The Pursuit of Immeasurable Impact


“Teachers affect eternity; no one can tell where their influence stops.” – Henry Brooks Adams

I began my first career as a high school English teacher, full of idealism about the impact I would have on my students. The reason I went into teaching (aside from being completely clueless about what else I might do with my life), was because I wanted to have a positive impact on kids. Yet, I don’t know what impact, good and bad, I had on my students. I know some of the impact I had on some students.

If the reason I went into teaching was to have an impact on their lives, there’s really no way to measure that.

And now I question whether pursuing “impact on kids” as an objective was just plain hubris. The truth is, all I’ve ever had control over (and let’s use “control” loosely here) is how I show up in the world. How students interpreted and applied anything I said or did had far more to do with them and where they were in their lives than my desire to have an impact. That assumes they were evening listening.

Or that I was. Any positive impact I had on them is only because I listened to them. Anytime I was busy listening to myself and focused on how I looked, I’d already lost them.

The same is true for my coaching clients. I can neither take credit for their success nor for their failures. How they live their lives is up to them. I do everything I can to support them — but the actions they take are their own. They get to take credit for victories in their lives. It would be presumptuous (and dangerous) to approach it any other way.

Yet, when I’m working in corporate outplacement (e.g., people affected by a reduction in workforce), I’m supposed to help people translate their actions into impact — results — on their resume.

I’m beginning to think the idea of measuring impact is largely about ego and finance departments.

What gets measured is what gets done. But is that what’s important? Think about all those standardized tests we give students. To what degree has testing ruined the pursuit of curiosity and creativity?

Instead, I’ve committed my life to something largely immeasurable: reducing human suffering and supporting people to create a fulfilling life. How do you measure the impact of that?

I’m committed to, instead, pursuing impact that defies measurement. Let me explain.

A few years ago I was working with a client who had taken an early retirement buy-out, and at first it seemed that would be the answer to the health problems and burnout she experienced from work. However, once she retired, she didn’t want to do anything. Accustomed to managing a team and being surrounded by coworkers, she was lonely and isolated at home all day. By the time I met with her, she was feeling lost and depressed.

While her career had been successful by all kinds of measurements — salary, promotions, number of direct reports, savings created, etc. — it created all her health problems. But, it had also given her purpose, confidence and structure. Without it, she was struggling to find the energy and motivation to do much of anything. She was beginning to think she needed to go back to work, just to have more structure.

I was supposed to be consulting with her about how to translate her work experience into measurable results on her resume. After listening to her, I knew she didn’t need a resume or a job; she did need a reason to get out of bed.

In that first session I asked about her hobbies, and she lit up when she talked about doing mosaics on old windows. It occurred to me that she might enjoy The Artist’s Way. She needed something to sink her teeth into, and readily accepted my suggestion to get a copy. Further, I recommended the same thing to another client facing a similar situation and connected the two of them.

All on their own, they committed to doing The Artist’s Way and to meeting once a week to do crafts and discuss the book.

It’s been three years since I made that suggestion, and she reached out to me last week with this email:

“I think my retirement life is now as busy as my [work] life … only it is doing things that I love to do. I am an art workshop facilitator at Village Walls, children’s creative reuse art instructor at village gallery of arts, show my work at two galleries, member of a mosaic guide, am a yogi, busy with water aerobics, Monday babysit my 1 year old nephew and still do crafts w Terri every Wednesday. It is pretty amazing waking up in the morning and living joy in my heart … I never knew this way of life existed.”

I can’t measure this. I can’t know what ripple effect one suggestion I make is going to have, and if I approached my work to produce measurable results, e.g. number of resumes reviewed, I would miss the opportunity to make an impact you can’t measure — and that’s a good thing.

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