The Purpose of Life Is to Make a Difference

Immediately following devastating earthquakes and tsunamis, the world came rushing to the aid of Thailand, Haiti, Japan, China, and other countries requiring assistance. After all, people are generous by nature and eagerly and willingly help those that are obviously in need. But often there are others who suffer silently and go unnoticed. Strangely, the needs of people in far-off lands may become more known than those near at hand. Members of our own family, coworkers, and countless others that we interact with on a daily basis have needs that we somehow overlook.

Because they are not trapped under collapsed buildings, their needs do not scream out for attention. Yet, many are crushed by the weight of low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. They feel unappreciated, unloved, and unsure of themselves. Some are out of touch with the grandeur of life. They are lost souls, failing to understand that life is a magnificent adventure. They are wounded warriors in need of help. They need to be encouraged to get up after falling. They need to be inspired and uplifted. Here’s where you come in. You can make a difference in their lives. And when you do so, you make a difference to life itself.

What can you do? Recognize their accomplishments with praise. Listen to what they have to say with interest. Don’t scold, but smile. Mend their broken spirits with kindness. Remember, no seed ever sees the flower it will become. No one you meet ever sees the magnificent being they can become. That’s why your presence is needed. You can nurture their spirit with inspiration and encourage them to grow into all they can become.

Some people moan, “I need to know what my purpose in life is. Why am I here? How can I find my purpose? It’s all so confusing.” It may become confusing when we focus on what we need, but the answer clearly appears when we focus on what the world needs. It needs our help. We are here to act, for we are life’s way of getting things done. We are here to contribute to life, to make a difference.

You must not underestimate the significance of your contribution. For when you pick up the torch and lead the way, others will follow, passing on the torch to others. Each day we can start a chain of positive action or ominously break a chain started by another. That’s what happens each day. We either contribute to hope or despair. Which is it that the world needs? Noam Chomsky‘s remarks may help answer that question: “If you  assume there is no hope, you guarantee there is no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to the making of a better world. The choice is yours.”

We all want to become successful. The good news is it is extremely easy to become so. You see, if we measure success by the contributions we make to life, we can easily play an important role. Martin Luther King, Jr. explains, “Everybody can be great.  Because anybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve… You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.”

You don’t have to do anything earth-shattering to make a difference. You will find the small stuff will often have the biggest effect. A smile, a cheerful expression, a kind word, a little encouragement, undivided attention, these are some of the steps you can easily take every day. The smallest of steps can be significant, for when you contribute to the self-esteem and self-confidence of another human being, you are offering a priceless gift.

Each day we need to stop, become aware of what we are doing, and ask ourselves, “Is this why I am here?” Then ask yourself, “What can I do today that would make a difference in my life and the lives of those around me?” When trying this for the first time, you may be filled with self-doubt, believing you won’t or can’t make much difference. But the fact is, until you believe you are special you won’t be. And you are special, for no one else is like you. After all, we are all unique, with different experiences, talents, and strengths. No one else can contribute to life exactly as you can, so if you fail to act, you will be denying the world of your unique gift.

We are here to do great things; mainly, to relieve the suffering of others through acts of kindness. We should view each interaction as an opportunity to make a difference. It is within our power to make everyone who meets us feel better. Each morning we should wake up with anticipation and excitement because of the many chances we will have to contribute to life. As Norman B. Rice elegantly expressed it, “Dare to reach out your hand into the darkness, to pull another hand into the light.”

Why Should We Care about Making a Difference?

1. To be part of something greater than ourselves. Here’s how Leo Rosten explained it, “The purpose of life is not to be happy — but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you have lived at all.”

2. We do it for ourselves. Mohandas Gandhi was laboriously serving the people of a remote village when he was asked why he was doing it.

“Are you doing it for humanitarian reasons?” he was asked.

“Not at all,” Gandhi answered, “I am here to serve no one else than myself, to find my own self-realization through the service of these village folk.”

Every time we help another, we help ourselves, for when we dig another out of their troubles, we find a place to bury our own.

3. To return to life the many blessings it freely offers. As another has said, “We have all drank from wells we did not dig and have been warmed by fires we did not build.” So, isn’t it only right that we give back? Robert L. Payton adds, “We are temporary stewards with an obligation to manage the inheritance in such a way that it can be passed along even better and stronger than it was when we received it.”

4. Not to give back is not to live. Or, as it was put by Eleanor Roosevelt, “When you cease to make a contribution, you begin to die.” Ethel Percy Andrus agrees: “The human contribution is the essential ingredient. It is only in the giving of oneself to others that we truly live.”

5. To leave a legacy. Albert Pike clarifies: “What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”

6. To experience peace and happiness. World renowned expert on stress, Hans Selye, said, “If you want to live a long life, focus on making contributions.”

7. To be a role model. Many lost souls are still trying to figure out why they are here. Your exemplary behavior may finally help them realize the simple truth that we are here to help one another.

8. To receive. We have to give away what we wish to receive. It is only when I respect, help, and encourage others that others will respect, help, and encourage me. But our actions must never be motivated by the desire to receive because if it is, others will see through our shallowness and insincerity, and our actions will be counterproductive. No, we must do what is right because it is right, because it is needed, and because we want to make a difference.

9. Fulfillment. “There are certain things that are fundamental to human fulfillment;” says Stephen R. Covey, “the essence of these needs is captured in the phrase ‘to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy’. The need to live is our physical need for such things as food, clothing, shelter, economical well-being, health. The need to love is our social need to relate to other people, to belong, to love and to be loved. The need to learn is our mental need to develop and to grow. And the need to leave a legacy is our spiritual need to have a sense of meaning, purpose, personal congruence, and contribution.”

Contributing to life satisfies all these needs while helping to build a better world. In a word, the measure of a man or woman is the degree to which they make a difference in the lives of those they touch. Don’t you agree? May our goal be to see the needs of others, recognize our obligation, and become the solution. But we mustn’t wait too long before we act, and he who gives when he is asked has waited too long. Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something. So, act like you make a difference. Because you do.

What Others Have Said

“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” – Mother Teresa

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.” – Benjamin Disraeli

“It’s the action, not the fruit of the action, that’s important. You have to do the right thing. It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there’ll be any fruit. But that doesn’t mean you stop doing the right thing. You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result.”  ― Mahatma Gandhi

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something.” 

Henry David Thoreau

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” ― Robert F. Kennedy

“Do more than belong: participate. Do more than care: help. Do more than believe: practice. Do more than be fair: be kind. Do more than forgive: forget. Do more than dream: work.” ― William Arthur Ward

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.” 

John Wesley

How to Make a Difference

1. Listen with Your Heart. To illustrate what I mean, here is the beautiful parable The Sound of the Forestas told by W. Chan Kim and Renée A. Mauborgne in the Harvard Business Review (July 1992):

Back in the third century A.D., the King Ts’ao sent his son, Prince T’ai, to the temple to study under the great master Pan Ku. Because Prince T’ai was to succeed his father as king, Pan Ku was to teach the boy the basics of being a good ruler. When the prince arrived at the temple, the master sent him alone to the Ming-Li Forest. After one year, the prince was to return to the temple to describe the sound of the forest.

When Prince T’ai returned, Pan Ku asked the boy to describe all that he could hear. “Master,” replied the prince, “I could hear the cuckoos sing, the leaves rustle, the hummingbirds hum, the crickets chirp, the grass blow, the bees buzz, and the wind whisper and holler.” When the prince had finished, the master told him to go back to the forest to listen to what more he could hear. The prince was puzzled by the master’s request. Had he not discerned every sound already?

For days and nights on end, the young prince sat alone in the forest listening. But he heard no sounds other than those he had already heard. Then one morning, as the prince sat silently beneath the trees, he started to discern faint sounds unlike those he had ever heard before. The more acutely he listened, the clearer the sounds became. The feeling of enlightenment enveloped the boy. “These must be the sounds the master wished me to discern,” he reflected.

When Prince T’ai returned to the temple, the master asked him what more he had heard. “Master,” responded the prince reverently, “when I listened most closely, I could hear the unheard—the sound of flowers opening, the sound of the sun warming the earth, and the sound of the grass drinking the morning dew.” The master nodded approvingly.

“To hear the unheard,” remarked Pan Ku, “is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler. For only when a ruler has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, hearing their feelings uncommunicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in his people, understand when something is wrong, and meet the true needs of his citizens. The demise of states comes when leaders listen only to superficial words and do not penetrate deeply into the souls of the people to hear their true opinions, feelings, and desires.”

Anyone can hear with their ears, but if we wish to make a difference, we have to listen with our heart.

2. By Offering 6 Gifts. Sometimes the people we have to work with give us a hard time instead of their full cooperation. Our tasks become more difficult when the people we’re counting on give us a headache instead of a hand. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if everyone we dealt with not only gave us a smile, but gave us a gift? Of course, we cannot control the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others, so the only gifts that we can be sure of are those that we give to others. Since the joy is in the giving, why not become a bearer of gifts? Let’s think about some gifts we can offer to others, gifts that won’t cost us anything, yet are worth more than gold.

The first gift is Compassion. It is more than mere caring or concern. It is love in action. For example, someone at work is stymied by a problem and you have a spare moment, so you immediately jump in, without being asked, and offer a helping hand. Other examples include offering our seat in the train or bus to another, holding the door open for a young mother with a baby carriage trying to enter a building, and guiding an elderly or disabled person safely across a large street. Imagine the surprise and delight of others as we offer them these much needed gifts.

A moment’s reflection will reveal many other ways we can express our compassion. For instance, when someone else is trying to speak, we can offer the gifts of silence and a listening ear. Or when others are trying to express a dissenting opinion, we can agree with their right to have such a view, and use it to expand our own understanding, rather than try to convert them to our way of thinking.

A second gift is that of Honesty. If it were a commodity exchanged in the Stock Market, its price would be on the rise because of its scarcity in the business world. We can make a big difference by helping to restore it. If we’re in sales, instead of trying to sell a bill of goods, we can sell service, support, and knowledge. That is, we can be a help, rather than a hindrance. If we’re asked about something we don’t know, we can be honest and admit our ignorance. And if it’s within our capacity to find the answer, we can make the effort to do so.

In our personal relationships, honesty means keeping our word, avoiding gossip, not exaggerating our accomplishments and recognizing the achievements of others. It also means being true to ourselves or practicing integrity. In other words, we align our actions with our values. For instance, don’t you think it’s strange that we sometimes hurt those we love? To do so is dishonest, for it is not how we feel in our heart. Don’t you agree that honesty is healing and dishonesty is hurtful?

A third gift is that of Recognition. People are criticized more often than they are recognized. As a result, they are starving for recognition. Because sincere praise is as rare as diamonds, it has great value. Thomas Fuller wrote in 1732, “He injures a fair lady that beholds her not.” That is, he that doesn’t admire a beautiful woman insults her! After all, if she took the time and effort to look good, shouldn’t we acknowledge that?

When we offer praise, congratulations, and admiration, we are offering the gift of recognition. We are effectively saying, “The world is better off because you are here. You have value. I am honored to know you. You make my life more enjoyable.” How often do we express these sentiments to our family, friends, and coworkers? Isn’t true that if we are silent, we are both dishonest and unloving?

A fourth gift is that of Interest. What do you imagine is the worst thing you can do to someone? It is not to hate them, for hate is sparked by jealousy or fear. Although highly negative, such feelings at least recognize them. No, the worst thing you can do to others is to ignore them. To deny their existence. To have no interest in them..

While the gift of Recognition honors others for what they have done, the gift of Interest honors others for what they are. And what are they? They are fellow travelers on the journey of life. They have as much right to be here, as much value to the world, and as interesting a story to relate as anyone else. All we have to do is give them an opportunity to tell their story. Each person is but one facet in the gem we call life. When we express interest in them, we give them the opportunity to sparkle. Be especially aware of those diamonds in the rough that you have at home and call your children.

A fifth gift is that of Sincerity. When we act compassionately, we grow joyful. When we are honest, we are at peace with ourselves. When we shower others with recognition, they recognize us for our kindness. When we express interest in others by asking them to tell us about themselves, we discover the wonder and beauty of the world. So, each gift we offer has its own reward. But one of the greatest gifts of all is that of Sincerity, for it is a beacon. When we act out of sincerity we act without desiring a reward. We offer each of the above gifts with no motive other than it is the right thing to do. Sincere people do not try to improve others, they just try to better themselves, but in doing so, they improve the world. Rather than trying to grab from life as much as they can, they try to add whatever they can.

A sixth gift is that of Time. It is a priceless gift, for it is the only one that is a nonrenewable resource. In each of our lives, there is a limited allotment of time. Once used, it is gone forever, never to be replaced. Since time is the stuff our lives are made of, when we spend time with others, we are giving the greatest gift of all, ourselves. When we encourage others and cheer them on, we infuse their life with meaning; we make their life worthwhile. What greater gift can we offer?

Each gift is not meant to be thought of in the abstract, but is meant to be lived. Not in the future, but now. Their primary purpose isn’t to help those in desperate need thousands of miles away, but to lessen the fear and pain of those in our immediate circle of family, friends, acquaintances, and, yes, those strangers we meet each day as we go about our daily business.

By the way, the six gifts I have mentioned are easy to remember, for when we take the first letter of the gifts of Compassion, Honesty, Recognition, Interest, Sincerity, and Time, they spell out C.H.R.I.S.T. Regardless of whether we are religious, spiritual, or agnostic, I think we can all agree that those six gifts are badly needed and very much appreciated by all who receive them. I’m sure you can think of many more gifts to offer, so my six gifts merely represent a starting point.


In 1955 a huge clay Buddha was being moved from a deserted temple to another temple in Thailand. As it was being hoisted, the crane’s metal chain snapped, causing the statue of Buddha to come crashing down to the ground with a thud. After inspecting the statue, they noticed a crack in the clay. Oddly, when looking into the crack, it seemed to be sparkling. So, more of the clay was removed to uncover the reason for its inner brightness. When enough of the clay was stripped away, they discovered the Buddha was not made of clay, but made of solid gold.

It turned out to be the world’s largest gold Buddha, weighing in at 5+ tons! After researching its history, they learned that 300 years earlier monks covered the Golden Buddha with clay, to conceal its value from attacking Burmese. When the attackers arrived, they killed all the monks, and in the chaos, the remotetemple and its hidden treasure were forgotten for 300 years. The 700 year old Golden Buddha is now a popular tourist attraction.

We are Golden Buddhas, covered with the clay of self-doubt. We fail to realize our value and, more often than not, doubt our ability to make a difference. How can we chip away the layer of self-doubt and reveal our true Golden Buddha nature? It is not by will power, not by gritting our teeth, clenching our fists, or straining our muscles. On the contrary, struggling with or fighting our weaknesses doesn’t work because what we resist, persists. Fighting our weaknesses only further entrenches them in our character.

The secret to eliminating self-doubt is to accept, not fight, our fears and doubts and proceed anyway. For example, Larry would like to make a difference in his community by becoming a volunteer and realizes he is very timid, but he decides to accept his weaknesses and proceed anyway. His thoughts are something like this:

“I may doubt my abilities or power, but I will proceed anyway. My first attempts may be clumsy, awkward, and haphazard, but help is always welcomed, so why shouldn’t I proceed?The inept first steps of a child don’t discourage it, so why should my first steps in a new endeavor discourage me? For this reason, I will follow the advice of Nike and Just Do It.”

In summary, you are a Golden Buddha, let your splendor shine by making a difference.



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