How to Know If the Work You’re Doing Is Having an Impact

Simple Takeaway:

Life is about the people we get to interact with, not the projects we get to build. The projects we build are only as valuable as the lives they impact. Ask yourself: Who can I set an example for and invest in today? And what’s the work I have in front of me that I can do with excellence in order to accomplish that?

Do you struggle with wondering if what you’re doing is having an impact? 

I had an odd thought the other day. I walked into a public restroom and as I walked by one of the stalls for some reason I noticed the little sign next to the door handle on the stall that says vacant and occupied.

This is how weird my brain works. My first thought was, “I wonder what font they used to make that little sign.”

I know, strange observation. You’d be surprised how often my mind goes down weird rabbit trails like that.

But then it led to a deeper thought. I thought, “I wonder if the person who designed this sign felt like the work they were doing mattered.”

Maybe you felt that way before, and maybe you’ve asked a question like that before. After all, most people don’t have glamorous jobs or work that allows them to clearly see some sort of deeper impact they’re having on the world.

I mean, teachers and doctors and motivational speakers can all pretty clearly see the change they’re making in the world. But what about the rest of us? What about the industrial designers and assembly line workers and utility workers? Is it possible for them to see that their work is changing the world? Or is their work changing the world?

In a society where everyone is connected to everyone else and we all compare what we do to everyone else, it can feel depressing to think that what you’re doing doesn’t matter, especially when it feels like people around you are doing things that are so meaningful.

But what if the person who designed that bathroom sign didn’t do that job? What if no one did that job? 

Sure, the easy answer is that we would never know if we’re about to walk in on someone using the restroom or not. And that’s a real problem. 

But there’s a more practical problem with abandoning investing in work that feels menial:

What’s the threshold to “meaningful” impact? How many lives does your work have to change for it to be valuable?

We’ve gotten it backwards in America. We’ve come to believe that if we can make a large scale impact, then we can justify small scale neglect.

We believe it’s okay to bypass the small things at the expense of having a “large” impact – financially, environmentally, politically, socially, etc.

This line of thinking goes like this:

  • It’s okay to be rude to some people because I’m on my way to doing important work
  • It’s okay to go into a little debt here and there because what I’m working towards is worth the trade off
  • It’s okay to spend less time with my family for an extended period of time because I’m building something for their future

Let me be a little more direct:

Modern American culture makes us believe that as long as we are doing what makes us happy, then we can neglect the needs of the people around us. But that simply isn’t true.

For the designer who created the bathroom sign, I pictured their family.

I pictured the house they would save to buy so their kids would grow up in a safe neighborhood. I pictured them saving for a swing set and weekend camping trips and school supplies – all so their kids could make memories that would last for generations.

I pictured the money they would save for college because their kids wanted to become architects and doctors and engineers. I pictured the work ethic they would instill in their kids so that when they got to college they wouldn’t party, get arrested, and drop out (like I did).

I pictured the values they passed along to their kids – values that when you’re faithful with a little you’ll be faithful with much.

This led me to ask myself a tough question: 

How would I feel if I knew that my life‘s work was for an audience of five? 

What if my four kids and my wife (okay, 6 including our dog Millie) were the only ones I focused on impacting? Would that be enough for me? Is that enough for you?

I’m not encouraging you to think small, and yet, at the same time I am. 

What if instead of striving for personal significance in the large things we started striving for personal satisfaction and investment in the small things? 

And I don’t mean begrudgingly doing the little things so you can one day have a meaningful life. I’m asking, what if the small things are the point?

Here’s what will happen:

Once you start focusing on doing the small things well and making those the point, they will inevitably snowball into bigger things. 

The man who loves his wife well and does his daily work with pride almost always ends up gaining more in other areas of his life. It’s not because he was working his way up to that. He just simply cultivated a character that could naturally carry more weight.

But having more isn’t what makes him happy; he understands what living a meaningful life truly is.

Let’s be honest, the bathroom sign I saw that day is never going to change anyone’s life. Sometimes we try to apply the “purpose-chasing” culture we live in and apply it to the little things in life. We’ll say things like, “You never know how your work can impact another person.” Sometimes work is just that – work that needs to be done. But that doesn’t make it any less holy.

It’s okay that the designer of the bathroom sign probably isn’t going to change anyone’s life with the signs she or he creates.

The point we often miss in American culture, and the thing that’s driving us to anxiety and depression, is that your meaning is not found in your work. It’s found in your audience of five, whatever that looks like for you. Then it will naturally expand from there.

Here’s the takeaway: 

Who has God given you the ability to invest in right now? 

Life is about the people we get to interact with, not the projects we get to build. The projects we build are only as valuable as the lives they impact.

Building things that impact people is a worthwhile pursuit. But using or neglecting people to build things will always leave us disappointed.

So who’s your audience of five and what’s your bathroom sign?

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who can I set an example for and invest in today?
  2. What’s the work I have in front of me that I can do with excellence in order to accomplish that today?

Because regardless of how cool or boring your work is, those two things are the only things that create a meaningful life.