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Focus on your three feet of influence

It can all seem too much.

Perhaps you have problems in your extended family. Perhaps people are squabbling, disagreeing, agitating. You do your best to intervene, but there are entrenched positions and big egos in play. Old grievances are being nurtured. You want this to end, but there are too many variables. It feels easier to give up.

Or it could be that your organization is troubled. So many are, at the moment. You have given this particular one some of your best years; you would wish to stay on for many more; but you are worried. The people at the top don’t seem to get it. They are watching the storm arrive, full-on. You wish you could change things, but you are not high enough in the pecking order to have any real influence.

Your nation might also be facing big challenges. Perhaps its leaders, as is the wont of so many leaders everywhere, are wrecking nationhood for their own narrow aims. Perhaps they are guiding the economy to ruin. Perhaps they are sowing divisions and hatred. It is such a waste. Your country could be so much, do so much. You wish you had a role to play, but you have only one vote. You are not a person of influence or means. No one will listen to you.

Actually the whole damn world is a let-down. Wherever you look, people are arguing, fighting, grabbing, objecting, ruining. Humanity seems to veer between savagery and incompetence. The environment is being degraded; oceans are becoming dumping grounds; new diseases are running rampant; billions of plants and creatures are being burnt in wildfires. Can anything be done?

The bigger you make the arena of discomfort, the less hope you have of resolving it. It is very easy to leave everything to the big men, the patriarchs, the rulers, the politicos, the billionaires. And that would be exactly the wrong thing to do. If you let the self-centred and the self-serving decide everything, then the rest of us will only face degradation and exploitation.

Still, what are you to do?

A great answer comes from Sharon Salzberg, an author and meditation teacher. I was pointed to her by a newsletter I get regularly from Bill Taylor, a wise thinker and writer himself. The insight is this: don’t try to boil the ocean, change the world, fix everything; instead, just focus on your three feet of influence.

In other words: just focus your attention on the here and now; on the thing that you are good at doing; on the people immediately in your vicinity. That’s all. Be the best that you can be, with what’s available to you. Be an influencer with the people that really matter: your immediate family, closest friends, proximate colleagues.

In Sharon’s words: “Few people are powerful enough, persuasive, persistent, consistent, and charismatic enough to change the world all at once, but everyone has the ability to affect the three feet around them by behaving more ethically, honestly, and compassionately toward those they meet.”

This is a powerful message about making a difference. Bill Taylor reminds us of something similar from Theodore Roosevelt, to “do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”

As you walk around, become aware of your three feet of influence. Your words, actions and example really matter. There is no point in wishing the world was better than it is; there is every point in behaving in the way you wish the world to be.

In my book The Bigger Deal I call this “the bigger deal, smaller.” Those who are kind, helpful and compassionate are very influential, often without knowing it. They set an example and become role models. They radiate goodwill and often give those who feel hopeless a reason to regain hope. They matter a great deal, because without them we would all become barking brutes.

The world will not be saved by those we elect or enrich. It will be saved by the millions who save their own three feet of it every day. Try it. Whichever circles of three feet you find yourself in tomorrow, tell yourself you will be the best of you, the person you want everyone to be. You might be courteous and polite. Thoughtful and reflective. Kind and warm. Efficient and organized. Gregarious and sociable. Open-minded and curious. You choose.

Whatever virtues matter to you, be those things, just in the three feet you have around you every day. That would be your great contribution, and the world would undoubtedly get better.

(Sunday Nation, 2 February 2020)

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