I worked at a summer camp as a teenager. I was working in the kitchen one week for a family camp when an older woman, a camper in her 70s, picked up a broom, and started sweeping the dining room.
I took the broom from her. “You don’t have to do that! We’ve got this. Go enjoy yourself.”
But when I turned around, she had picked up the broom and was sweeping again.
All week she swept, loaded dishes into the industrial dishwasher, and washed tables—much to my annoyance. I grumbled that she was in the way and rolled my eyes every time I saw her pick up a washcloth.
Finally, someone else on the kitchen staff pulled me aside. “She wants something to do. She doesn’t have family here and she likes to feel needed. Let her do it.”
In that moment, I changed. I saw a woman who I thought was compulsively trying to help, perhaps even because she thought it wasn’t done well enough, and I realized that I was wrong. She needed to help, not for our sake, but for hers.
It helped her to feel significant.
I was reading this week about why being significant is more important than being successful. I was considering the way significance impacts our life, both in good, bad, and ugly ways.
Significance is a hell of a drug
As a matter of fact, when it comes to jobs, I’m a real sucker for someone approaching me for a job. When someone out of the blue and unexpectedly has contacted me to offer me a job option, I’m tickled pink.
You want me!? Wow! I’m so flattered.
I’ve even taken a few jobs over the years that I probably shouldn’t have.
In some cases, if people are approaching you for a job, there’s a chance it’s below what you’re capable of. While it’s possible you’re a unicorn candidate, it’s also possible that they’re looking to you because the job is so well within your wheelhouse that they feel you’d be perfect. But you might not be challenged.
But, then, significance is a hell of a drug, isn’t it? Have you taken a job because they want you? Have you jumped into a relationship because they want you? Have you volunteered for a project because they want you?
It gives us a little boost, feeling wanted. Feeling like we matter. We’re significant.
After all, playing at our level means putting ourselves out there in a hostile world that might not recognize what we have to offer.
Growing to our limits will mean a lot of rejection, and that hurts. Operating at the furthest reaches of our capabilities is a place where mistakes and failures happen more.
It’s easier to stay where we’re celebrated. Where we’re requested.
Don’t be the person who peaked in high school
Remember the kids who peaked in high school? Every school had them, and they’re a popular cliché in movies.
The jock who was the starting quarterback who never went anywhere after. The head cheerleader who was prom queen. In my hometown it was the hockey players (Canada eh?) who strutted around my small hometown with their team jackets on.
Ten years after I left my hometown, I spent a year living there again—working remotely on my doctorate. Some of the people from high school were still strutting around in those jackets. Because in that tiny, Northern Canada town with 3,000 people, it meant something. They were significant.
Everyone thought they had their lives figured out, but for some reason a lot of the people who ruled high school never went any further than that.
I think that tells me two things.
First of all, peaking in high school was definitely a case of loving significance and being unwilling to step into a bigger pond where nobody knows you. The drug of significance makes it really hard for high school athletes to pack their bags, move into a dorm, and drop onto a college campus where they’re anonymous.
But it also tells me that feeling significant happens in a domain. I could namedrop a Canadian celebrity I’ve met, but unless you’ve lived here, you wouldn’t care.
Unless you’re Beyoncé, your significance happens in a limited domain—no matter where you go, not everyone knows you.
It’s tempting to just bask in a specific domain where we feel significant. One of the scariest things about the drug of significance is that it can keep us locked away in celebrated mediocrity. It can hold us back from achieving our potential.
Feeling significant, I think, is subjective. In many cases, we don’t stop and say—“Yeah, I really mean something here… but in the next town over, they don’t give a crap about me.”
Instead we tell ourselves the stories that keep us locked away in our small worlds: “I matter. I mean something.”
Since significance exists in a domain where we understand ourselves and our place, it’s really hard to move out into a new domain.
When I work with graduate students and PhDs, they understand their place within the academy. Even if they’re being mistreated by the system—and many are—they’re still teaching undergrads, publishing papers, and giving papers at conferences. Even though you’re hanging on by a thread, in the domain of academia, it’s easy to tell yourself you’re significant—especially as you jump on a plane to go to the next conference.
Significance is a hell of a drug.
A lesson from Arnold
There’s a fear that comes with losing significance, and especially with stepping out of the domain where you feel significant. Some people will never step beyond, because the drug of significance gives them something they need.
So let’s look at a lesson from Arnold.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was born in Austria and always wanted to move to the US. When he saw a body-building magazine, he saw his ticket to America. He started to train and eventually became Mr. Universe. But he didn’t stop there. He wanted to be an actor—and was laughed out of a lot of auditions because of his size and his accent. But he still became an actor—and an iconic one. Then he wanted to be governor of California, and he went and did that.
But if he’d stayed in the body-building world because it made him feel comfortable and significant and didn’t push him out of his comfort zone, he’d have fizzled into obscurity.
The drug of significance can trap us. Because if we’re driven by it, we might choose to operate much lower than our potential so we can hold onto that feeling.
Feeling like we matter
Our need for significance isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I used to know a guy from Oklahoma, who would often say thoughtful things, but would start with, “While I’m just a simple country boy—a dumb Okie really…”
Even in that identity, he saw a significance in his common-sense wisdom. And he was right. He often had great things to say.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Defining significance for yourself
In the final analysis, an unhealthy drive for significance on others’ terms will probably make you sick. It will probably trap you in mediocrity and never let you reach your peak state.
But significance doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
It can be a gift you give yourself–not one that comes from others. It’s looking at your life and recognizing that a certain work you choose to do is significant because it matters to you, even if it matters to no-one else.
Release yourself from the toxic need to let others give you your significance and give it to yourself. That’s the gift.
And also the thing I struggle with the most.
But, like the lady at camp, pick up your broom because the work matters to you, because you need a place to make a difference and to chip in, whether anyone notices or not…
And that’s enough.