Important vs. Impactful: Why You Won’t Be Remembered in a Thousand Years, and That’s Okay

Simple Takeaway:

You probably won’t be remembered in a thousand years. Very few people will be “important” enough for that. But you can be impactful, and that’s much more valuable. Important work is remembered for generations, but impactful work is felt for all of time. You become an impactful person by 1) being someone worth respecting, and 2) being kind and compassionate. Cultivate relationships and resources that are closest to you, and let the important work of your life be driven by an impact-first mentality.

Of everything you’re doing right now, what will matter in a thousand years?

Who can you name from a thousand years ago?

(I’ll give you a hint. It was the Middle Ages.)

Here are a few names you might know:

  • Joan of Arc
  • Charlemagne
  • Johannes Gutenberg
  • Marco Polo
  • Leonardo da Vinci
  • Genghis Khan

Unless you paid especially close attention in history class, you’d probably be hard-pressed to give any amount of detail about what any of those people did.

You probably know they were important. But were they impactful?

Important means “of great significance or value and likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being.”

Impactful means “to have a strong effect on someone or something.”

Importance is something we think is valuable. Impactful is something that changes things.

A City Council meeting approving a new park to be built in your community is important. A father taking his son to that park every Saturday is impactful. Both are needed, but each carries a very different level of significance. Live accordingly.

Do you see the difference?

Important things include:

  • Work
  • Projects
  • Household chores
  • Finances

Impactful things include:

  • Faith
  • Marriage
  • Parenting
  • Friendships

Do you notice the difference?

Important things are typically not people-centered. Impactful things always are.

And the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can do things that are both important and impactful. You can do work that changes people’s lives. 

But important things tend to have a wide and shallow impact. That’s because important work tends to be about providing something valuable to as many people as possible. In other words, it prioritizes reach over depth.

Impactful things, on the other hand, are all about depth and therefore tend to be more narrowly focused.

To have a genuine impact, it’s very difficult to spread out your efforts. Like drilling a well, impact tends to be an art of focused, consistent effort.

Important work can be impactful, too, but important things are usually more about creating solutions that have a broader effect to a larger group of people.

Now, here’s the important distinction:

Very few people will become “important” people. But an infinite number of people can be impactful. Important work has the potential to be remembered for generations. But impactful work has the potential of being felt for all of time.

Here’s what I mean…

There was a survey that asked teenagers to identify the person they admired most as a role model besides their parents. David Kinnaman, who directed the study, noted that parents were left out of the potential answers because so many teenagers either have high regard for their parents or feel otherwise compelled to list their parents as role models. To quote the study, “Previous research shows that mentioning parents is almost an automatic response for many.”

In this survey, the respondents could have chosen musicians, athletes, community leaders, historical figures or any of the many, many, influential people kids learn to admire in popular culture and history classes.

But here were the most common answers:

  1. 37% answered a relative, such as a grandparent, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin, etc.
  2. 11% answered teachers and coaches
  3. 9% said friends
  4. 6% said a pastor or other religious leader they know personally

In total, nearly two-thirds of teenagers said their closest relationships within their communities were the most influential on their lives.

Entertainers came in at 6%, followed by athletes at 5%, political leaders at 4%, faith leaders at 4%, business leaders at 1%, authors at 1%, science and medical professionals at 1%, other artists at 1%, and members of the military at 1%.

Only about a quarter of the total responses included people outside of close communities (although some of the answers, such as athletes and leaders, could have been local role models).

What’s noteworthy from this study is that pastors and even Jesus were listed less than 10% of the time. That means if you want your kids to learn about Jesus, you have to model it. That’s what they’re going to retain. And that’s what’s going to have the greatest impact.

When asked why the participants identified the role models they selected, here were the top reasons:

  • 26% listed personality traits like caring about others, being loving and polite, being courageous, and being fun 
  • 11% said they were encouraging, which included helping them be a better person, always being there for them, or being most interested in their future.

Adults can have a tremendous amount of influence in a young person’s life by simply being kind and compassionate.

Here were some other answers for why they selected who they did:

  • 22% said they wanted to emulate them or follow in their footsteps
  • 13% said that he or she accomplished their goals
  • 9% said this person overcame adversity
  • 7% said he or she works hard

That’s 51% of the reasons falling in the category of simply being respectable.

The only two ways that are scientifically proven for someone to to have a positive influence and impact on another human being are 1) be a person worth respecting, and 2) be kind and compassionate. Only those two, and in that order.

If we break all of those reasons down, here are the three things what matter most when it comes to impacting people’s lives:

  1. Having a close personal relationship
  2. Showing people you care
  3. Giving them something to respect by setting goals and following through

You don’t have to be a superstar. You don’t have to be wealthy. You don’t have to be well known. You don’t have to be intelligent or successful in the eyes of the world. You just have to care about people, be there for them, and show them what living a respectable life looks like by doing whatever you do with excellence.

This study shows us what we all inherently know is true.

Make a quick mental list of the people you have looked up to most in your life. This list usually includes at least one parent or guardian, probably a sibling, definitely your close friends, and maybe a pastor, coach or teacher.

These are impactful relationships.

Impact equals influence. But that’s not how our culture thinks of influence. We tend to think that importance equals influence. And it doesn’t.

Time Magazine has what’s called the Time100, which is a list of the 100 most influential people in the world. This list includes innovators, musicians, actors, athletes, politicians, and other major public figures. It’s a list of important people.

For example, Patrick Mahomes made this list. He’s important because he’s done something that society deems important – he’s an elite athlete.

But whose life will be changed by Patrick Mahomes?

Kids will certainly be inspired by him to strive to achieve more in their own lives, but if you had to place a percentage on it, whose lives will Patrick Mahomes have a major impact on?

It will be his wife, his kids, his close friends, the kids he coaches and mentors on local sports teams – those are the lives that will be impacted by him. Not the countless people who are entertained by him on Sundays.

Here’s the tough part:

Men love important work. We long to build things, and today’s culture tells us that we should be building things that are important. But important work will always fade away. Instead, we should be spending the majority of our focus on building something impactful – pouring their lives into the people closest to us.

Because that’s what will matter when you’re gone.

Bonnie Ware, a nurse who provided care for dying patients, wrote a book titled, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. These are the top 5 regrets she listed:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
  2. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.”
  5. “I wish I had let myself be happier”

These are all relationship-focused regrets.

When we focus on what feels important, we’ll chase things that we think other people will respect us for (the #1 regret) and we’ll de-prioritize margin, rest, emotional health, connection to friends, and happiness (numbers 2-5 on the list).

Harvard’s 80-year study on what makes for a happy life found that, “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives.”

Maybe that’s why the most common regrets are things that hinder close, real relationships.

Notice what’s not on the list of regrets, though. It doesn’t say, “I wish I had achieved more.”

Stop and let that sink in.

Deep down, we all know what really matters. Yet we get blinded by what feels important.

Don’t get me wrong, important work needs to be done.

We need people doing important work to advance our culture and create a better future for the world. The technological and medical breakthroughs we’ve had allow us to live the lives we enjoy today.

But we have to stop confusing importance for impactful. Don’t get sucked into the allure of important work. Yes, it must be done, but it’s not what matters most.

Focus on impact, first and foremost. Focus on cultivating the relationships and resources that are closest to us. You’ll often find that important work stems from an impact-first mentality.

Then, in a thousand years, when no one knows your name and your memory is long gone, your legacy will be alive and well, replicating exponentially in the lives of the children’s children’s children of the people you poured your life into impacting.

That, my friend, is something worth living for.