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Can one person really make a difference?

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons, Personal Development

Back in the 1940s, there was a 14-year old boy living in a small village in Turkey.

He grew up in poverty and helped support his family as a shepherd tending sheep.

He heard that a school had opened up in a nearby village for training future elementary school teachers. He applied and was accepted. He walked 50 kilometers (roughly 30 miles) from his village to the school to register—a trip he’d have to make back and forth on a regular basis.

During his first week, the school nurse noticed that the boy’s shoes were falling apart. Students (and teachers) were required to do manual labor around the campus, building classrooms and dorms. They worked the fields that supplied food to the school—which left his feet soaking wet, and his shoes filled with mud.

The nurse bought him a new pair of hobnail boots. Those boots transformed his life: Without this gift, he likely would have dropped out of school.

The boy graduated, returned to his village, and became an elementary school teacher. Over the next few decades, he taught thousands of students, becoming an inspirational leader in his community.

He also taught me.

That boy was my grandfather—and my first teacher.

My love for reading and writing—along with my curiosity and sense of wonder about the world—largely came from him.

If that nurse hadn’t given him those boots, my grandfather may have dropped out of school. And I would have grown up without many of the life lessons that he passed on to me—which set me on the path I’m on today.

In other words, a butterfly flapped its wings in a small village in Turkey and created a ripple effect that radiated outward for decades to come.

We often assume we have to “do something big” to make a difference. Our individual actions aren’t enough. We must write a book about it or start a podcast about it or record an Instagram story about it. If we don’t have a “large following” or if we lack the ability to create change on scale, we don’t even bother.

A huge splash is what’s visible—and we assume what’s visible is what’s important.

But a tiny drop can also create ripples that extend far beyond what’s visible. We often don’t see those ripples, so we assume they don’t exist. The nurse who gifted my grandfather that pair of boots has no idea what an impact she made on my life—and on the lives of thousands of students he later taught.

I often get a version of this question during my keynotes: “How do I get others to change?”

My answer? Embody the change you want to see. Stop waiting for others to take action. The nurse didn’t wait for “the authorities” to help my grandfather. Instead, she did what she thought was the right thing to do.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, “but it bends toward justice.”

But it doesn’t do that automatically.

It doesn’t bend toward justice if you wait for a hero to show up and take action.

It bends toward justice when ordinary people make small contributions that build up over time to something extraordinary.

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