A few weeks back, I sent out a survey–thank you so much to the nearly 1,000 of you who filled it out. In it, I asked what stands in the way of your feeling like your efforts make a difference to your own life and the world around you. Many people said they felt they just couldn’t make a difference given the scale of the world problems. Here is a short extract from my upcoming book How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness that Helps the World, due out on January 5, 2016 (you can pre-order it here), that I think might help…
Learn to Limit Your Concern to Your Sphere of Influence
During talks I’ve given around the world, people have said: I am such a tiny cog in such a gigantic machine. What is the point of my doing anything? The thing is, if you worry about the gigantic machine instead of fixing the small cog, nothing at all gets done. When your concern ranges beyond the things you can control, your influence shrinks to zero.
Consider this parable:
One day, a man went to the beach and saw that a storm had washed thousands of starfish onto the sand. They baked in the sun and began to die. The man wished he could help, but he became overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. How could he possibly save all these thousands of starfish? With a sad heart, he turned to leave.
Just then, a little girl arrived. She took in the devastating scene and walked toward the nearest dying starfish. She picked it up, carried it to the water, and dropped it in. Then she picked up the next nearest starfish, and the next, and the next. The man watched her for a moment, thinking about how trying to save all the starfish was futile.
Finally, he walked up to her. He said, “Little girl, there are thousands of starfish dying on this beach. You can’t possibly make a difference.”
She paused for a minute, looked confused, and then said, “Tell that to the one I just threw in the water.” She carried on with her work. After a moment, the man joined in. As the day progressed, more and more people arrived at the beach and, seeing what the little girl and the man were doing, they joined in, too. By the time the day was over, many hundreds of the starfish were saved.
In the beginning of the story, the man allowed his area of concern to stretch beyond his area of influence and thus paralyzed himself. On the other hand, the girl restricted her area of concern to her area of influence, and her area of influence actually grew because her efforts encouraged so many others.
In real life, in 1997, my friend Julia Butterfly Hill climbed into the branches of a 180-foot-tall, 1,500-year-old redwood tree in northern California and began living on a platform at its top to stop loggers from chopping it down. Julia ended up living in the tree for 738 days—more than two years. By the time she came down, the loggers had felled all the trees around her. She was able to secure an agreement from the logging company to save only the one tree and those within 200 feet of it.
In the years since, Julia has spoken to crowds totaling in the hundreds of thousands. She has given thousands of press interviews, had books written and movies made about her, and inspired many thousands of people to join the environmental movement. Like the little girl with the starfish, by limiting her area of concern to the one tree she could help, Julia has inspired others to save millions of trees.
PS What tricks do you have for helping yourself feel your efforts make a difference? I’d love to hear your thoughts and so would everyone else. Please tell us in the comments below.
PPS If you want more tips for reducing feelings of futility, read my blog post Ten Ways to Overcome Futility (About Life, Climate or Anything Else).
PPPS I’ll be making announcements about how you can pre-order How to Be Alive soon, and I’ll also be offering a free How to Be Alive Workbook. Stay tuned.