You Don’t Need To Save The World To Feel Like You Made A Difference

Five years ago I returned to visit the 6th grade teacher that changed my life.

I walked into his classroom, proudly sporting a tan leather jacket I bought a week earlier in Montepulciano, Italy. I was surprised at how short he was, and quickly realized all my memories of him were from a time when I was five feet tall.

He was delighted to see me. He gave the class a quick assignment then came over to greet me and catch up. After a few minutes he handed me the dry-erase marker and said, “you remember number bases, right? Why don’t you teach the next lesson?”

I felt a quick panic set on. What I always loved about Mr. Heckley was the way he was willing to challenge his students and here I was fifteen years later, still learning and growing. “Let’s do it” I said with a smile. At the end of it, he surprised me with a comment that was both wonderfully affirming and incredibly scary.

You would be a great teacher, David.

I didn’t know how to respond.

I love teaching. I love it more than anything, but I couldn’t teach middle school math. I was destined for bigger things. I wanted to teach the world and influence millions, not just a few kids.

Not wanting to reveal my true feelings, I simply responded with half-hearted “yeah it’s true…”. It was as if he had just told me I should be getting more exercise.

I thanked him, walked to my car, and pondered what had just happened. What if making big a difference in the lives of a few people was better than making a small difference in the lives of many?

“That’s crazy”, I thought, as I drove away.

Five years later I look back on that kid with the leather jacket and I wonder. He had a deep desire to make a difference, to change the world, to make an impact. The thing he didn’t see was that impact was only half the story.

What he was actually seeking was far more simple.

Hooked on a Feelin’

Think back to a time when you made a difference in someone’s life. Maybe you had a meaningful conversation with a kid who was bullied, maybe you helped a friend get back on their feet, maybe you just held the door for someone and they smiled.

Remember how good that felt.

It’s the best, right?

It’s arguably the most fulfilling human experience. This simple feeling can be the beginning of an addictive pattern that ultimately leaves us always wanting more.

Let’s say for example we help a friend lose twenty pounds. We made a difference and it feels great, so we look for ways to duplicate that. We open a business, take on clients and maybe over the next few years we help one hundred people lose weight. Again, we’ve made a difference and it feels great.

We then attend a seminar on impact and legacy. Fueled by the desire to make an impact on the world, we form a mission statement and vow to help 10,000 people lose weight. We open a center for weight loss and scale our business for the purpose of increasing our impact.

Now instead of working with people directly we manage a team of counselors and trainers, then we grow again and now manage the managers of the counselors and trainers. While it’s not as directly rewarding as when we started, we remind ourselves that it’s necessary for us to reach more people and have a bigger impact.

“But wait” you say, “if I build a business that helps 100,000 people isn’t that better because more people get helped?”

While it might satisfy your goal of helping more people, it’s not getting you closer to what you actually want.

What I’m getting at here is that we are ultimately chasing a feeling and thinking that if we help more people, we will get more of the feeling, but that’s not how it works. In fact, the constant seeking and craving for more takes us away from actually experiencing the difference we already make in other people’s lives.

The only way to get more of the feeling that we are making a difference is to slow down and appreciate the little moments, the ways in which simply going about our daily lives is already an incredible contribution.

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