How You Can Actually Make a Difference in the World

Everyone has their shit to deal with. Some use it to make a dent in the universe.

About a week before my wedding in 2001, I was sitting at the hospital bedside of my dear friend and bridesmaid, Sam Perkins, who was receiving a large cocktail of chemotherapy drugs in an effort to rid her of the Hodgkin’s disease that had returned to her 30-year-old body. To say I was filled with mixed emotions would be a wild understatement. Here I was, a week before my wedding, the most exciting day of my life, filled with sadness that my dear PerkySam was facing uncertainty that she’d even make it to my wedding, let alone to the rest of her life. I desperately, selfishly wanted Sam’s doctors to give her the green light to leave the hospital in time to make it to the wedding. She was one hell of a laugh at any great party, and we all knew it just wouldn’t be the same without her. Yet as she tried to make light of the fact that her mobile chemo bag would be the perfect accessory for her bridesmaid’s dress, I couldn’t fight off my powerful feelings of sadness and guilt. It just wasn’t fair.

And at that moment Sam looked at me and said, “Sissy, everyone has their shit to deal with. This just happens to be mine.” It’s taken me years of aging to truly understand the reality of that statement, and the other week as I was taking a well-needed summer vacation, it took on a whole new meaning as I was reading my advance copy of the new book The Power of Onlyness — Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent The World. by Nilofer Merchant.

You see, Sam may have died at the age of 33, but instead of using her illness as a reason to back down from life, to feel like the victim, she embraced the experience that only she was having to face the prospect of death, to recognize the sheer power of truly living in the moment, to spread her new understanding to those around her so that we could all benefit from embracing her worry-free “Fuck it. Let’s do it!” approach to life. Sam not only taught many around her how to live, she also explored and embraced non-traditional alternatives to her medical care. She taught us all about mindfulness and meditation years before it became trendy and became an advocate for the pioneering work of the Gawler Foundation in Australia, spreading awareness of their mission to improve recovery outcomes for cancer patients.

What I now understand is that Sam’s “Onlyness” came from finding meaning in her powerful life and death experience and using her unique skills as a trained doctor, a brilliantly witty writer and speaker, and a globally connected friend to so many people to spread her own personal life mission. The funds that have been raised in her name since she passed are all contributing to the wonderful “dent” she has made on the world.

Each of us has a spot in this world that only we stand in that is a function of our distinct history, experiences, visions and hopes.

The idea of “Onlyness” is wildly powerful for those of us who dream of making a positive impact in our community or in the world like Sam did. Each of us has a spot in this world that only we stand in that is a function of our distinct history, experiences, visions and hopes. And now that the internet has liberated ideas to spread and scale through networks rather than hierarchies, the power to make a difference is no longer determined by our status, as much as our sheer force of effort to rally and inspire the like-minded “denters” around us. I can only imagine the kind of impact Sam might have had today, 15 years after her death, with the tools of social media and technology at her fingertips.

Now that I am in my mid-40’s, I find with every passing conversation that there is a lot more “shit to deal with” out there than I was even aware of in my 20’s. We may all post the perfect beach holiday photos on Instagram and tout our latest great work achievements on LinkedIN, but behind those rosy scenes are where the real conversations happen. It seems to me that life and career doesn’t get less stressful with age. Kids grow up and present new challenges; mortgages need to be paid; some marriages fail in mid-life; friends get fired or overlooked at what they thought was the peak of their career — these are just some of the laundry list of challenges that we are all facing in mid-life. And it’s easy to slip into that anxiety that creeps up on you that you’re getting older, likely feeling less “extreme” and potentially less relevant.

…adversity is a greater launch pad for powerful impact than anything. When challenged, we are often forced to find the fight in us that we didn’t even know we had.

But it’s never too late to unleash your own potential and become Extreme YOU. The wonderful stories in Nilofer Merchant’s great book remind me that the mistakes, the failures, and the tough challenges are very often the doorway to unlocking new growth and potential impact. If there’s one thing that inspires me the most, it’s the realization that adversity is a greater launch pad for powerful impact than anything. When challenged, we are often forced to find the fight in us that we didn’t even know we had.

As you get ready for the autumn months when the days are shorter, the work seems harder, and your worries are not erased by the lazy days of summer vacation, remember that those worries might be the key to unlocking your own kind of Onlyness. Face them head on — fuck it, EMBRACE them — because you might be about to make your dent on the world.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

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