What You Do Matters

Two starfish on a beach during sunset
Creator/Copyright: Ivan Mikhaylov Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

No matter how small your action is. No matter how seemingly insignificant of an impact you think you have, what you do matters. This can be a difficult concept to not only remember but sometimes to even recognize. We tend to set our sights on the larger goal, the end product, the overall process. In doing so, we set ourselves up to miss the small victories in the progress we make. We can fail to recognize that what we are doing can and will make a difference. We can lose our motivation and passion.

As someone who has spent most of my working years in healthcare, specifically addictions and mental health, this defeatist thinking can come easily. Progress often comes slowly and is littered with relapse. You bear witness to chronic illness, stagnation, death. BUT it can also be immensely rewarding when you see others heal and know you assisted them with taking their lives back!

I always have to keep in mind that what I do matters, otherwise I could lose hope. If I lose hope myself, how can I help others keep it? How can I continue to walk alongside my patients in their recovery journeys without holding them back or dragging them down with me?

I was listening to a podcast the other day and they briefly mentioned a story I had heard before that illustrates the power in recognizing the impact you may have.  There have been many versions of this story I have come across but I’ll do my best to summarize them. The concept of these stories comes from a longer essay called “The Star Thrower” by Loren C Eiseley.

The Starfish Story

A young child was on the beach where a large number of starfish had washed up. They began to pick up each starfish and throw them into the ocean one at a time. A passerby saw this and asked the child what they were doing and remarked that they couldn’t possibly make a difference because there were so many starfish on the beach. The child picked up another starfish, flung it far into the ocean and said “I made a difference for that one!”

Versions of this story I have heard include the passerby joining in with the child, prompting others on the beach to do so, resulting in the beach getting cleared of the starfish.

The Impact

I enjoy the extended versions (I probably should read the full essay for all of the nuances and lessons) because it illustrates a few concepts about small actions and impacts that I try to keep in mind, not only in my work, but in my personal life.

One is sometimes called the butterfly effect or ripple effect. The idea is that one small impact leads to a chain of other changes resulting in a larger change in a complex system. Such as a butterfly flapping its wings leading to a typhoon somewhere else in the world. Or a situation where one event causes effects that spread and produce further effects.  Similar to a pebble thrown into a body of water causing a series of growing ripples on the surface of the water that may cause other changes.  While we know that  a butterfly flapping its wings is not really causing a typhoon and sometimes a pebble thrown into a pond just causes a minor wave, the concepts put forth by these ideas is a great way to remind ourselves of the impact small actions have.

In the extended story, the child’s determination to help the starfish even after confronted with some negativity prompts the passerby to help. This in turn motivates others on the beach to join in. Soon enough the beach is cleared and the starfish are returned to the water.

When you feel what you are doing has little or no impact, remember, others are watching. This can lead to someone else engaging in a small act and cause a chain reaction! It can even prompt teamwork to get what seems to be an impossible task completed.

Lesson 1-What you do, no matter how small, can motivate others

The next concept I use the story to remind myself of is demonstrated in the child’s response to the passerby. If you recall, the passerby comments that the child cannot be making a difference. The passerby is only looking at the beach as a whole and the hundreds or thousands of washed-up starfish. The child points out they can make a difference to even just one.

This is a great reminder that sometimes we don’t need to focus on the bigger picture to keep our motivation. We need to focus on the impact our action can have in the moment, on one small part of the bigger picture. This in itself is a reward that can fuel motivation.

If thinking of progress, this reminds us to focus on the small steps and minor victories on route to the larger goal. It upkeeps our energy and motivation.

In my work in healthcare and my volunteer work with Know Your Why Recovery I think of it as “can I make a difference for one person.” This is enough to usually fuel me for long periods of time. Hell, sometimes it just gets me through a day or moment. Can I help just one person today? Have a made a difference in one person’s day? Yes? Then mission accomplished, lets go do more!

There is immense power in healthcare, AND humanity in general, if we sometimes lose sight of the larger system and focus on the individual.

Lesson 2-What you do, no matter how small, matters greatly, even if it matters to just one person


It is easy to feel like our actions don’t have meaning if we don’t see clear, immediate impacts. When this happens over time, we can lose our passion and motivation. It can contribute to personal and professional burnout. Changing your mindset to keep the lessons above in mind may help you remain motivated and positive.


Remember the starfish…

Chris Dorian, Founder of Know Your Why Recovery

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