I'm excited by the possible cumulative result of people incorporating that question into their decisions. But what really lights me up is that the answer to that question can actually be a source of energy in our careers, and in our lives in general. Far from being solely saintly and altruistic, it can have a significant positive impact on how we experience our own lives. It's the ultimate win/win.
It's not about making a difference because "thou shalt do good." That's a tenuous directive, at best. It's about making a difference that you find compelling. It's about figuring out where you can direct your efforts and also be engaged. Far more powerful than making a difference because you should is making a difference because you want to.
What's in it for you? In my work helping clients create careers they love, I approach everything from an energy management perspective. I use a simple idea I call maximizing your Gain-to-Drain Ratio. Simply put, it's about bringing as much as possible of what gives you energy into your life and minimizing what drains you.
One of the potential sources of energy in our work is the difference we make. Think about it. All work is inherently about making a difference. Something is different after you're done than it was before you started. That's why you get paid. Your work leads to an outcome.
How can that outcome be a source of energy? If you think back on the work you have done, or even to other ways you have made a positive impact, you'll see that all outcomes are not created equal. Some of them gave you a real charge. Working towards those goals energized and inspired you. Others, while clearly positive, felt flatter.
This isn't about what society deems "meaningful." That inevitably leads to expectations about being Mother Teresa or joining the Peace Corps. This is about where you feel the juice. What kind of impact feels compelling to you? The more you incorporate that into your career, the more energy it will give you, energy that you can then plow right back into making a positive impact. It's a virtuous cycle.
What's in it for the world? When people equate making a difference with being Mother Teresa, they miss out on their potential. They make it about someone else's definition of meaning instead of asking, "What kind of difference am I uniquely wired to make? What kind of impact has a charge for me?"
Here's the thing: If you are showing up and making a difference that energizes and inspires you, not only is that more sustainable than doing it because you "should," it's also likely to have more of an impact because you will feel more fully engaged with it. It maximizes your positive contribution. Again, the world benefits. You benefit.
The ripple effect: Here's where it gets really juicy. The way we show up doesn't just affect the recipients of our efforts to make a difference. There's also a ripple effect that spreads to the people around us. When we're focused on making an impact, and that impact has a real charge for us, others can see it. They can feel it. And some of them will want a piece of that pie for themselves. The ripple effect begins.
I recently had an opportunity to talk with Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and a new book, Ecological Intelligence, as he was preparing for his part in a conference featuring the Dalai Lama. The conference was focused on cultivating compassion in kids. He described compassion as "looking at others and being willing to help if they need it." Simplicity itself.
When you show up with compassion, it can have an effect on how others show up, too. Goleman tells a story that illustrates that point superbly (you can hear it at the end of this TED Talk video).
One day during rush hour in New York, he saw a man passed out on the stairs of a subway. Hundreds of people were walking past without so much as a glance down, but Goleman felt compelled to stop and see if the man was OK. As soon as he stopped, it was like a switch had been flipped, and it turned on others' compassion. More people stopped to see if the man needed help.
Was their desire to help there before he stopped? Of course it was. But it took seeing someone else put their compassion into action to jolt them out of their rut and get them to ask, "What can I do?"
It's the same with choosing to make a difference. Not only do you and the world win when you show up that way, the win also extends to the people who feel the effect of the resulting ripple and act on it in their own lives.
Win/win/win—can't beat that.
After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As a speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About Work, and his E-book, The Occupational Adventure Guide, offer people tools for turning dreams into reality. Rosengren's blog, The M.A.P. Maker, explores how to craft a life of meaning, abundance, and passion.