Why You Should Stop Obsessing About Making an Impact
Yesterday, I was walking in the rain to see off a friend who’s moving out of town. As I jumped over yet another puddle, my eyes rested on a poster.
It featured a picture of a young man in glasses, timidly gazing into the camera. Under the picture, it read:
Can you appreciate that routine means everything to Joe?
The poster was promoting carer jobs for working with people with autism. The message stroke me. I thought to myself: Yeah, actually, I can appreciate that.
Four years ago, I worked as a one-on-one support worker for people with autism, epilepsy and learning disabilities. I was making a difference in their everyday lives. I wasn’t yet trying to “make an impact” writing online. I wasn’t concerned about how many people I reached or how many views my articles were getting.
My impact was local, one-on-one and focused. I could almost touch the difference I made, that’s how tangible it was. Sometimes, I think back to those days with nostalgia.
Everything seemed simpler when I wasn’t trying to “change the world.”
Fast forward to today and I put a lot of pressure on myself. Being in the online writing business for over three years made me internalize beliefs that weren’t necessarily helpful.
I started writing from a place that was pure and honest. Getting started on that journey of chasing my dreams was easy because I had nothing to lose. Once I decided to write professionally, it felt like things could only get better.
I told myself I passed the point of no return. Once I started writing in public, there was no going back. Despite all ups and downs, I was slowly but steadily moving in the right direction.
All I needed was to persist and wait for the fruits of my work to ripen.
To some extent, that was true. Once the right decision is made, many aspects of the journey become clearer. There’s less questioning and going back and forth about what I should or shouldn’t be doing with my time. There’s clarity, joy and effortless momentum.
But one unexpected burden of creating stuff online was the pressure to make an impact. The notion of “helping the world by pursuing your dreams” seems to be sold in a lot of self-help packages. It comes as a default feature. Nobody questions whether that’s what you want or need.
To me, “making an impact” became a bit of an obsession. Additionally, it’s not just any impact that I want to make.
It needs to be one that’s most aligned with my values, most needed, and most profitable. The bestest of the best. It’s about living up to my full potential, solving the world’s most burning problems, reading my audience’s thoughts. You probably know the drill.
Appreciating that routine means everything to just one Joe doesn’t seem like enough. It feels like I should be able to reach hundreds, if not thousands or millions of Joes — and turn their lives around.
Why did this message about impact hit me so strongly on the dead? Why am I obsessing about it, instead of focusing on day-to-day work and loving the boring days? (credit for the phrase goes to Niklas Göke)
I suspect the notion that I could make an impact strokes my sense of self-importance. Because I still don’t love myself unconditionally, it sounds like an attractive promise to be recognized by the world in this way.
The idea of living the life of your dreams while helping the world is marketed as a noble one. It’s a pretty concept — at least in theory. But when it lands on the ears of someone who’s still insecure about their worth, it may become just another distraction.
The idea of making an impact plays to our egos. Telling yourself a story about how what you’re doing is critical for the world can make you feel better about yourself. That’s been my case in the past few years.
As I focused on the idea of impact more than on the actual work, this distracted me from my purpose. I started putting the accents in the wrong places. I starter masquerading my need for validation behind social media pictures and beautiful words that were supposedly “spreading my message.”
But that’s not the real work. For most of us, the real work is about Joe. That one Joe who lives in the neighbourhood and is looking for someone to appreciate his need for routine — ASAP.
I’m not trying to say that making a big impact in the world is impossible.
People do it. You may want to do it, too. And maybe you should go ahead.
What I’m saying is that, for some of us, the abstract idea of impact can become more absorbing than the actual work. We may immerse ourselves in the narrative that we’re doing something important — while we’re really just talking.
The brain often doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality. If you feed it with images of how important you (or your work) are, it’ll take it as truth.
This can make you feel good about yourself just for fantasizing about the impact you think you’re making. Then, it can take a while to wake up and see the work that needs to be done.
Usually, this work is right in front of you. Nextdoor, across the street, or on the other side of that email you’ve been dreading to reply. At first glance, it doesn’t look enticing at all. But when you start doing it, you may discover its rewards.
I figured it’s not worth it to fantasize about the riches and fame of someone who’s “making an impact.” Those kinds of fantasies mostly feed my tendencies for self-centredness. They make me feel better about myself — but these feelings don’t last.
That’s why I’ll try to focus on Joe again. At least, he’s here and he’s real. He can tell me whether I’m helping him or not.