Deep down, most of us want our lives to count in some way. We yearn for significance and recognition, someone to validate us and let us know that we mean something. I mean, we’re rattling around on this planet with no real idea what we’re supposed to be doing, so it helps to get some reassurance that we’re doing something right.
We also grow up with some standards about what you have to do to be significant, whether these standards are from our parents, school, the culture around us – and we often discount ourselves because we don’t meet those standards. If you’re trying to drive yourself to become better, striving for a standard can be a good thing – ambition and drive are necessary to keep you going when things are difficult. But if you’re setting unreasonable demands on yourself for what significance or success mean, you’ll always think your life is not good enough and that you’re not significant – no matter how hard you try. And that’s just not true.
I think one of the problems when we think about being significant is that we confuse making an impact with people noticing our impact. Instead of wanting to make our mark on the world and contribute to it, we want people to notice us and be impressed. In some ways this makes sense – how can we make any impact on people if they don’t know it’s happened – but actually there are plenty of things in your life that have absolutely defined how you live, but that you have no idea where they came from. I’m thinking about things like technology, language, local history, and any number of other areas of your life that are as they are because someone did something life-changing in the past, but you don’t really know that it happened because things are just the way they are now.
And surely we also need to ask ourselves who we want recognition from. Rather than thinking about what is important to us and what we would see as successful, we look for this recognition from those around us. But do you have exactly the same set of values as your friends and family? More likely, they will have a different idea of what is successful. So what happens is that we look for recognition and validation of our significance among people who are measuring us against a different standard. This can lead to us thinking we’re a failure when all we’ve done is ask the wrong people. If your dad is a farmer and you’re a musician, he may well think you’re a failure before you even start. But if you are supposed to be a musician, then his assessment of you is not going to help you know how well you’re doing. You need to choose who you listen to. And that can be hard.
Ultimately though, your significance can’t come from other people. That comes and goes. You have to find some way of seeing your significance objectively, based on what you know of yourself and what you are trying to achieve. If you can do that, you won’t have to feel so up and down when people’s minds change about you.