Before my grandpa passed away in late November 2009, I asked him how I can make a difference in the world.
My grandpa was an engineer in his early career, employed at Grumman in New York, where he designed and engineered weapons to kill the most enemies for the smallest cost. Halfway through his life he realized the implications of his work, so he moved most of his family, including my dad, to Afghanistan, where he was an engineering administrative officer at Kabul University. After a few years in Afghanistan he returned to the US, settling in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he earned his masters degree in public health administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He stayed at UNC teaching public health for almost 20 years, retiring to be a guardian ad-litem. He spent 20 years in retirement as a legal guardian for mistreated children, volunteering until he physically couldn’t. He died at the age of 83 from prostate cancer.
I hoped my grandpa could answer my question, and, to be honest, I was disappointed when he couldn’t. Here was a very wise man that had been an engineer (like me), traveled the world, raised a family, and settled into a teaching and public service role, where he bettered the lives of unlucky children. I thought he’d have the answer to how we can make a difference in this world. But despite his inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to answer my question, I believe I found an answer while attending his memorial service.
The service had an open mic, colleagues, students, and family members sharing inspiring stories about my grandpa, stories I had never heard, acts of kindness I never realized my grandpa had done. I don’t remember the specifics of the stories shared, but I vividly remember the epiphany I had. To make a difference in this world we need to help others in a way that makes us happy.
Prior to my grandpa’s memorial service I believed to make a difference one needed to devote their life to public service, like my grandpa, Paul Farmer in Haiti, Mother Teresa, or Mohandas Gandhi. Sadly, I never thought I’d be happy completely devoting myself to others. Of course the vision seems noble and good, but I couldn’t see myself leaving the software industry.
For a year I’ve thought about my question to my grandpa, about why he couldn’t answer my question. I believe he couldn’t answer my question because there are an infinite number of answers. We all live different lives, pursue different passions, and find interest and joy in difference practices.
I believe you can make a difference in this world by showing compassion, patience, and kindness to everyone around you in a way that fits with your own life. Be kind and helpful to your coworkers. Listen to people when they’re in need. Help others when you can. And most importantly, be introspective and proactive, constantly challenging yourself to make a difference in others’ lives. Think to yourself how you’ve helped someone today, and how you can help even more tomorrow. You don’t need to devote your life to those in need, but you can always help, show kindness, and bring compassion. You will make an impact on the world, and everyone around you will be grateful for the gift you’ve bestowed on them. And you’ll be happier.