Personal ledger. Two volunteers give each other a hug.

Your Impact on the World—Creating a Positive Personal Ledger

What’s your overall impression when you think about your impact on the world?

Most people would probably say that it’s positive but that they could probably do more. But many are not really aware of the range of impacts they have and are not intentional about understanding or targeting their impacts. Many impacts you have on the world, both positive and negative, are subtle. You might give someone a genuine smile and change the course of their day. You might unknowingly use a product with palm oil, not realizing that it’s leading to the extinction of species. When we think of our impacts, many of us only think about those impacts about which we’ve made choices, like giving money to a charity, when the bulk of our impacts do not rise to the level of our awareness.

Recognizing the negative

Everyone has some negative impacts on the world, even if they don’t realize it. Some negative impacts are easily recognizable: greed, violence, dishonesty—these are examples of the overt forms of negative impacts. Our emotional state can cause all kinds of negative impacts, such as irritability with family or colleagues, anger with other drivers in traffic, and moodiness, which can impact all of our interactions. All but the most unaware can recognize when these occur. But many of our negative impacts are subtle. Apathy can take away our motivation to take advantage of the many opportunities we have for positive influences, and our lack of initiative has a negative impact. The choices we make about what we do with our money can create or continue negative impacts. In the western world, many of us have no concept of the relative plenty and comfort we have. Many of us up the ante with choices related to luxury, convenience, and recreation. And while these choices may not have any direct negative impacts, they also involve choosing not to, for example, feed a child that’s starving to death. This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t live in comfort, build a nest egg, and have some fun, but we should be aware of what we’re not doing when we make those choices and possibly make other choices that support the other side of the ledger.

Being intentional about the positive

There are many ways to think about our positive impacts on the world. Two of the most prevalent are volunteer work and donations of money and goods. There are many ways to share your time, money, and stuff, and the more creative and intentional you are about it, the more meaningful your impact will be. Doing this regularly will instill a culture of generosity in you that will carry over to many other aspects of your life, and at the same time, your volunteer work and donations will evolve as you better understand the impact you are having.

There are also many other ways to have a positive impact on the world. If you can find a job that involves making a positive impact, then you will spend your days adding to the positive side of the ledger. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in finding a livelihood that has a positive influence on the health of natural resources along the oceans and coasts. This is very important to me, and I totally believe in the work that we do. If you’re in a position of looking for or changing your career, including making the world a better place in your job criteria can help you differentiate between jobs that will pay the bills and jobs that are meaningful (and ideally both!).

More fundamentally, we can have a positive influence through our moment-to-moment outlook, thoughts, words, and actions. If we keep the idea of being a positive influence on the world in the back of our heads, it will affect the way we think, which will drive what we say and what we do. It will have the added benefit of making you a much happier person. And despite opinions to the contrary, being positive (and consequently having a positive influence) is a choice. Anyone can use a hectic, busy life as an excuse for being irritable and stressed. But if you choose to be positive, the entries in the positive side of the ledger will grow and grow, often without you realizing it.

Assessing your impact

The extent to which we are aware of our impact on the world has a significant effect on its magnitude. However, it requires a healthy dose of honesty about our negative impacts, our choices, and our unmet potential. As easy as it is to be aware of our obvious negative impacts, it’s just as easy to rationalize them, but that’s where we have to start to truly understand our overall impact. In other words, if we can’t stop being a jerk, we’ll never be able to address the more subtle negative impacts we have. This doesn’t mean we should never be irritable or angry; rather, it means that we should be aware of those emotions and how they manifest and try to minimize their negative impact.

At the same time, we should be aware of how much positive energy we put into the world. A willingness to regularly engage in acts of kindness, generosity, and civility can go a long way toward bumping up the positive column of your ledger. A bunch of small positive acts has a significant aggregate effect that can pay forward through the people you interact with. You’re not just creating a positive energy around you, you’re initiating a positive energy around everyone you come across.

Finally, if we are to truly understand our overall impact, we have to be aware of the consequences of our choices. As was said earlier, if we choose to spend money on something for ourselves, we are deciding not to spend that money to help others. We all have to find a balance between what we obtain for ourselves and our families and what we contribute to others. There are those who give almost everything to the needy and only keep what is required for the necessities of life. There are also those who buy mansions and luxury cars and give very little of their money away. Assessing our impact means knowing where we are on the continuum.

Targeting your impact moving forward

Once we have a better understanding of what our impact on the world is, we have to decide where we would like it to be and take steps in that direction. Like anything else in life, being intentional about our impacts will make them much more likely to happen. We can track our behavior and see how well it aligns with our values and how likely it is to result in the impacts we want to have on the world. We should be aware of all the ways we can have a positive impact (existing and potentially new ones) and make specific plans to make them happen. With our awareness of our negative impacts, we can take steps to decrease or eliminate them. It starts with awareness and ends with an intentional proactive approach.

The impact you have on the world is up to you. Decide what you want it to be and make it happen.

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