• How to live a meaningful life: Making a difference

    June 23, 2017 | curtrosengren
  • Do you want to make more of a difference in your life? Do you feel called to make an impact, but you’re not sure how? Read on!

    In this series, I’m looking at some of the wide range of ways people find meaning in their lives. Today I want to examine one of the most common meaning sources – making a difference.

    I’m of the firm belief that we each have the potential to make an infinitely greater impact with our lives than most of us do. In this post, I take a look at how to weave making a difference more deeply into how you live your life.

    Ripple Legacy

    I want to start off with a simple yet powerful reframe of the idea of leaving a legacy.

    So often when people talk about leaving a legacy, what they’re really saying is, “I want to be remembered.” I call that “Ego Legacy” thinking. But the cold, hard truth for 99.999% of us is that we’ll be remembered for a couple generations at best. And that’s usually just family members.

    If we rely on an Ego Legacy to give our existence meaning…well, we’re pretty much screwed.

    The good news is that there’s a much more realistic way of thinking about leaving a legacy. I call it leaving a “Ripple Legacy.”

    Your Ripple Legacy is the cumulative impact – both immediate and ongoing – of the choices you make and actions you take throughout your entire life.

    It doesn’t come just from the school you funded for girls in a developing country, or the volunteer work you do feeding the homeless. Your Ripple Legacy is created by your everyday life, day-by-day, minute-by-minute.

    It includes the more dramatic and obvious things like funding that school or volunteering. But it also comes from the small things, like a offering genuine out-of-the-blue compliment, or smiling at someone, or stopping to talk with a homeless person, treating them like an equal.

    Now, you might be tempted to say, “I’ll figure out how to leave a Ripple Legacy when I have more time.” But you don’t have a choice. You’re already leaving one. You add to it – with positive ripples or negative ripples – every single day.

    So it’s not a question of when you are going to create your Ripple Legacy. You have been doing that your entire life. It’s a question of how conscious you choose to be about tipping the balance of that Ripple Legacy in a positive direction.

    Eight ways to make a difference

    There are a bazillion or so ways you can make a difference in your life. So when it comes to exploring how to more consciously create your Ripple Legacy, it can feel a little overwhelming.

    I find it can help to boil things down to some basic broad categories so we can both do a check-in on how those things are currently showing up in our lives (a Ripple Audit, if you will) and generate ideas for doing more.

    Here are eight ways you can make a difference. Note that I didn’t say eight ways you should make a difference. I’m simply laying out a map to help you explore the possibilities.

    I. Your work

    This might be doing work that is actively about doing good in the world (e.g., a social worker or a teacher). Or it might be about working with an organization that is focused on making the world a better place (e.g., a non-profit aimed at bringing education to at-risk kids, or a company with a social entrepreneurial focus).

    II. Service

    This entails formal service like volunteering and informal service like running to the store for your neighbor when she’s sick and stuck in bed.

    III. How you put your money to use

    Traditionally this was about charitable giving, but these days we can take advantage of a wide range of ways to put our money to use, like socially responsible investing, microcredit loans, and socially aware purchasing.

    IV. Material giving

    Giving isn’t just limited to money. Whether it’s keeping a care pack in the car to give to that homeless guy on the corner, giving someone a book you think would help them, or buying a young person just moving into her own place some household basics to get her started, the possibilities for material giving are endless.

    V. Consumption and conservation

    You don’t get to hang out here on this planet without leaving some kind of footprint. Being alive requires that you consume. But you can be conscious of what kind of footprint you leave. This is about being aware of the impact how you both consume and conserve has. What impact does it have on the people around you? On the community? People half-way around the world? The environment?

    VI. Interactions with others

    This is possibly the most powerful and impactful way we make a difference because for most of us, it’s how we spend our days. We can create positive ripples with the way we engage.

    That could be deep and long-lasting, like the way we raise our kids. Or it could be briefer, like holding space for a friend going through a challenging time. Or it could be entirely fleeting, like flashing someone a smile, giving someone an authentic compliment, or stopping to talk to a homeless woman like she’s an equal.

    VII. Energy

    This includes more subtle level impact like energy work and the energy we bring to our interactions.

    VIII. Serendipity

    I include this one simply to round out the picture of how we make a difference. This one is essentially having a positive impact by accident.

    For example, let’s say you and I are having coffee, and you giving me advice on a problem I’m having. Coincidentally, the guy at the next table is having a similar problem, happens to overhear your advice, and puts it to use in his own life. Or a co-worker sees the way you resolve a conflict, learns from that, and applies that approach successfully when she experiences a conflict the next week.

    Taken together, the first seven proactive ways of making the world a better place offer a template to explore:

    • How am I making a difference in each of these areas?


    • How could I make a difference in each of these areas?


    • How do I want to make a difference in each of these areas?

    We each leave SO much potential to make a positive impact on the table. Not because we’re not interested, but because we don’t notice the possibilities. Looking through the lens of the first seven ways of making a difference gives us a starting point for more consciously creating our Ripple Legacy.

    What plugs you in?

    If you’re trying to get more clarity around how to spend your time, energy, and effort to work to make a difference, keep in mind this simple question: “What plugs me in?”

    Sometimes people get caught up in focusing their energy on what they “should” be doing. That should might come from themselves (“Intellectually, this feels like the most important issue”), our culture (these are the things our society reinforces as important or admirable to work with), or the expectations of people close to us.

    While any good is worth doing, if you want to maximize both the positive impact of doing good on your own life and the long-term sustainability of your efforts, it’s worth asking what feels most energizing to you. What do you feel called to? What inspires you? Where do you feel an irresistible pull?

    Everybody is different. Everyone feels called to different things. Making the choice to focus your efforts in an area that energizes and inspires you is a way to bring out the most of your own potential.

    Finding your focus

    One of the common myths that creates frustration and gets in the way of reaping the full benefit of the good we do is the feeling that we’re supposed to figure out “what we’re here to do.”

    More specifically, the trouble comes up when we try to figure it out and we don’t experience an epiphany. We don’t get that aha moment. And we mistakenly think we’re somehow flawed as a result.

    The reality is that it tends to be more of a process of evolution than a blinding flash of insight. It’s more accurate to think of it as something that percolates to the surface over time you explore and experiment.

    One place to start is by just sifting through some broad areas of possibility to notice what jumps out. What speaks to you? What does your heart say yes to? As you start zeroing in on that, you have a more focused – though still broad – area to direct your efforts and attention.

    I recently wrote a post over on the Ripple Revolution blog aimed at giving you a jumpstart on your exploration of the difference you feel called to make.

    Everyday difference-making

    Finally, I think one of the most powerful ways we can maximize the positive impact we can have is to jettison the idea that making a difference occupies an isolated silo in our lives. Instead of assigning it to the “volunteer time” on our calendar, we can start weaving it into the way we live our lives, day in and day out.

    To reinforce that, here are some questions I encourage you to ask on a regular basis:

    • How can I leave this situation better than I found it?
    • How can I leave this person feeling better because of this interaction?
    • How can I add joy to this situation?
    • How can I help this person?
    • Who needs my help? How can I help them?
    • What effect will ______ (whatever choice or action you’re considering) have on _______?
    • What one thing can I do today to make the world a little bit better?
    • In the morning: What opportunity can I notice today to create a positive ripple?
    • In the evening: Is there any opportunity to make a positive ripple coming up tomorrow?

    You might even print this list out in a form small enough that you can cut it out and put it in your wallet as a reminder, perhaps folding it around a debit or credit card you use often so you notice it regularly.

    Part of creating your Ripple Legacy is creating a habit of both recognizing and acting on those opportunities to create positive ripples. With that in mind, it can be helpful to start training your brain with an end-of-day review.

    At the end of each day, look back and ask, “What ripples did I create today?” Follow that up with, “What ripples could I have created today?” The purpose of the second one isn’t to beat yourself up for the opportunities you didn’t capitalize on. It’s simply to condition your mind to recognize those opportunities more readily in the moment. You can’t act on opportunities you don’t notice.

    Your life is jam packed with opportunities to move the needle in a positive direction. All it takes is awareness and the willingness to act.

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