“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” ~William James
There’s this saying I used to love that doesn’t resonate with me anymore:
“Go big or go home.”
I understand the allure of doing big things.
Life seems more meaningful when you’re pursuing a passion that could feasibly improve life for masses of people; and at the end of the day, most of us want to create a legacy—something that lives on beyond our own ripple-in-the-ocean life spans.
I’m not arguing the benefits of going big if that’s what you want to do, especially since I have a few big plans of my own. But there are a couple of implications here I would like to debunk:
If you’re playing small, you’re not playing smart.
Wrong. Determine what makes you happy and gives you a sense of purpose, and then live it, whether that means finding a cure for cancer or finding your son’s favorite toy for the fifteenth time in a day.
Play by your own rules, no one else’s.
If you’re not doing something big, you’re not making a difference.
Wrong. Revolutionaries like Ted Kennedy and titans like Ted Turner made massive contributions to the world, but our society also advances when parents raise well-adjusted children, and teachers inspire students to utilize their talents and overcome pressures.
Whether you have grand plans or not, I think it’s important to play small every day—even while keeping your eye on a larger goal. The little things make a huge difference, both for us and the people whose lives we touch.
Each of these small acts will make a meaningful difference in someone’s life, and hopefully fill you with joy and satisfaction:
1. Talk to an elderly person you meet waiting at the DMV or sitting on the bus.
Ask him about his life, his children, the job he had before retiring.
It’s an unfortunate fact that many elderly people are isolated from society, and sometimes their families, if they have them. They crave meaningful connections and opportunities to share their passions, memories, and wisdom.
You may be surprised by what you receive when you extend that gift. But most importantly, you’ll give something small but powerful to someone who’s already given the world so much.
2. Find a blog about a topic you enjoy—one that doesn’t have any comments—and get in on the conversation.
There are over 100 million blogs on the net, about every topic under the sun. Many of those bloggers couldn’t care less about advertising revenue or thought leadership. They just want to share their passions and hopefully connect with other people.
Your thoughtful comment could brighten their day and reinforce that people truly are listening.
3. Ask a homeless person if there’s someone you can call for them.
Lots of homeless people have become alienated from their families, particularly the younger ones. Maybe they’re too proud to ask for help or afraid their loved one won’t be receptive to their plea.
That pride or fear could be the biggest mistake of their life, and you could help them overcome it. If they’re not receptive or if they truly have no one to call, just lend an ear. Perhaps in telling his story he’ll find the strength to seek help.
4. Prove someone cynical wrong.
There are a lot of people out there who believe people are basically selfish, that no one does anything just to be helpful or kind. I think that’s the saddest way to be in this world, because we generally seek evidence for the beliefs we form—meaning it’s really difficult to reverse this perspective.
Do something completely selfless for that person. It may not change their philosophy but maybe it will challenge it. You never know when one simple kindness will soften the anger or pain someone’s holding.
5. Tweet: “Is there anything I can do to help or support you today?”
It's a simple question, but I've found it can make a significant difference.
As a direct result of asking, I've edited a college senior's resume, introduced someone to his next employer, and helped a new friend name a website he started just last month.
Sometimes the best way to make a difference is to open your heart and be a friend, whatever that means to the person who needs one.
The most meaningful acts are often the ones we commit without prompting or expectations.
We have such profound power when we lend an ear, a hand, or an act of kindness because it reminds the recipient that people are good. People do care. That’s what gives life meaning: the people who touch our lives and the people whose lives we touch.
I’d love to know what you think. Have anything to add to the list?
Photo by Christopher Michel