I know you care about something: a person, a place or an idea. I also know that, whatever it is you care about, you want to help that thing. You prefer to be of use and to act in service of that friend or concept, rather than against it. These two points together mean that some actions serve you more than others: the more aligned your cares and actions, the bigger the difference you make. You don’t need to candy-stripe or be nice to your strange uncle (or his weird kids): to make a difference you simply need to question the value of what you’re doing and do something about your answers.
The ego vs. things that matter
We rarely need big things. As soon as someone starts talking about changing the world or radically reinventing something odds are good he’s talking from his ego, not his heart. Unless he’s working on bringing safety to the scared, health to the sick, or opportunity to the poor, the reinvention serves a want (or an ego), not a need. Technology has diminishing returns when it comes to difference making. Look back at the thing you care about: your friend, your family, your favorite pair of underwear, the idea of free thought, whatever it is. Now think of the last thing you made or the last hour or day you lived. Now, the one before that. What impact did they have on the things you hold most high? Was the reason you did or did not make a difference soley dependent on a technology?
Progress may be infinite, sure, but in our time (and perhaps class, and country) progress isn’t as dependent on technology as it used to be: now it’s the use of technology that matters more than technology itself. The glaring need for progress is in what we send over the pipes, and not the pipes themselves. Since the telegraph we’ve been sending most bits to most places: where we’re behind is in the quality of what we send each other. For example, here’s some difference making problems whose solutions are not dependent on recent technological advances:
- You don’t know your neighbors.
- Its been ages since you helped someone just because they needed it.
- Your spouse thinks you smell funny.
- You haven’t spoken to good friends in months.
- You’re unhappy, burnt-out or bored with your life.
- You’ve fallen and can’t get up (oh wait)
Everyone I know who has designed something millions of people use, a radically successful product or website, has trouble connecting that accomplishment with difference making. It’s often their first answer, but one they quickly abandon. Instead, they talk about other things: helping friends, sharing advice with someone who needed it, standing up for something they thought was right despite the consequences, helping a friend, or better yet a stranger, laugh at a bad day.
It’s these seemingly small things that have little to do with a particular technology, or science, or business that stand out as most memorable. We can all remember times when someone did something for us that mattered and it’s always these human things. Simple behaviors. Actions not heavily bound by technology. Surprising acts of people not being heartless. So why do we forget that it is these things, not tools and toys, that hold the essence of making a difference?
On my last day at Microsoft I was invited (thanks to Surya Vanka) to do a last lecture. It was a wonderful event and I talked about important things to a friendly crowd. Afterwards, a peer I respected but didn’t know walked my way. He thanked me for the work I’d done. I asked why he’d never said anything before. He told me (get this) he thought I already knew. He figured I probably heard that sort of thing all the time. In essence, he didn’t want to annoy me with praise. Annoy me with praise! Is there a more absurd phrase in the English language?
It made me think how many times I’d seen or read things that mattered to me and how rare it was I’d offered any praise in return.
Books that I loved (or read dozens of times), lectures I enjoyed, good advice I’d recieved, that I’d never thanked the person for. Or never made an effort to champion their work to others. Dozens of people who who said honest things that changed me for the better, or who stuck up for me when others didn’t, who never learned the value their words had. I recognized an infinity of actions that made a difference to me that I had not acknowledged in any way and I was poisoned by it. I was less than the man who’d thanked me on my way out of the company. He did something about what mattered to him. He walked straight up, looked me in the eye, and offered his thanks, something, I realized, I didn’t know how to do.
These little forgotten things, a short e-mail, A comment on a website, A handshake and a thank you, were not things I’d ever learned. And I realized, in my twisted little attic of a mind, in a hidden dark corner covered in dust, was the belief that offering praise in those contexts was a lessening of my self-opinion. That to compliment was to admit a kind of failure in myself: an association between those kinds of praise and sycophancy. I know now what a fool I’ve been, for it takes a better man to acknowledge goodness in others than it does to merely be good oneself. Anyone can criticize or accept praise, but initiating a positive exchange is a hallmark of a difference maker.
The gift of time
I buy more things than I make. I used to think it was a sign of some kind of capitalistic progress to be able to buy food and gifts instead of making them myself, but I’m not sure anymore. When it comes to difference making there is a different trend line. Money can come and go, but my time on this planet is finite. How I spend my time, or who I spend it with means more than anything else in my universe. From at least the selfish view, giving my time is the most valuable gift I can give.
So when it comes to whatever it is I care about, I have to ask myself how much of my time, the ultimate commodity, I give to it. An hour a day? A day a week? A week a year? How many of my remaining minutes on this curious little planet will I invest in what matters most to me? How many things are there that I claim to care about, but haven’t spent time on in years? decades? Ever?
And if some of the things I care most about are people, I have to ask how I can best use my time to be of the most use to their time. Maybe instead of that boxed set of CDs, something nice but not particularly personal, I can make them dinner at my home: give them the gift of shared time. Or perhaps a night at the theater for them and their spouse (sans me). How about a babysitter for a day, or a gift certificate for an hour of my time to do whatever they ask me to do (including volunteering me wherever they want). Money and things sure are nice but there is always a simpler more personal way, that if done well, makes the largest possible difference.
The existential drive
If we believe in what we care about, the burden is on us to find ways to reward those who provide it. It doesn’t matter how small the scale is: it’s our scale. If all I have in rewards is a thank you, then that’s 100% of what I can give. If I get good service at a bar, I can write a sweet note on the check about how great her service was. If I can’t spare the cash for a beaucoup tip I can spare 15 seconds, some thoughtful words and some ink. Or I can look them in the eye and tell them they gave me the best service I’d had all day (an award, btw, it’s possible to give daily). There’s always some way I can reinforce the things that matter to me in the universe, and I’m the only one that can do it. And if they don’t accept my praise and rewards, or if it means less to them than it does to me, that’s fine. It still keeps my cares and behaviors consistent with each other. I can look someone, or myself, in the eye and say “I am who I think I am.”
But odds are good that acts of self-integrity are significant to others. If an independent musician makes a CD that’s heard by 5000 people, maybe 2500 will listen to more than a few songs, and 30% of those find one song they really like, and 10% of those will bother to tell anyone about it, maybe 1% of the whole pile ever gives any feedback to the person who made the thing in the first place. The result? Of the 5000 people who consumed what was made, a total of 7 people will return something to the originator. That’s less than 1%. A little thank you note may have real power, especially if I don’t come off as a weirdo (e.g. avoiding phrases like “I want to live forever in your pants!” and “Here’s 75,214 pictures of the daily shrine I pray to naked in your honor”) and have thoughtful things to say about how their work was of use, or made a difference.
I’m pledging to myself, and to any of you that have read this far, that I’m going to thank people who do things I value (For starters, thanks for reading). I’ll leave funny thank you notes, buy them annonymous flowers, shake their hand and look ’em in the eye, tell others of their work, and acknoweldge the difference they’ve made for me and I’ll try to do the same for others.
None of what I’ve written may matter to you, but I hope you’ll consider what does and do something about it.
- Volunteer match: An easy way to difference making is to go find people who need help. This is a dating service type thing for matching volunteers to things that need them, searchable by zip code.
- Make a difference day: What do you know: a whole day where people try to do stuff they think matters. I just wish there was a day like this, but with less goody-two-shoes polish, something aimed at getting sarcastic wise-ass people like myself to volunteer (finger on nose).
- The myth of Sisyphus, Camus. I can’t entirely explain why but this is the unit of existential philosophy I go return to (Camus is to Satre, as cheesecake is to flan).
- What should I do with my life?, by Po Bronson. This is the only what should I do book I’ve found that centers on real people’s stories: some happy, some sad, some confused, but since they’re all asking “what should I do” it’s more powerful and real than any prescriptive book.
Date published January 15, 2015 by Shane Bryson. Date updated: September 17, 2015
Barring the obvious answer (to get a degree), in answering this question we need first to ask, what distinguishes an essay from any other form of writing? Most people will have strong intuitions that newspaper articles, scientific reports, and short stories, for example, are not forms of essay, but it might be hard to distinguish exactly why these don’t count as essays.
The difference lies in the stance a writer takes in composing an essay and the kind of thing that an essayist tries to do. We find a clue to the distinction in the general definition of the word “essay”: as a verb it means “to try,” and my dictionary of literary terms calls its noun form “a composition having no pretensions to completeness or thoroughness of treatment” and says that the “chief implication of the term is ‘a tentative study.’”
Essays try to provide an understanding of things that are essentially matters of interpretation, where the prospect of the final word on a subject is remote. In contrast, scientific reports try to describe something that happened (an experiment), and they are supposed to be minimally interpretive and nearly indisputable. Newspaper articles are similar in this way, presenting the facts and just the facts (at least in theory).
But something else must distinguish the essay form, since fictional narratives such as short stories also in some ways present a tentative study of things,. These two forms usually differ in content and aim. Narratives tell stories about how events unfold for characters and usually try to make us feel a certain way. Essays are closer to scientific reports in that their purpose is to tell us, most often explicitly, about the way we ought to understand something.
In sum, whereas a scientific report aspires to be indisputable, an essay strives to give a convincing interpretation of something (and interpretation is by definition disputable). Whereas a short story aims to make us feel, an essay intends to make us think.
Finally, a scientist is supposed to be inessential to her experiment and report; anyone should be able to perform the experiments, get the results, and record them in much the same way. A fiction writer relates to her writing in the opposite way; the story is fundamentally changed when told by anyone else. The essayist, again, falls somewhere between these two extremes. An essay’s argument should be convincing no matter who authors it—the logic of the argument should stand independent of the author—but an essay is also always an expression of the essayist’s opinion, which is by definition not objective fact.
In short, the essayist writes to communicate her opinion on a subject in order to convince her audience to take up this opinion. This is what makes an essay.
Academic essays, in particular, are characterised by a certain standard and approach.
essay. 1960. In S. Barnet, M. Berman, & W. Burto (Eds.), A dictionary of literary terms (pp. 39-40). Toronto, ON: Little, Brown.
Overview of academic essays