching me so much over the course of that year. Thank you for everything.
I am fairly sure no one gets a lot of these messages so I am fairly sure almost everyone cherishes them. They reflect some “return” on whatever we have invested.
But. You know. It is quite possible I look at ‘making a difference’ and my own personal ROI a little differently than a lot of other people. I know I would love to leave behind a legacy-like idea but, maybe more importantly, I would like to leave behind a legacy of ‘he made a difference’ – however that comes to Life.
That drives me and what I do and say <and write>.
The dilemma with pursuing thinking like this is although it has a high appeal for success <because it means ‘something’> it is difficult, time consuming, <honestly> has a relatively low chance of success and is not the kind of thinking that really pays the bills. I imagine any life ‘purpose’ decision, combined with the fact you have to sustain and maintain everyday life responsibilities at exactly the same time, makes you ponder this unfortunate dilemma.
I can unequivocally state anyone who makes a conscious decision to ‘want to make a difference’ should make sure they think that decision through. It is not one to be made flippantly and while I shared a couple of notes which makes it all worthwhile to me, mostly you do not get much positive feedback.
I will offer a thought as you think about the dilemma.
Some guy named John William Atkinson wrote Motivational Determinants of risk-taking Behavior in Psychological Review in 1957. He suggested that if you can choose the grade of complexity <difficulty> of a task most of the decisions are taken in a mid-complexity-level. Too easy tasks or too difficult tasks can neither provoke a strong feeling of satisfaction nor a strong disappointment and vice versa.
Highly motivated people often choose a realistic complexity of tasks whereas low motivated people choose tasks that are finally to easy or too difficult for them.
But. Here is where I think I would sit good ole JW Atkinson down and have a debate. If I set aside the fact bills have to be paid at some point, I would say he doesn’t give ‘appeal of success’ enough emphasis. Especially if the appeal of success is tied to “doing something” or maybe better said ‘doing something that may truly matter.’
Huh? As Sam Seaborne says “if I am gonna lose let me lose doing something.” What I mean is that if you consciously decide to ‘go big and win big <or lose big>’ your satisfaction criteria changes and, therefore, you are willing to plow your way through more complexity and difficulty.
Look. I don’t think I am different than most people. We all want to ‘do something.’ Deep in our heart of hearts we want to know that we have done something that matters. I imagine, in a ‘big impact’ thought kind of way, somewhere in all of us we would like to leave the world a better place than the way we found it <and everyone can define the extent of ‘better place’ in their own minds>.
A friend of mine once pointed out that this ‘go big ideal’ can often simply be making a smaller difference in someone’s life. He is right. And if that is as good as it gets, well, that ain’t bad. But sometimes the desire to ‘do something’ is bigger than individuals or individual moments. That doesn’t make it ‘better’; just bigger. Bigger as in my case I take ‘world’ literally and not figuratively.
That ‘bigger’ matters because Atkinson is suggesting that the size of the ‘do something’ legacy task can often lead to a complexity that increasingly makes it difficult to be successful <but the prize more tantalizing>. I think what he misses is that a desire to make a difference can shake the etch a sketch mentally.
At some point I think we all make some decisions on whether to compromise ‘greater purpose’ versus ‘everyday grind it out needs & responsibilities.’ Day to day responsibilities <not just bills but true responsibility to others who count on you> is a real life factor in whatever you decide to do or not do. It’s not like you have a blank Life sheet and put on it “do something that matters.”
The sheet is never blank.
You have cars, mortgages, children, mates/partners, work obligations, general shit that needs to get done. In fact, if you think about it too much, you will start thinking “holy shit, I want to make a difference but how the hell does it all happen?”
In the kindest sense you learn to balance or juggle.
In its harshest sense you compromise.
I would argue far too many of us confuse those two things and more of us actually compromise than we do juggle. And I fear compromising has left far too many people numb to life or maybe just numb to their dreams. Or maybe, more specifically, numb to ‘doing something.’ or, maybe worse, numb to making a difference.
Me? I think I have always had some fear of that numbness if I end up compromising and avoid it like the plague.
I don’t know. What I DO know is that when you get to my age you focus a lot less on the ‘what did I do’ and ‘what did I not do’ and ‘compromise’ and a lot more on “difference achieved.”
Sure. I, as everyone else, certainly want to be happy. Live. And love. And be loved. Travel. See things. Meet people. Meet more people. Learn. And have offered some value in all that.
But, today, it all seems to come down to “doing something that matters.”
“The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.”
Did I really do something that can leave the world a better place?
Did I really do something that made a difference?
Atkinson is/was probably a shitload smarter than I, but I gotta tell ya … even with all of his complexity & poor likelihood to succeed thinking, well, in my mind if you even have a glimmer of hope of getting to do something big … something really big … something that matters in a big way … something that someone would know really made a difference … I think you gotta go for it. It sure seems like you would want to do something, anything, which lends a voice to those who aspire to greater things themselves.
I mean, what the hell, if, in the end, I am going to lose or look like a loser, I want to know I lost doing something. In my mind I want to work hard at making a difference so that at some point, when all is said and done, there was a bunch of people saying “I wish I had sent Bruce a note.”
‘Cause I don’t need the notes. I just need to know I made a difference.
Just to close off this thought:
“You know the Greeks didn’t write obituaries, they only asked one question after a man died, ‘Did he have passion?’”
quote from the movie Serendipity
Even at my age making a difference can happen starting today. As I wrote in my obituary post years ago:
An obituary is not about what you can undo from what is done. You don’t undo. It’s about moving on.
That, my friends, is a big thought.
Because a lot of people want to go back and fix or ‘undo.’
But obituaries can be written at any time. In fact. Many obituaries are written … well … when they are written … and that means they are written with “what is” as the case and point. I guess what I am suggesting is that you can choose to unburden yourself from the past at any point. The good, the bad, the indifferent … none really matter.
Write your obituary from today on.
In other words, start making a difference today if you have not already.
In other words, seek to maximize your ROI to the world around you.