Long ago, I was asked to speak at graduation. As a young woman, I had received multiple awards for academic and athletic performance but was not entirely comfortable with the ceremonies attached to the achievements. Awards were never something I wanted a part of – they didn’t motivate me and as I mentioned, were not enjoyable experiences for me. But, when it was time for me to deliver the speech, I couldn’t very easily stay put in the seat in the front row. I knew I had to speak.

By some divine intervention, my mother (a remarkable woman) gave me a graduation card that made that speech possible. That card, which I still have today, had the following written on the front cover:

You can make a difference.

You don’t have to be

Smarter, faster, stronger,

Richer or more talented

Than anyone else.

You don’t need a

Lifetime to get ready.

IT only takes courage now

When the truth needs to be said,

When the work need to be done,

When the help needs to be given…

 

You can make a difference.

 

By earning people trust

And giving them your respect

You can help build a world where

Good things happen for all of us.

Because the only reason

There is for being alive

IS to make the most

Of what you have.

Your time.  Your ideas. Your love.

That’s all you need.

 

You can make a difference.

-Unknown Author

 

That card became the basis for my speech and a guiding verse in how I think about life and leadership. It’s powerful in several ways, right from the first line. Go ahead, reread it.

You. Can. Make. A. Difference. Five simple words, each with a weight all their own. What I love about this one line is that depending on where you put the emphasis, the impact changes – but every word packs a punch. Let’s look at each in turn:

1.) YOU can make a difference. Yes, you. YOU can. As in YOU, the person reading this. You are the one who can make a difference. Why are you waiting for someone else to do it? YOU can make a difference. Maybe someone else can, too, but if YOU can, why shouldn’t you? This is about initiative and accountability. We all have the power within us to make great things happen, but many of us are waiting for someone else to go first. “THEY should do something about that.” “SOMEONE should write a letter to Congress.” “Why isn’t ANYONE helping him/her/them?”

News flash – THEY, SOMEONE and ANYONE?  They’re all you.

 2.) You CAN make a difference. Notice it didn’t say “CAN’T” It says “CAN.” It is possible for you to have an impact and make a difference in your own life and the lives of innumerable people around you. It may take work, courage, persistence, and patience, but you CAN make a difference What’s preventing you from taking action? So much of the world wakes up with a defeatist attitude, already bitter and therefore, depleted of ambition. It shows up in so many ways, from the negative self-talk in our heads, to a need to know that a perfect outcome is possible before we even begin.

I spent years of my life changing the behavior of professionals and heard over and over again that, “This won’t work where we are,” or “I see your point, but in my situation….”

We’ve got to change the language in our heads from “I can’t” to “How can I?”

Babies learn at a very young age that they have an impact on this world, that there are things they can control. They throw things off of highchairs to get you to pick them up. Over. And Over. And Over. It starts at a remarkably young age, and for all too many, it is later suppressed by the “real world.” Let’s face it, if you throw your food on the floor over and over again in your corporate lunch room chances are your boss won’t react the same way your mom did! But my point is this: early on we figure out that we have impact – it is a fundamental part of being human.

This is about breaking through the fear to find the ability. Whatever it is, you can.

3.) You can MAKE a difference. Speaking of action, it takes action not passivity. And some key ingredients, most of which you probably already have. It’s just a matter of figuring out the recipe, and not giving up. You have to make it happen. Whatever it is, it won’t happen to you as you sit back and watch, but it will happen because of you, as you step up and take action. You can MAKE a difference. You have to make it happen. You have to be active in crafting your impact on this world, just like an artist is active in designing a masterpiece. If you stay on the couch or behind the desk, nothing will be any different than it was yesterday. Whether it’s a weight loss plan, a cause in which you believe, or the degree you wish you had completed years ago – you have to MAKE it happen. And you can (see the previous point).

4.) You can make A difference. Maybe just one, or maybe many. But one is all it takes. Maybe that’s all you have room for right now. Or all that is important in this moment. Some of you will make many differences, but all of you have the ability to make at least one. A single difference that you already know needs to be made. You can probably hear it calling your name. Start with that one. And then, who knows, maybe your full-time job will become making a difference, or maybe it already is. But for today, right now, all you have to do is pick one. Because hands down, we know this to be true: You can make A difference. Maybe you’ve heard the story of the little boy walking along the shore picking up starfish and throwing them back into the ocean. The one where someone asks him what he’s doing, since “You’ll never be able to save all of them!” His response, as he throws another one back into the ocean is, “But I can save this one.” No other example quite makes the point better than that.

How often have you said to yourself, “There’s so much to do I don’t even know where to start”? Start somewhere. Anywhere. Just start. You don’t necessarily have to have a grand plan or even a desire to achieve great things. Just strive to achieve something.

Life has a funny way of making a whole lot of somethings add up to some pretty big things.

5.) You can make a DIFFERENCE. The world, according to at least one person, and perhaps many (or even millions!) will be different because you have been in it. Revel in that for a second. The world will be different just because you have been in it. So what is the difference that you want to make? What will you do to leave your friends, family, community, company, or a complete stranger in a better and different place than when you found them? What legacy do you choose to leave because you can make a DIFFERENCE? The great thing about being a human instead of a goldfish is that you get to decide what kind of difference you want to make. If you could make a difference (which you can – see point 2 above), what difference would you make? Write it down on a piece of paper. Stick it to your refrigerator, your bathroom mirror and your computer screen. Constantly remind yourself of what you would like to see change, and then make it happen. What would you like to be different about yourself, your team, your business, your relationships, your place of worship, your backyard, your bank account, or your bookshelf?

In that, please also find time to reflect on those things for which you are grateful. These two things are not mutually exclusive.

Be grateful for what you have, and go make a difference where you can.

I’d like to say that 20+ years ago when I gave the speech (now referred to in shorthand as YCMAD), it was quite similar what you just read above I believe that we all can make a difference. And I believe that it takes courage. Our job as leaders is to inspire courage in those around us.

The YCMAD verse has been with us for many years and has been shared with countless audiences. One of five ways to read it usually resonates with people, depending on where you put the emphasis. Which one speaks to you?

  • YOU can make a difference.
  • You CAN make a difference.
  • You can MAKE a difference.
  • You can make A
  • You can make a DIFFERENCE.

We’d like to hear your thoughts. Drop us a line and let us know which word you think should be emphasized, and why. You never know, you might show up in one of our blogs, or in our constantly evolving course materials. Maybe this moment, right here, right now, marks the beginning of the difference you can make. Which emphasis inspires you the most?

Comment, or share this post with #YCMAD to start the conversation.

Visit our RESOURCES page to download the poem!

Leave a Comment