I’ve met Joe Palca, a science correspondent at NPR, twice this summer. Both times, he’s mentioned his desire to “make a difference.” His words. In fact, during our most recent conversation, what he said exactly was this: “When I was younger, I had this idea in my head that I wanted to make a difference.”
I’m familiar with the concept. For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt pressured to do something big with my life. The swirling in my stomach provided no other directions, instead thrusting me in a perpetual existential crisis and making me a sucker for vague motivational quotes. Save the world. Change the culture. Make your mark.
But this summer, I’ve realized just how subjective the idea of “making a difference” is. Most days, Joe Palca feels like he has made an impact. But as he admitted to me, he’ll never know how many perspectives he’s shifted — a predicament that he says often keeps him up at night.
How do you measure influence? In some fields, like medicine or science, specialists may choose to quantify the effects of their work in terms of the number of lives they have improved. But in most careers, that estimation isn’t so straightforward. If you write an article that a thousand people read, you can’t say that you’ve changed a thousand minds. And even in the sciences, you can never know objectively how much a single study, drug, or procedure has improved someone’s life.
So how can we ever feel that what we’re doing is enough?
This summer, our DukeEngage cohort visited several museums. Previously, I considered museums to be a superficial medium of education, a necessary curation of materials that someone dubbed important to the human experience on Earth. But our program director urged us time and time again to take a different strategy. He prompted us to question why these specific materials were chosen, as well as what their style of presentation said about the museum’s intentions for visitors.
The purpose of education is never merely the acquisition of knowledge. Learning cannot be divorced from the interactions between the information and the person who receives it. Just as every experience has some impact on you, everything you learn, either directly or indirectly, affects you in some way — emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually. I realized that these museums attempt to educate visitors by tapping into their emotions — their fascination, horror, sorrow, and joy. You cannot influence a person without moving them.
The impact we want can’t be based on numbers alone. Our lives are more than a collection of data points — they overflow with our experiences, emotions, relationships, secrets, doubts, fears, musings, and dreams, all intrinsically and irrevocably entwined with each other. We will never be able to measure our influence because humanity refuses to uncomplicate itself just to help us sleep at night. And so we try, in whatever way we can, to change lives by changing minds, and to change minds by changing hearts.
That sounds like the kind of difference I want to make.