What Does It Really Mean To Make A Difference?

How often have you heard someone say, “I just want to make a difference”? In fact, just a few hours ago I was listening to a podcast where the guest said, “I just didn’t want to be 40 and look back and think I didn’t do something meaningful.” Gulp! I’m screwed. I’m already 3 years past his you-wasted-your-life deadline. But is making a difference all it’s cracked up to be?

Everybody Wants To Make A Difference

How often have you dreamed about making a difference? Do you hope that your work will have a lasting impact on future generations? Do you long to be the next Steve Jobs? Do imagine changing the lives of thousands or millions of people?

At times everyone entertains the thought of making a difference. It’s part of US culture. How many times have you heard stories of people who quit their jobs to “make a difference” or seen movies in which the characters just want to change the world for the better. Some of the our most celebrated people have made a difference: Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, FDR, Martin Luther King, Jr., Superman (he was a naturalized citizen).


What Does It Mean To Make A Difference?

The media worships these difference-making figures but these people didn’t set out for media attention. They just did what they thought was right. When people set out to intentionally make a difference, however, they have a different goal in mind – they ask what is important to popular culture and what other people think is important? As a result, they don’t truly discover what is meaningful but only what is attention getting.

I’m not saying that making a difference is a bad thing by definition. When we want to help others or use our talents in a meaningful way, that is honorable. But then that is exactly what we are doing, we are helping others and using our talents well. As a result, we can find meaning in the smallest of things, in the mundane activities of our work or our lives.

Contrast this simple idea with the idea of “making a difference,” in which we have to do something beyond ourselves, something great. This version of making a difference means we must transcend our everyday life, we must do something bigger than ourselves. When we long to make a difference, we are often longing for admiration, fame, fortune, or material wealth and social status.

The result of this longing is that we feel our work, our efforts, or even our lives is not that important. We compare ourselves to the successful difference makers and come up short. We discount what we do at best and dismiss it all together at worse. This can lead to apathy, frustration, and demoralization.


How I Changed My Mind About Making A Difference

When I was in grad school, there was a clear message about what kind of careers were meaningful and what kind were not. Clinical psychology has an applied side (being a therapist) and a research side (being an academic). Academic careers were praised by professors, usually as offhanded comments about graduating students, e.g., “John just went into private practice” (mournful tone) or “Rebecca landed a job at University X.” (excited tone). The not-so-implicit message was that being a therapist was a waste of time, while academics was the truly meaningful career.

I bought into this dichotomy for a long time. I chose an academic career because I wanted to “make a difference.” I stayed in that job years longer than I should have because I was afraid that a career as a therapist wouldn’t have a lasting impact. When I did finally quit, it was both nerve wracking and liberating. My only regret now, is not doing it sooner.

My desire to “make a difference” actually kept me from doing something I loved. I love the work I do today with veterans. I’ve helped patients cope with debilitating traumas, improve struggling marriages, and get a job for the first time in years. I’m actually pretty good at this therapy stuff and it has had a bigger impact than grading undergraduate papers (no offense to academics – just not my bailiwick).

Freelance writing is another opportunity that came from giving up on “making a difference.” After I left academics, I was free to write for the “lowliest” of publications – magazines. It’s absurd when I think about the impact this unprofessional writing has had. Just one of the magazine articles I wrote has been read by about 50,000 readers. That’s not earth shattering but remember that only about 100 people (at most) have read any of academic publications.


Is There An Alternative?

But what if instead of making a difference we found meaning in the simplest or most mundane of activities? Things that would never be the spotlight of a Nike commercial or a New York Times profile. What if we were just a good parent, a good husband, or a good person? What if we appreciated the simple ways that we touch the lives of people we meet every day?

You might think I’m saying that you should continue to work for Evil Brothers Big Bank, where you screw over home owners every day or sell products that don’t work. No way! Please quit. But when you do quit, don’t quit to make a difference and fall into that trap. Go do something that is meaning to you and that touches the lives of the people you interact with. If you do, you’ll find that you won’t need to make a difference because you already are.

Photo by U.S. Embassy New Delhi

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Jason Drwal

Jason Drwal

I am a writer, blogger, clinical psychologist, parent, devoted spouse, coffee snob, runner, and connoisseur of exotic foods.

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