To truly make a difference, you don't need to make a splash: A single drop is enough to cause ripples
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help you. Your book is great. In fact, I love it. Your writing style is really good. But you don’t have social media following or a substantial email list.” This is what a publisher told an acquaintance of mine when she pitched her book. Another acquaintance was turned down to be an affiliate marketer by an online course provider because they required at least 250,000 followers and a website with “very good” traffic for her to qualify.
These are just a couple of examples of how social media has shifted the way we’re seen and treated these days. In both cases, they were explicitly saying, “Without the numbers, you are worthless to us.” Through the social media lens, our worth is only as much as the number of followers we have or the size of our email list; the number of pageviews, impressions and clicks; and all the other vanity metrics that people seem to care a great deal about nowadays. So, if you’re not an influencer, forget about it.
In the meantime, while many people strive to be the next Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian or PewDiePie, those who truly want to make a difference in the world get caught up in the crossfire and are measured by the same vanity-metrics yardstick. Those numbers translate to money, after all.
“The commodity at stake is embodied attention; the value of the celebrity inheres in his or her capacity to attract and mobilize attention, which is then typically attached to other products (a television show, a magazine cover, a record album) or sold for cash directly to people making those other products,” wrote Joshua Gamson in The Unwatched Life Is Not Worth Living: The Elevation of the Ordinary in Celebrity Culture.
Let me count the ways…not the stats or the dollars
We all have to put food on the table, I get it. You don’t have to tell me that twice. And who wouldn’t want to make money making a difference in other people’s lives? Sounds like a win-win situation to me. The question is, where do we draw the line? One might say, “I just want to make enough money.” But how much money is enough? And regardless of how much money you have, the million-dollar question is, are you still going to do what you want to do if you’re not earning a cent from it?
One statement that impacted me was from a man flipping burgers in a television show who said, “I love what I do so much, I’ll do it for free.” There’s someone who was probably earning minimum wage and most likely can’t afford not to get paid for what he’s doing yet willing to give up the small amount he earns from it if they would just let him keep doing it. Whatever happened to that kind of passion? But then again, even if you have it, you won’t likely get much support anyway if you don’t have enough followers or subscribers.
There’s this young couple I know who are spiritual teachers. They create tons of free content on their website. They thought no one was interested in what they were producing because they were not getting any comments or any type of “visible” engagement. One day, they went to India for a retreat and were surprised that people there recognized them from their videos and expressed how their free stuff online had helped them.
Not everyone clicks the heart button or leaves a comment on what they’ve just read or watched. I happen to be one of those people. Of all the content I consume online, I would estimate those with which I actively engage to be less than 10 percent. But it doesn’t mean that I didn’t like or enjoy what I viewed or read. I simply do not feel inclined to do it. I’ve also read many books, stories and articles that affected me deeply but none of those authors and writers would probably ever know that.
Matter to somebody, not everybody
If you truly, truly would like to make a difference, numbers shouldn’t matter. Of course, we all probably would like to impact as many lives as possible, but why can’t we start with one? Why don’t we aim for a single powerful impact to start with instead of shooting for many but shallow, forgettable ones? Do you care about how deep of an impact you’re making? Or are you okay to merely scratch the surface as long as the numbers are going up? And even if your numbers are low, if you touched at least one life, shouldn’t that already matter?
Just because you don’t get the “digits,” it doesn’t mean that your work is not touching someone’s life. I used to be hung up on the numbers, too, until I asked myself, What’s it all really about anyway? What does matter to me? As I looked at the engagement of influencers and gurus out there, most of them are words of adulation: “I love your posts,” or “You’re so great.” Who wouldn’t want such validation? It’s freakin’ awesome, isn’t it? But how is that making a difference?
You will also see comments like, “This really inspired me.” Inspired to do what? Did it actually transform their life? Did it make them spring into action to make a change or help someone who needed it?
But when I’d come across that very rare comment that says, “Thank you, I really needed to hear that today.” I found my answer. That, for me, is what it’s about. That’s what really matters.
It gives me real joy when someone—after reading one of my stories somewhere—takes the time to go to my website to leave a comment or send me a message letting me know that it prompted them to make the change that they’ve been hesitating to make for a long time. I want my stories—my words—to matter to someone in such a way that they led that one person to actually do what they needed to do to better their Self or their life, or help get them out of a dark place and keep moving forward.
When I was still in the corporate world, I once hired a writer for a six-month gig to help my team through an extremely busy period. He was a 27-year-old man who was incredibly smart but unbelievably anxious. Everyone advised against hiring him, but I did anyway. They all just saw his sweaty nervousness and lack of “PR skills” but I saw a brilliant person who is just different from everyone else and didn’t fit the mold.
During our daily interaction, I looked for his ambitions but I found none. I learned that his goal was to work 2-3 times a week. “That would be enough for my girlfriend and I to live on,” he explained. Later, I discovered that he wanted this because he would rather spend most of his days volunteering at nursing homes. “Since I’m working five days a week now, I can only do it on Saturdays,” he lamented.
Despite his intelligence and high education, having a job is merely a means to an end to him—to sustain himself and his partner so he could do what he really wants to do, which is to help take care of those who could no longer look after themselves and have been abandoned by their families. And he didn’t give a rat’s a** about social media either.
As much as I would like to claim that I made a difference in his life, it was actually the other way around. I didn’t realize it at that time and I doubt that he will ever find out how he changed my perspective in life years after we spoke to each other last. He showed me that making a difference has nothing to do with money or the number of people you reach. And every time I get caught up in those things, I think of him—a self-effacing man making a real difference in people’s lives, including mine. And he didn’t do it by making a splash but by creating ripples with one single drop at a time.