Accepting your impact on the world

Greg Rosenke, Unsplash

Recently I read the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs, A Promised Land. The book details Obama’s path starting as a politician in Chicago through the first term of his presidency, describing the highs and lows of his journey to the White House.

There were many takeaways I had from the book, the grind of running for office, his account of the financial crisis, and his take on United States foreign policy.

One of the things that stuck out the most for me was his description the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference he attended in 2009. In the book Obama describes his meeting with the leaders of China, Brazil, India, and South Africa. These developing countries were skeptical of making significant changes to their climate change policies, electing to blame most of the emissions on the more developed Western nations.

In short, Obama was able to make a few modest tweaks to the proposed agreement to get these countries to commit to the Copenhagen Accord. This provided momentum to the idea that every country has a responsibility to address climate change. The boost from this would be a driving force for The Paris Agreement in 2015.

Regardless of your political beliefs or thoughts on climate change, there was a larger takeaway for me after reading this section of the book. It came towards the end of the chapter when Obama reflects on the work that was put in to what he had just accomplished:

All that for an interim agreement that-even if it worked entirely as planned-would be at best a preliminary, halting step toward solving a possible planetary tragedy, a pail of water thrown on a raging fire. I realized that for all the power inherent in the seat I now occupied, there would always be a chasm between what I knew should be done to achieve a better world and what a day, week, or year I found myself actually able to accomplish.

This resonated with me because for most of my 20s I found myself wondering what type of impact I would have on the world. I set unbelievably high goals only to find myself struggling with the minimal progress I was making each day or year that passed by.

During this time I would constantly think, “if I just made this much money,” or “if I just had this role,” I would be able to make a difference in the world I would be happy with.

When reading this chapter of Obama’s book I realized that even the most powerful men in the world struggle with the progress they make on a day-to-day basis. That even the President of the United States wishes that there was more that he could do to fight climate change or any other distress he saw in the world.

He would have to learn to live with a gap in the difference he wanted to make and what he realistically could make.

It caused me to rethink what I want my impact on the world to be and, maybe more importantly, how can I accept that there are limitations to what difference I am able to make? If the President was coming to this conclusion, then maybe I too needed to scale back my expectations.

For me it became simple:

Leave the world a better place then how I entered

That’s not to say I don’t still have high expectations, but I’m not crippled or discouraged by failing to meet unrealistic goals. I do what I can with the circumstances I’ve been given and don’t get caught up in always wanting to do more.

This past winter I volunteered at an ice rink in Detroit teaching kids how to play hockey. It was the first volunteer experience I had since reading Obama’s book and provided a chance to apply this new mindset to my situation.

Initially I got frustrated, thinking that there is more I should be doing. Wishing I didn’t have work or other obligations that would pull me from helping out more. I’d see the home life that many of these kids would be heading back to once they were done on the ice and it made me question how much of an impact I was really making in their lives.

I realized that this mindset was pulling me away from the influence that I could have with the limited time with them on the ice. Instead of being frustrated, wishing I could do more, I became more present with the few hours with them.

While the time I spent on the ice with these kids wouldn’t cure any problems they may have had at home, it did provide them something to look forward to during the week. I’d like to think my presence in these kids lives, however small, was a positive influence on them.

Like Obama in Copenhagen I would leave that ice rink wishing there was more that I could do, but also realizing that I would have to get comfortable with the fact that there are limitations to the impact that I can make.

Instead of focusing on the more that I could do, I focused what I had just done. Provided a positive experience for a kid that may have needed it. I took solace with the idea that however small, my efforts that night had made the world a better place.



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Tyler Walz

Tyler Walz


Writing to understand myself and the world | Sports Fan | Bookworm | Business Consultant | Twitter: @tjwalz | Referral Link: