Some days it’s easy to undermine our impact in this world, especially when we’re just one person living in a world of 7 billion people.
Yet, each and everyone of us has an impact on the world by virtue of living in it. Even when we think that we’re just quietly living out our life and being inconsequential to others, we are very much still impacting others by virtue of our existence and the things we do.
Take for example, a smoker. A smoker smokes, and when he does, he fills the air with cigarette smoke. Whether he intends to or not, this cigarette smoke will drift and be inhaled by the people nearby. By virtue of this person’s decision to smoke there and then, he inconveniences others by causing them to breathe in pollutants, especially those with asthma and non-smokers. And passive smoking is bad — cigarette smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals, including hundreds that are toxic and about 70 that can cause cancer. According to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), there is no risk-free level of passive smoking; even brief exposure can be harmful to health. Since 1964, approximately 2.5 million non-smokers have died from health problems caused by exposure to second-hand smoke.
Another example is callous people. I’m sure all of us have had encounters with rude people before, where someone said or did certain things caused us to feel bad long after. A while back while I was doing the hugging challenge for my Soul Sisters documentary feature, I encountered this lady, probably in her late 30s, who was rude, even scornful, to me. When I asked her if I could give her a hug, she folded her hands, smirked, and looked away. While her friends gamely took up the challenge and returned the hug, she looked away the whole time, tapping her feet, smirking, and rolling her eyes. While it’s fine to reject a hug, I didn’t understand why she had to do it in such a belittling way. A simple, “No thank you, not today” or even a “No it’s okay” would have sufficed, which was something someone else said to me. While I doubt she even remembers my existence, the impact of her dismissive attitude lingers in my mind, surfacing at times when I think about rude encounters.
Clearly, it’s not difficult to create an impact. You can live your life recklessly and impact the people around you. You can also be an asswipe and impact others that way too.
Yet, the examples I shared above are of negative impact. Something that creates detrimental value in others’ lives. For example,
- Being rude to someone, including support staff
- Denying one’s cry for help because we’re too wrapped up in our own problems
- Losing temper at our mom, dad, or partner for no good reason
- Making an insensitive remark
- Not delivering our work in a timely manner, hence impacting our co-workers and clients
- Abusing someone’s goodwill
- Repeatedly rescheduling a pre-agreed appointment especially at the last minute, without regard for others’ priorities and time
- Not delivering on a promise/agreement
- Even, writing insensitive comments on social media
For each negative instance, the action may seem small, probably something that we do without much thought. I know that I have been rude to others when I’m not conscious (usually when people are being very rude to me), and I would regret it thereafter. However, these actions have a negative impact on others, be it small or big. We may think that our promise to do X is small and hence ignore it, but to another person it may be really important and they may well be hinging their lives on it. We may not care that we have a deadline to deliver and hate our job, but this may implicate 3 other co-workers’ agendas and affect whether they can go home on time. We may pay little heed to someone’s offer to help us (and the effort it takes) and milk it for all it’s worth, even making regular changes and requests, but this time could be used to help someone else who better appreciates, values this offer.
But here I want to bring your attention to a different kind of impact: positive impact. Impact that makes a positive shift in others’ lives. Impact that makes a difference.
- Doing the right thing, even if it’s not the most popular or most profitable thing
- Acknowledging when you are in the wrong, which helps forward a discussion and relationship
- Extending a helping hand to someone in need, whether a beggar or a friend
- Voicing out injustice when you see it
- Being the better person and forgiving someone for their misdeeds
- Speaking up for a cause you believe in
A positive impact involves you starting to think outside of yourself, and about others. It involves having a heart for compassion. It also involves getting your head out of the matrices of today’s world — materialism, pop culture, luxury living, the race for wealth and riches, race for quick results, capitalism, profiteering, vanity, mindless marketing including that in the online world — and actually look at the world as it is, plus the people around you as people for a change, not milkable numbers or individuals to profit from.
I shared about Larry’s story before. Larry was one of my very first clients and he was 57 when we started our coaching in 2009, when I was just starting my coaching business. I still remember the very first email he sent me which said, “I’ve had a really charmed life — I’ve gone to my own beat and money has never been my passion. At the same time, I’ve lived in a comfort zone for much of my life. I feel it’s time I gave something back to humanity.”
Honestly, most people who are 57 are probably thinking about retirement and enjoying their golden years — and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’ve slogged decades away in a mind-numbing job and contributed to society, then you honestly deserve to enjoy your golden years in peace, something that is sadly missing in some countries as old people now need to clean toilets and tables until they die. But Larry is different from most people I know. He was (and still is) interested in being of service to the world, and he wanted to put his skills and faculties to good use, particularly through humanitarian work in developing countries.
Since then, he’s been in Peace Corps for the past 6 years, volunteering, teaching, and making an impact in the local communities. He’s 65 now. His first stint was 3 years long in the Philippines, and in the past 2 years he’s been based in China, helping the country meet its needs for trained workers/teachers and increasing its level of teaching and English. By the way, Larry is American and has never been to the Philippines or China (though he has traveled to/ worked in Japan/Singapore), so all these were totally new grounds to him. He had to learn Chinese and learn about the local culture to integrate into each community — it’s like being a student all over again, he says.
Recently he taught a 6-week English class to doctors who teach Chinese Medicine subjects. He also gave a talk to 100 university students, sharing his life as a foreigner living in different Asian countries.
As Larry tells me, the students he meets wonder why he isn’t retired, as Chinese citizens in their 60s should be (or anywhere around the world, really). Of course, Larry knows the answer: “To give something back to humanity” and “To continually learn and grow as a human being” — these are the purpose statements he set for himself years ago in our coaching sessions, and what he finds most meaningful. His work with Peace Corps today lets him do just that. (More about Larry here.)
While many kids around the world talk about hating school and not going to school, Malala Yousafzai, 19 and youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been busy fighting for women’s rights to education since the age of 11.
Born in Pakistan in 1997, Malala started speaking about education rights as early as 2008. At that time, Taliban militants were taking over her home district, banning TV, music, and women from going to school and even the market. Bodies of beheaded policemen would be hung in town squares. To the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, women are not allowed to work or study except study the Quran, their religious text. To them, the women’s role is to marry, have kids, care for the family, and satisfy male’s sexual needs.
Malala was outraged. She loves to study; she wants to study. “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” Malala spoke at a local press club, in a speech covered by national newspapers and TV channels.
In 2009, Taliban militants banned girls from school, claiming female education to be contrary to Islam. By then, they had blown up more than a hundred girls’ schools; after the ban they continued to destroy more schools.
Subsequently, Malala started to publicly advocate for female education on national and international media, at a time when people laid low out of fear of being targeted.
As Malala became more recognized, she started to get death threats. She was a sore thumb and her message ran counter to what the Taliban were trying to achieve. Letting her live would mean shaking their control and regime. So the Taliban leaders decided to get rid of her.
On October 9, 2012, Malala was attacked on the school bus, shot with one bullet through her head, neck, and shoulder. She was just 15 then. She was in a coma for a week and the doctors fought to save her. She subsequently came out of her coma and had to learn to speak and walk again. Her recovery, with no brain damage, was deemed a miracle.
After the attack, Malala said: “The Taliban shot me through the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends too. They thought the bullet would silence us. But they failed.” (U.N. Youth Assembly in 2013)
She speaks about education:
“I want to see every child to get quality education. And in order to make sure that dream comes true, we have to work hard. And we have to take action. […] We are raising our voice saying that not just primary education should be focused on, but both primary AND secondary education should be available to every single child.”
And at the 2015 Oslo Education Summit,
“The money to send each child to primary and secondary education for 12 years for free is already there. If the world leaders decide to take one week and a day off from war and military work, we can put every child in school. Books, not bullets, will pave the path towards peace and prosperity.“
Clearly, the ability to create impact doesn’t just start when you graduate or reach the age of 21. Malala leads an organization today called the Malala Fund which enables girls to complete safe, quality primary and secondary education so that they can “achieve their potential and be positive change-makers in their families and communities.” (More about the Malala Fund here.)
Check out Malala’s speech at the UN Youth Assembly in 2013 (she is 16 here):
Some of you may know Terry Fox (1958–1981), a Canadian athlete and cancer research activist. Terry Fox was 18 when he was diagnosed with bone cancer. When his right leg got amputated due to the spread of cancer, he decided to run across Canada, from the east coast all the way to the west coast, in hopes of raising money for cancer research. That’s a whooping 8,000 km / 5,000 miles in length, running on just one leg and an artificial right leg.
Why? Terry’s cancer experience made him realize the value of cancer research. While told that he had a 50% chance of survival (this was in 1977 when he was diagnosed), the doctors said that this figure would have been only 15% if it had been 2 years earlier. This was due to recent medical advances. Yet, his hospital experience made him angry at how little money had been dedicated to cancer research. If cancer research could help improve the survival and treatment success rate for people like him and young children who have cancer, shouldn’t more funds be put into it?
On April 12, 1980, Terry began his run. Every day, he ran a marathon (which is a whooping 42 km/ 26 miles). Every day. He would rise at 4am to run 19 km (12 miles), rest, and then run the remaining 23 km (14 miles) in the afternoon. Most of us don’t even run a marathon in our lifetime; here Terry Fox was running one marathon every single day, on one leg. His friend and brother drove closely behind in a van, to watch over him should anything happen. Despite gale force winds, pouring rain, spring snowstorms, and sweltering heat, nothing, not even the lack of a leg, stopped him from running.
Unfortunately, the physical demands of running a marathon every day, without rest, on only one leg, took its toll on Terry’s body.
Apart from the rest days in Montreal taken at the request of the Cancer Society, [Fox] refused to take a day off, even on his 22nd birthday. He frequently suffered shin splints and an inflamed knee. He developed cysts on his stump and experienced dizzy spells. At one point, he suffered a soreness in his ankle that would not go away. Although he feared he had developed a stress fracture, he ran for three more days before seeking medical attention, and was then relieved to learn it was tendonitis and could be treated with painkillers. Fox rejected calls for him to seek regular medical checkups, and dismissed suggestions he was risking his future health.
In spite of his immense recuperative capacity, Fox found that by late August he was exhausted before he began his day’s run. On September 1, outside Thunder Bay, he was forced to stop briefly after he suffered an intense coughing fit and experienced pains in his chest. Unsure what to do, he resumed running as the crowds along the highway shouted out their encouragement. A few miles later, short of breath and with continued chest pain, he asked Alward to drive him to a hospital. He feared immediately that he had run his last kilometer.
The next day, Fox held a tearful press conference during which he announced that his cancer had returned and spread to his lungs. He was forced to end his run after 143 days and 5,373 kilometres (3,339 mi).
Up until he was forced to stop, Terry had barely taken any days off, not even on his 22nd birthday, except for events that he believed would raise more money for cancer research.
Terry died on June 28, 1981 after a tough battle with cancer. He was 22. The Canadian government ordered flags across the country to fly at half mast, an unprecedented honor usually reserved for distinguished statesmen.
Terry brought Canada together in a way not seen in history. Donations poured in before and after his death and everyone prayed for his recovery while he was being treated. As the then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said, “It occurs very rarely in the life of a nation that the courageous spirit of one person unites all people in the celebration of his life and in the mourning of his death… We do not think of him as one who was defeated by misfortune but as one who inspired us with the example of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.”
By his death, Terry had raised over $24 million CAD, or $17.5 million USD. The Terry Fox Foundation was set up by his mom Betty Fox and has raised over $650 million CAD as of 2014. The Terry Fox Run, a non-competitive charity run, is held every year in commemoration of Terry’s vision and to raise funds for cancer research.
Since Terry’s death, the cure rate for bone sarcoma (the disease that Terry got) has increased dramatically from 50% up to almost 80% in younger patients and 70% in older patients. Most patients today don’t get amputations but limb-sparing or limb-reconstructive surgery. This can be said to be due to advances spurred by the millions raised in Terry’s name, along with people like Terry.
The impact that one person can have on the world cannot be underestimated. The examples above are just some of the changes that some people are making for humanity. Their impact cannot be quantified in ROI, GDP, or monetary terms unlike what many Silicon Valley businesses, money-centered nations, and online marketers/coaches try to brag about. Rather, this impact is an intangible on that is passed on to others, that uplifts people’s life, that’s improves our world and make it a better place.
The same can be said for scientists, researchers, cleaners, teachers, nurses, construction workers, caretakers, environmentalists, and activists (some of them), who are typically not the highest paid people in the world, yet their income in no way commensurates the kind of value they create for others and the world.
Perhaps you are already creating the impact you seek to make. Perhaps you don’t care about creating an impact living in this world. Perhaps you are more interested in your own development without caring about your impact on others.
Whatever it is, it doesn’t change the fact that you already have an impact on the world by virtue of living in it. Your actions today, tomorrow, and the day after all affect people one way or another. Your non-actions, similarly, affect others too, in more ways than you imagine.
What is it to you? What is the impact you want to create? Who are the people you want to change? And how can you make this change happen, starting today?