The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.  —Ralph Waldo Emerson

W hile leading the colonial militia in 2000’s The Patriot, Benjamin Martin (played by Mel Gibson) is devastated by the loss of his second son during America’s Revolutionary War. His commanding officer pleads with him to stay in the fight as they near a point where victory could be within reach. Martin replies that he is of little matter to the war. The Colonel replies: “You’re wrong Benjamin, you matter to your men, and to others as well. Your victories and… and your losses, are shared by more than you know. Stay with us. Stay the course!” Martin: “I have run my course.

The scene above is pivotal to the movie and powerfully captures Martin at the far edge of despair. The moment also artfully captures a mistake we all make. In his grief, Benjamin Martin fails to recognize what he means to his men and the entire movement. He fails to remember his place in this drama and the impact his victories, as well as his losses, have on all who are watching.

The Trap

How often have we all fallen into this trap? So busy worrying about our own needs, we fail to recognize the difference we make for those around us. Or, we fail to see the difference we could make. The reality is that each of us is a unique force acting in and upon the world around us. Everything we do sends a ripple, or a splash, up and down the waters we travel.  Our slightest word or gesture can make or break a situation and our full exertion can dramatically impact the direction of events. We can be a powerful force for good or ill upon all around us.

Think about the last time you made someone laugh, or cry. Were you intentional or did it just happen? Was it easy or difficult? Most likely, it just happened and was effortless. Very likely, you gave it little to no thought. That is power and we all possess it. By our very presence, we impact all in our lives. How we carry ourself. Our tone of voice. The words we choose. Our facial expressions.  Our touch. The way we are present or absent. In these moments, you bring seen and unseen forces to bear. Have you ever considered how best to use these forces? Have you ever thought of yourself as possessing them?

More Than Grand Gestures

One reason we fail to recognize the power we possess is because we’ve been convinced that only grand gestures matter. My youngest sister was recently married and her wedding was a wonderful showcase of the contrast between grand and simple. Speeches delivered at the reception provided a very clear and dramatic display of affection for the couple as well as humor in the moment – they were grand and captured everyone’s attention. However, there were many, many smaller impact points happening throughout the day and evening among friends and and family members in attendance. I witnessed hugs, smiles, winks, pauses, touches, silence, laughs, as well as direct communication of everything from gratitude to complements. The event was joyful and joyful displays were all around. Some were intentional, many weren’t.

The reality is that others follow what you say and do more closely than you realize. Everything you do and say is sending a signal to someone else. A wedding affords many opportunities for positive signaling but I’m sure there were other less encouraging signals being sent. Bad behavior after a few drinks often attracts less favorable feedback. Perhaps a disapproving look toward someone because of a fashion choice. The guy walking around looking, and acting, like John Belushi’s character from Animal House certainly sent a signal – I wonder about the span of reactions to him. Yes, people are watching.

Impact runs much more broadly and deeply than the brief interactions we have at an event. What messages are you sending through your broader example? The way you live. The way you work. The way you deal with challenges. The way you win, or lose. The way you give and receive. People notice. Children watch very, very closely. Everyone they encounter makes an impression. Your life creates its own center of gravity and either adds weight and substance to the world around you or reduces it. Your victories, losses, contributions, and takes are noticed by more than you realize.

The Signals We Send

What signals are you sending? Are you impact-aware or oblivious to the difference you are making? I am not suggesting that we become any more self-absorbed than we already are; however, I am suggesting that we work to become more self-aware. Understanding your impact and using it as a force for good is a powerful opportunity for each of us. Here are a few ideas for cultivating your own impact awareness:

  • Look for it. In your interactions, pause to gauge reactions to the things you say or do. Some people are very attuned to other people’s reactions; many of us are oblivious. The signaling is always there if we look for it. Even the best poker faces give small indicators.
  • Open yourself. Seek to understand. So often, we get lost in our own self-speak and miss the messages from others. Part of being effective in this way is focus. Another part is sincerity. Being intentional with our focus and sincerely interested are integral to opening ourselves to other people and understanding. We all know this intuitively but don’t alway execute well because we often don’t want to put forth the effort.
  • Let go of your wants and needs for a few minutes. Get away from transactional interactions with those closest to you. Intimate relationships are not built or maintained through emotional commerce. Will the good of the other for the sake of it rather than for what you get from it. From there, all we have left to wonder about is the difference we’re making.
  • Consider what you are projecting through your words and actions. We are all self aware enough to consider the messages we are sending. If we choose to pay attention.
  • Expect it. Anticipate having a positive impact on those around you. Be a person worth emulating. Live a life worth watching. Walk into the wedding reception prepared to make a favorable impression; show up at work day-in and day-out seeing the chance to touch people in positive ways.

Better understanding our impact enables us to be more intentional, and more effective in making a difference. However, it also reminds us of our value. One major reason we don’t think about the difference we make for others is because we don’t feel that others notice our efforts for them. The mom who works hard to take care of her kids. The parents working to send children to private school. The employee who does the break-room dishes every week. Little gestures that we feel go unnoticed tend to make us feel that we aren’t making a difference. Understanding how we impact others allows us to feel the good from it even when it isn’t recognized because we know we are being intentional with our efforts.

Gaining perspective on the difference you make isn’t about keeping score. We need to look more broadly at how we live and who we are; then take a step back and accept the fact that the impact we make is its own reward. Even when we feel that we are not making a difference, we know that our efforts to make things better in the world around us are touching someone, somewhere down the line.

Today, take a quick inventory of the good you are doing in the smallest of things. Then consider your grander efforts. From there, keep reminding yourself that your efforts and your example are making a difference to someone and stay the course.