One Incredible Way to Make a Difference

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.
–Edmund Burke

I'm leading a mission trip this week. I've been doing this sort of thing for years. And I love it. It makes me come alive. Why? Because I always learn something new — about myself and the world.

Make a Difference by Listening
Photo credit: Russell C. (Creative Commons)

Mostly, though, it's the same lesson over and over again. Making a difference is actually possible. And it's far easier, in fact, than we often think.

How do you change a life? Simple. Here's the fail-proof formula for starting a revolution.

Move your mouth less and open your ears

That's how you make a real difference. You listen.

Ask someone's story. Allow him to share dreams and aspirations. Make a person feel like she matters. And tomorrow, do it again. And again. Until you get addicted.

I learn so much simply by listening. For instance, today I wanted to spend the day visiting the community, preparing for the groups that will be arriving in less than 24 hours. But instead, my travel companion and I spent over an hour talking with the director of the school where we're staying.

What were we doing? Listening. To story after story. Memory after memory.

This is the only successful way to produce true, lasting change in a life.

You have to listen.

World changers listen

There's no other way to say it. People who do work that matters stop yapping at some point, and receive information.

How do great political leaders succeed? They listen. They travel the countryside, visiting constituents and hearing their stories. They read letters, answer phone calls, and let people speak their minds.

How do skilled lawyers win a case? They listen to their clients. They pay attention to the evidence. They examine the testimonies of countless witnesses. They do far more than talk.

How do good teachers teach? They listen to their students. They notice how they respond to a question or spend weeks finding something that motivates them. And they use this information to make a difference.

Changing the world is actually possible

Most people scoff at youthful aspirations of changing the world. As if it's never been done before. (Hint: it has.) Actually, it's quite possible — even within your reach right now.

All you have to know is how to begin.

I began going on mission trips because I wanted to change the world. But now, I go, because I want to change me.

I agree with Chesterton when he said, “What's wrong with the world is me.” The world's problems are not solved through political or social action alone. No amount of lobbying or advocacy can change the human heart.

The world's brokenness, rather, is healed when you and I take ownership of our own brokenness — and work to fix it.

I am the problem. Therefore, I need help outside of myself to be the solution.

A great place to start is humility — to admit that you need others' help, that God himself will have to intervene in your life to redeem some of your mistakes.

Real change is unusual. It never happens like we think. Rarely is a life is transformed by something grandiose. It is always small and unassuming. Something quite personal. This is the unexpectedness of change.

Is one enough?

Never worry about numbers.  Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.
–Mother Teresa

At this stage in life, I'm not impressed with numbers. I'm becoming even less enamored with the megaphone means of broadcasting a message. A larger stage doesn't seem to necessary mean great change in the lives affected.

Far too many of my heroes have been small men, people who have changed the world one tiny act at a time. This is where real transformation happens — in the daily routes, in the disciplines of life that we hardly notice.

I've learned that the best stuff in life is simple. It's a cup of coffee. One-on-one relationships. That's how you make a difference. One small investment at a time.

And you start by listening.

Is one person's life forever changed worth your investment of time?

You had better decide before moving forward.

Why listening is hard

We like hearing ourselves talk. We love being the center of attention. Listening does not come easy to many of us. We are selfish, short-sighted, and lazy. We want to be the star of the show.

But listening is important. In a world of me-first superstars and self-seeking success-hounds, doing something as radical as lending your ear can change everything.

But we have to be willing to abstain from self-centeredness and focus on someone else. This is counter-intuitive, but it is  ultimately good and cleansing for the soul.

It turns out that only seeking our own needs is an all-consuming, never-satisfied desire.

Getting started is easy

So how do you do this? How do you begin? Like anything else: put one foot in front of the other.

Go to a nursing home. Volunteer for a nonprofit telethon. Visit a long-lost family member. Open up a friend's photo album. Sit on a park bench next to a stranger. Travel to a new city.

Go out on a limb. Risk a little. Ask a thoughtful question. Show sincere interest.

And then you must do the hardest, most important part: Listen.

Pay attention. Nod along (without nodding off). Focus. Who knows what could happen from this one little act of obedience. You just might change the world.

Do you find that listening makes a difference? Why or why not? Join the discussion in the comments.