Most of us want to make a difference. Some want to take on global issues such as poverty, inequality, or climate change. Others are happy with making a difference to their local community, or even just their own family. But we want our lives to matter to someone.
I used to think that making a difference on a small scale was somehow not “ambitious enough”. If I could make the world better for one hundred people, or one million people, it felt almost unethical for me to choose the smaller, local impact. But I have recently changed my mind – and now champion micro-scale impact! – thanks to a great blog post by Richard Branson.
Branson advises us to draw a circle around ourselves first to make sure that everything inside that circle is working well. Is our health in shape? Are the different areas of our lives in balance?
Once you feel the circle is strong enough you can widen the circle to include your family and friends. Once that second circle is strong you can expand it again to include your local community. If things go really well you can then draw a circle around your country. And if things go really really well, you can draw a circle around the whole world and deal with global issues.
This philosophy of circles taught me three key lessons:
#1: Macro issues are made from millions of ignored micro issues
Global issues do not consist of one big problem. They consist of millions of tiny problems that each happen on a local level for some specific individual. Fixing any one of these local issues is challenging, but definitely doable. But it’s here we risk falling into the fallacy of thinking:
“What does it matter if I step up? My action will only be a grain of sand in the desert.”
It’s precisely that kind of thinking that causes small, local problems to multiply. All issues are local, but it’s those that are repeatedly ignored that become global. When I now see a piece of trash on the street, hear an insensitive comment, or see an opportunity to make someone feel valued, I remind myself that it’s these local issues that count.
#2: You can’t help a big circle without a strong, small circle to stand upon
Helping someone requires that you have some strength to lend. This is why we need to draw a circle around ourselves first. It’s admirable to want to make a difference for one million people. But if you can’t make a difference to one hundred people first, let alone yourself, then how are you supposed to make a difference to one million?
The circles work almost like a video game. By completing one circle, you gain the strength, resources, and knowledge you need to be capable enough to take on the next one.
When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook, for example, he didn’t set out to connect the whole world. He just focused on connecting the students at his own school Harvard. Once he succeeded with that, he would widen his circle and connect all the colleges in the Ivy League. Then all colleges in the U.S. Then everyone in the U.S. And, finally, the whole world. But had they not first succeeded at one college, nothing else would have followed.
The same holds true for those who wish to make a big impact in any field. It’s by succeeding in the small that you gain access to succeeding in the large. And the bigger you decide to make your circle, the stronger all your smaller circles need to be.
#3: When circles overlap there is an opportunity for partnerships
Once you expand your circles, you will find that they overlap with others. At the smallest level, you have circles overlapping at the family level, and the more that any of member widens their own family ring, the more the overlap increases for everyone.
The same thing holds true for the next level of circles. When there is an overlap of interests, that is a great opportunity for forming a partnership and taking on the problem together. Sharing resources, incidentally, widens the overlap because your circles move closer to one another, and the overlapping area can be worth many times more than the sum of its individual parts.
The more our circles overlap, the stronger the fabric of society becomes.
This philosophy of the circles has given me a new (and dare I say better) way to think about the world. At a time when global issues seem equally insurmountable and appealing to take on, let’s remember to draw a circle around ourselves first. Let’s widen it one step at a time and work to overlap our circles as much as possible.
The more our circles overlap, the less space small issues have to fester. And if issues don’t have the opportunity to become local, they won’t have the opportunity to become global.