A “ding in the universe” was what Steve Jobs called it. Most of us, despite the difficulty of making such an impact, find ourselves yearning to make a difference in the world. It is not a new desire, but it is finding new expression in business. Recently, a company conducted a study on a group of potential recruits that showed their highest employment aim was to “make a difference” in some way.
Many of us experience this deep and often unheeded desire to make some kind of positive contribution through our work. It is not enough to simply transact with an employer, to barter work effort for pay that can then be applied to deliver meaning outside of work. The revolution in hand-held technologies has stripped so many of the interstitial spaces out of our lives that many of us are “on” 24-7, literally, vacations included. It gets a bit relentless, at times, so it’s no wonder we start to demand that the work which occupies so much of our attention deliver far more than a mere paycheck. Though we are thankful for the income, money alone does not satisfy our search for meaning.
It is tempting to think that only the senior level leaders can really have material influence on the organizations where we work and seek to make a difference. Over the years I have had the privilege of working with and for more than a few of them myself and can report that the more honest among them sense how little influence they have, particularly in large organizations, so position is only one aspect determining scale of impact. Most of us, perhaps mercifully, will never end up with the burden of CEO-level decisions, but we must not underestimate our capacity to make a difference from whatever position in which we find ourselves. As one old text has it, “we bloom where we are planted.” Or, to corrupt another aphorism, we make our lemonade by seizing the best lemons we can find. One reader recently wrote and said: “I found it particularly inspiring that ‘you’ is not just someone with power in the corporate sense — anybody can affect the type of change necessary for a company to do good.” Each of us can find ourselves with opportunities to make an impact and to create meaning. We just have to keep showing up and taking the risk to look about us in the places where we find ourselves. My own search has, like that of so many others, been fraught with endless discouragements and setbacks, but remains well worthwhile.
“It is a good and timely idea,” intoned the publisher. “Go build an audience and we will gladly publish your book. Bring us 75,000 pageviews and 50,000 unique visitors and we can talk again.” She might as well have suggested that this novice climber go summit K2 as a warmup to Everest. In all likelihood, it wasn’t going to happen. But the message inside me burned bright and relentlessly. I could not put it down. I just had to find a way to let it out.
“Let’s just serialize it,” my friend and editor Jeremy suggested. I had been discouraged by the rejection of my carefully prepared book proposal. I had been so sure it was a winner that his enthusiastic alternative to mainstream publishing stung like salt in the wounds of rejection. All I had were a few rough notions, ill-formed ideas that still burned like hot coals in my imagination and yet seemed so far away from any possible real distribution. But Jeremy was persistent. He was editing a content platform for my long-time client Ogilvy & Mather and would welcome new material for the site – this site, as it turns out – if the content was good enough.
That was about three years ago, and through the mid-wifery of Jeremy and the ongoing support of first, Miles Young and now, John Seifert, the Telosity channel on ogilvydo.com was born. The readership statistics have long left the publisher’s requirements in the dust. Our readers are mainly younger (25-34 is the largest age bracket) and spend longer on each page than they do for most other content on the site. It has been a long journey, but soon, Ogilvy will publish a distillation of the main themes of Telosity entitled For Goodness’ Sake. It will be the newest addition to their respected series of “Red Papers”. In the next blog, I’ll explore how I hope readers can make use of this digital publication, but for now I want to use its release as an example of what each of us can do to make our, “ding in the universe”. The lessons come from my own reflections on what it has taken to get this far and may be summarized this way: “making a ding in the universe will require us to notice, embody, and persist.”
First, we have to be still with ourselves long enough to really notice the desire to make some kind of contribution. Many of us find our desires disordered, muddled and even misguided. We want something for a moment, or perhaps even a week, but then it subsides. Real desire is not fickle, like some faddish preference, but persists as a deep and unmistakable rumbling. Often borne of our own personal story, perhaps some disadvantaged experience, the desire to make an impact emanates from the shaping influence of our own personal narrative. Perhaps to correct an injustice, or reveal a truth, or protect the vulnerable or to set someone at liberty or yield sight for the blind. Deep desire to make a difference will often emerge from our own personal stories, but we need to be attentive enough to notice – and a trustworthy desire for impact will always instigate service of another.
Once we have noticed, then comes the hard part: the mobilization of ourselves. In my own Telosity journey, it has meant investing time and significant effort (not to mention money) in an idea that offered no visible economic return. It has meant maximizing meaning and earning enough profit to sustain the effort – and not the other way around. It has meant risking reputation and credibility for something I found compelling and day after day being tested in new ways in my own business to see if I really believed what I was trying to say to others. To make a difference for others will, in some way or another, prove to be costly at some point – not necessarily in terms of money, but rather costly in terms of commitment. If you don’t embody your own convictions for impact, then how on earth can you expect anyone else to?
Lastly, to make a real difference in the lives of others is, as I have written elsewhere, “a long obedience in the same direction.” I appreciate the apocryphal question, “What does a monk do?” To which the insightful answer is, “he gets up, falls down, gets up, falls down… and gets up.” If we are going to fundamentally leverage the power of businesses to do good, we are each going to do a lot of “falling down” that will require a lot of “getting up”. We must always choose to try again (in spite of discouragement) when we fail, or else success will elude us.
The forthcoming publication of For Goodness’ Sake represents a little of my own experience of both failure and success. I hope you will read it, be encouraged, notice the desire for change it stirs in you, see how you might embody your own hopes and desires, and then set off on your own unique way to turn business into an instrument for good.