Making a difference – or having an impact – seems to be very popular language in younger generations.

I’ve become convinced this is not just a “younger” person thing, though. The desire to make a difference is far reaching because, at its core, is the desire for recognition or the desire to not feel pointless. 

So, while young people may talk about having impact out of school, more established wealthy people are also concerned about leaving their footprint – this is obvious as they make charitable donations and create their estate plans.  Leaving our DNA behind seems somewhat innate.

None of this is wrong.  The good part suggests that maybe we’ve reached a moment in society that enough concerns have been taken care of that upon entering the workforce we can worry less about paying rent and focus more on what society needs.  Additionally, Baby Boomers are paced to leave behind the greatest amount of wealth in history.  We’re all ‘making a difference’.

Here is where caution is warranted.  For centuries, since we’ve had the presence of mind to “do good”, we’ve done so with downstream effects and unintended consequences.  Humanity’s pattern is to solve the short-term problem – to relieve their pain – without understanding the long-term consequences.

Late British writer, Alan Watts, probably said it best: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This could be interpreted any number of ways. But, if you find it validating, I don’t think it’s meant to be.

Our perception of right and wrong can flip on a dime based purely on what’s at stake.

Author, Sam Harris, provides the example of the mother’s pain at childbirth.  I’m paraphrasing:

Assuming a successful birth, this is a beautiful experience, perhaps the best experience in a lifetime.  Knowing what’s on the other side of the pain makes the pain mentally bearable.  However, what if a mad scientist was inflicting this same level of pain for no apparent reason?  It would likely be less bearable, and we’d react entirely different.

Our motivations and incentives really affect our perception of what is real.  While the childbirth example is extreme, just imagine how this plays out in nearly every encounter of our lives. Albeit smaller, they compound day after day, year after year, decade after decade, century after century. 

Be careful to conclude what is real, what is right and wrong, and what difference you plan on making. It’s nearly always unclear.

If you’re like me, then, you wonder, “Well, then what am I to do all day?”.  Watts’ point sort of boxes us into a place of ‘no sudden movements.’

But, this isn’t actually the case.  Watts is only suggesting that we don’t know what is best and Harris’ example illustrates our ability to distort truth.

So, you want to make a difference?  It’s not the career you choose, the donation you make, or the investments you make.  We don’t have a way of knowing if that’s going to be helpful over the long-term.

What is helpful – and what will make a difference – is how you do it.

If you’re tending to a sick relative, it’s likely more about how you draw the shades than the words you say.  How patient you are with someone might prove to be more charitable than cutting a check.  Accumulating wealth has less to do with what you invest in and more to do with how you live your life.  Choosing a career path that allows you to live how you’d like to live is likely more influential to everyone in the long run – rather than choosing an industry or company that you think will change the world today.

All of this can be summarized in the frequently used adage of: “If you want to change the world, start with yourself.”

The lasting impact is how we do something – not what we do.  Even the largest and most trusted companies and institutions will experience a drastic facelift over time – maybe abruptly, maybe bit by bit.  Whatever we materially contribute, our DNA will eventually run its course.

But, not how we do something.  That’s where the real work is done and how we make a difference.

Thanks for reading,

Mitch

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