I was reading some of the news coverage recently about the death of Senator Ted Kennedy, and one of the op-ed pieces had a rather simple statement that stuck with me – it said, “He made a difference, and that’s not something that many of us can say.”
And I thought about that. What have I done with my life that I can look back on and say, “that really made a difference?”
Here are a few:
- Raising a child. I’m a father. I’m raising a child. I’m helping to bring a little person up into the world with (hopefully) good sense and good morals and good values. Every parent who raises their children right is making a difference.
- Teaching in Japan. The more I look back on it, spending that year living in Japan was a big difference maker in my life and hopefully in the lives of others. It’s a powerful experience to live abroad – every day, you’re serving as an ambassador for your home country and culture. Every person you meet is going to have an impression of your home country based on the impression they get from you. How often do we get to influence so many people in such a fundamental way?
- Mentoring kids. I used to be a regular reading volunteer with the Everybody Wins Program, a reading and mentoring program for elementary students. I went every week to Capitol View Elementary School for four school years. The first three years, I read with the same kids – I was with them from 3rd grade through the end of 5th grade. I sometimes wonder what happened to the kids I used to read with. They’re probably in high school by now; I hope everything is going well for them. I think a lot about what can we do as adults and community leaders to help make things better for kids coming up through the school system, especially for kids who are from disadvantaged backgrounds and who are less likely to graduate high school, go to college and get a good job. The kids at the school where I used to volunteer are at higher risk for pretty much every negative outcome in life – I hope in some small way, I was able to help them visualize a more positive future for themselves.
- Hosting international visitors. One of the other volunteer activities that I used to really enjoy, and one that we don’t get to do as often these days because we’re so busy with our baby, was hosting international visitors to Iowa with the Iowa Council for International Understanding. On various occasions, we hosted people from Kosovo, Ethiopia, Spain, Sweden, and Chile who were visiting Iowa on various State Department-sponsored junkets. I really love to travel and we don’t get to do it as often anymore, but hosting these international visitors was almost as good as traveling to those other countries. Just like when I lived in Japan, it’s a powerful thing to see citizen diplomacy in action. I still remember so many of the people I met and talked with during my travels in Japan and Europe, and hopefully I helped forge a positive and lasting impression of the U.S. (and Iowa) in the people that we hosted at our house.
- Talking to students at Iowa State. Every fall I go to Iowa State University to give a talk to a class of freshman students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who are undecided about their majors. The class is taught by my former academic advisor (we’ve stayed in touch for the past 10 years), and it’s only one day but it’s one of the highlights of my year. I talk with the students about my career experiences and give them some ideas for “What Can You Do With a Liberal Arts Degree?” The students don’t always laugh at my jokes or ask a lot of questions, but every now and then I seem to get through to some of them. My goal in giving this speech is to give them some ideas and inspiration and reassurance – even though they’re freshmen at a big university who might not have a clear sense of direction, they will eventually find their path in life. Just like I did.
Most of us are never going to get to be Senators and Governors and Presidents of the United States. (And most of those people never really make as much of a “difference” as they claim to – look at Rod Blagojevich, Eliot Spitzer, etc.) But we can make a difference in some of these smaller ways.
I try to make a difference by being generous with my time, grateful for my life, and by engaging with the people in my life in a spirit of warmth, openness and patience. Sometimes that’s all you can do.