Redefining impact: Nudges that create ripples

As I promised (to myself) in my last post, We do not all have to shine, I’m exploring the idea of what makes an impact important. I’m a dreamer. I dream of changing the world. I dream of making a huge difference. Previously, I thought this means you have to do something so groundbreaking that the world knows who you are. Well, I’ve changed my mind.

So let me tell you a story.

Reflecting on my life and how I become the person I am today, I realized that I had no way of knowing I’d end up with the thoughtful, analytical, and yes, cynical and judgmental mind that I have today. Looking back, the path that I went down was but one of the infinite possibilities possible. Given the right–well, wrong–circumstances, I could have easily become a drug addict. Or a typical student without regard for the meaning of life.

What brought me down this path? Well, that’s hard to say, isn’t it? It’s a combination of the people I met, the environment I was in, the opportunities that were handed to me, and perhaps genetics too. Whether these elements were part of a divine plan I do not know, but what I do know is that my path–and yours–was truly a unique set of ingredients that coalesced to form who we are today. Even small events–seemingly insignificant at the time–may lead to new ideas, new inspiration, or new connections, a ripple effect that amplify the impact of the original incidence beyond any reach of imagination. Such is the beauty and complexity of life. What this means, then, is that if one of the ingredients were to be removed, our lives could have turned out profoundly different. Let me give an example from my own life.

I’ve spoken at length about my love for the LeaderShape program and how it changed my life. Without LeaderShape, I probably wouldn’t be complaining about how our higher education system is failing or why the widening income disparity is not okay. I would have just been the person who thrived in this current socioeconomic system, not asking too many questions and not protesting against it. I still shudder at this thought. So how did I get to LeaderShape? Let’s trace it back.

I first heard about LeaderShape from Circle K–no, not the convenient store, the other Circle K, a service organization that I got involved with during my time at Michigan. How did I get involved in Circle K? Well, I first signed up for it during Festifall, an event organized to bring together all of Michigan’s student organizations in one day. Without Festifall, there may not have been LeaderShape in my life. So this event put on by Michigan’s Center for Campus Involvement turned out to have a larger impact on my life than it seemed at that time–more than it was designed to do perhaps. But wait! Let’s go further back.

To get to Festifall, I would have to first be at Michigan. How did I get to Michigan? It wouldn’t have been possible without a scholarship. Now here’s where it gets interesting. I took the scholarship test once in 2007 and didn’t make the cut. I could try to take the test again the next year, but I thought the test was impossible and did not want to do it again, especially since I would have to fly back from Singapore, where I was studying at the time, to take it. Furthermore, the test date was during my school’s examination period too. So despite my mom’s insistence, I decided not to come back. But this was not the end.

What happened in 2008 was just… mind boggling, to say the least. Thailand was bogged down by political unrest at that time, and the testing date was right in the middle of the heat of the crisis. Transportation systems were disrupted, and many people would have been unable to travel to the test site. So they decided to postpone the test for a few weeks! My mom again insisted for me to come back, and I relented this time.  I took the test, and with luck and grace, haven’t looked back.

So my participation at LeaderShape could have also been attributed to my mom, who both found this opportunity for me and forced me to take it (mother knows best!), or the political unrest in Thailand. I could go further back in my life’s history, but you get the point. Many things could have gone differently. I could have not listened to my mom. The political unrest could have come at a different time. Or I could have just simply decided not to go to LeaderShape, which, mind you, was almost the case. Right before LeaderShape, I was having an especially unhappy time questioning myself repeatedly why I wasn’t happy. I was trapped in a mundane life, and I thought no program could answer that question for me. It turned out I was wrong.

Anyway, my point is that any single event in one’s life is a convergence of many other countless occurrences. If LeaderShape is important to me, then Circle K, my mom, and even the political unrest, are all important too.

My two biggest takeaways are:
– Since you really can’t know what impact you may have at any given moment, then you should always put your true self forward.
–  We tend to celebrate only the change agents who have a visible impact, but not the people or events that made the change agent possible. It’s time we give more credit to those behind the scenes. This is why I’ve given a lot of thought to teaching. A great teacher’s impact can be amplified a thousand times.

Linking this back to my earlier post We do not all have to shine, I’m trying hard to change the way I approach impact creation and meaning-making in my life. It shouldn’t be all about finding a way to create another big bang. What it should be is an honest and compassionate life that’s true to my values. And if you know me, I’d have to sprinkle in some passion and stubbornness too 🙂

Next up: I’m still playing around with this idea that we have to redefine impact. Lately, when I watch movies I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who helped to shape the protagonists. What would Stephen Hawking be like without Jane Wilde? Solomon Northrop without Samuel Bass? What about Hazel Grace without her mom? Or even Tony Stark without Pepper Potts?

Examples of meaningful impact are everywhere, but in my own narrow lens, I refused to see them.

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We do not all have to shine

In an op-ed column by David Brooks in the New York Times entitled The Small, Happy Life, there’s a line that struck a chord so deep within my heart:

Elizabeth Young once heard the story of a man who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man, Young wrote, “was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ [emphasis mine] This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared.”

Every time I reread this phrase, the sound of it still sends waves through my brain like someone hitting a small bell inside my head.

We do not all have to shine.

Sure, some people may have differing ideas of what it means to shine. To you, it may be as simple as being compassionate to those around you. However, I’ve always taken a more macroscopic view of ‘shining.’  Shining means making a palpable difference in the world. It means doing something meaningful that would change the world forever. This restrictive view of shining has haunted me since I can remember. So the phrase “we do not all have to shine” is almost a slap in the face that’s saying to me “Wake up! It’s okay to be small!”

I suspect this is a struggle shared by only a few of my fellow inhabitants of our beautiful but fragile planet. My urgency and insistence that we have to shine is partly influenced by my Buddhist uprising, and the rate at which our habitat is degrading. There is much work to be done. We need more passionate and committed individuals to step up and reverse the ecological moral decline that’s plagued the 21st century. Accepting that it’s okay not to shine, in my interpretation, is like a resignation, an admission that I cannot make a difference, or an irresponsibility, a belief that the world’s problem is not my own.

So far, my thought process has been especially toxic to myself. I am especially hard on myself for not being able to do better. I feel like a burden, taking up our planet’s resources without giving anything meaningful in return. I’m especially adamant about this last point. Some people view it as their birthright to be able to utilize the earth’s resources without restraint. This is selfish and irresponsible, and a topic for a later post (What do you owe to the country? What do you owe to the planet?)

With all this said, I must also question why I want my impact to be felt on a global scale. To say that it is out of pure altruism is not quite valid; there is definitely an element of ego involved. I wonder if it’s the same for the high-achieving individuals who work in the social change field. Are they truly selfless? Or are they too partially motivated by a desire for validation? Viewed this way, the idea of “we all don’t have to shine” becomes no longer black-and-white.

I’m a firm believer that there is a plan for us all, and that plan doesn’t necessary involve us becoming famous. After all, shining is not a synonym of fame. As I probe this idea further, another thought is circling around my mind: It’s NOT okay not to shine, and it’s not okay to stop trying. What I’ve been wrong about is what shining can be. Impact can be defined in different ways. It doesn’t have to be big; it just have to be meaningful. I’ve given a lot of thought to the idea of ‘indirect impact’, and how one small impact event can shake up a whole system–a topic of my next post.

Now I just have to convince myself of this thought.

PS I’m back!!! After a long absence, I finally forced myself to write this post. It’s funny how you have to work really hard to make yourself do something you know would be laborious but ultimately enjoyable. These blog posts are pretty taxing on my brain, but they help me process ideas and find answers to my own big questions. So thank you to those who read my blog or encourage me to continue to write!