"I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump."
A story that has always stayed with me since grade school that might be part fiction, but might very well be true is of the guy who left a suicide note that was found after he killed himself by jumping off a bridge.
A topic that interests me a great deal is how little people realize their effect on other people. Here's a few recent cases.
Mark Hayward - performance artist
I attended ORD Camp (like Foo Camp but in Chicago) a few months ago and heard a talk from Mark Hayward, a yo-yo performer and comedy juggler. He talked about performing on stage. I asked him how he obtains feedback about his performances.
He mentioned that it's tough, because sometimes a crowd of faces just isn't honestly portraying how they feel. For example, one performance he gave had a bunch of people that looked stoic and unimpressed all night. But after the show, someone came up to Mark and said that was the best yo-yo performance he'd ever seen. This happens more than you know it about yourself. You rely on the unspoken feedback you think you are getting from other people while often silently they think you are being a whole lot of awesome.
A volunteer program
I volunteered with a program this last fall and winter helping high school seniors apply to college. These are kids who are the first in their families to go to college, so this is quite a challenge for them to get through this process. We get teamed up with a buddy at the beginning of the program.
Well, my kid decided to not show up anymore after the first day :) without ever officially quitting. So I filled in as a floater helping a kid one week whose mentor couldn't show up, and a different kid another week.
I didn't feel like I made much of a difference in this program since I was just filling in a tiny bit. So when a follow up panel discussion was being done this spring with the seniors about what college and careers are like, I really hesitated about attending. Everyone else had spent a good chunk of time getting to know their buddies and help out, and I can't even remember my kids' names since my relationship with them was so fleeting.
But then out of nowhere I get an email from one of the kids I helped for just a few hours one day, asking me if I'd be at the panel. Wow, I didn't expect that at all.
A talk to students
I gave a talk a few months ago down at my alma mater, the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana). It was a talk about starting a business to mostly a room of students. I thought the talk went fair, but just like Mark above, there wasn't a ton of visual feedback. And there were kids yawning already and I was the second talk. It was early in the morning on a weekend, but still, kind of gets you feeling blah about whether or not this talk even matters. But then I've gotten follow up emails from some students about the talk and wanting more information, and blog comments like
"Nate, I am one of those students at the University of Illinois that you showed the video to. Your presentation was fantastic!" - Loren Burton
So there's just a few examples of the impact that some people have on others that you're lucky to even find out about. Think about all the people you impact that you don't get this feedback from. The people on your blog that get stuff from your writing that never write a blog comment. The people who you inspire at work who you'll maybe never actually converse with.
Or the person you smile to on your way out the door for work.