I recently wrote a blog post that examined the nature of influence, leadership and contempt. It garnered a ton of feedback in the form of “If I don’t do [fill in the blank with whatever service you offer, positioned as the cause of someone else’s growth, change or decision], how do I make a difference? What’s the point?”
I think this is the juiciest of questions for those of us who work in service to others.
“Isn’t the difference I make evident in the changes she makes? In the decisions she acts on? In the relief of suffering she experiences? In the growth she undertakes?”
In a word, no. Those things are hers.
And it’s not that simple. Pulling apart your agency from hers is important work. It’s work that if undertaken can yield some very important results for your work and leadership. So let’s jump into what it means to “make a difference.”
Who gets to decide if you make a difference?
She does. She determines if you’ve made a difference and specifically what that difference is, if any. If she declares you’ve made a difference, then you know you’ve made a difference. If she doesn’t, then you didn’t, plain and simple.
“Make a difference” is in her, and it has nothing to do with you.
Nothing to do with you…did that sting? Did you think, “Hey now! It has something to do with me or it wouldn’t have happened.”?
Okay. Let’s play with this for a minute because there are three things going on: the nature of sovereignty, what people do with what you have, and a reliance on others.
The nature of sovereignty is that acts of the will are first cause. I decide. Not, I decide because. I decide. There’s no thing out there that has me do, be, or say anything. I decide.
It’s a pretty big intellectual leap, isn’t it? We are habituated to forsake our will in this world. To muffle it. To strangle it into submission. The idea that we are responsible for what we choose and there is no excuse out there is a big deal.
The idea that acts of the will are first cause connects directly to what people do with what you have and how it has nothing to do with you.
This is something I’m very familiar with—VERY familiar. I teach. I have a lot of resources for people. When I say something, such as projection is “putting someone else’s name on it” people hear all sorts of things, and mostly what they hear is nothing to do with what I said. What they hear is what they want. And what they want is different from what I said.
Do you see how it has nothing to do with me? What people do with what you have is theirs, not yours.
I know what I just said is hard to hear. My guess is that maybe, just maybe, the reason it’s hard to hear is that it points to your having a tiny little bit of reliance on others for feeling good about your work. That “feel good” that comes when we view others’ changes as a result of our action gives us a boost. It makes us feel like what we do matters.
Have you noticed that “feel good” is short lived? Have you noticed that you can feel just as bad when someone criticizes your work?
It’s because reliance on others to know if you’ve “made a difference” is a very tricky and troublesome path. It’s a path where your worth is determined outside of yourself.
That is not where you want to be if what you want is to lead, and most importantly if you want to serve others—and survive. You won’t. The world will chew you up and spit you out. It will feel like you’re hustling for the good and putting forth a tremendous effort to sidestep and manage the bad.
It’s unsustainable because your attention is a finite resource. You can manage perceptions of your work or you can manage your work. You can ride the ups and downs of others’ judgment or you can decide for yourself what it is you have to contribute.