“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
Insignificance. It’s a word (but more of a feeling) that I’ve been thinking about a lot. That I’d argue we all think about a lot. Constantly even. We are all living our lives in a constant quest for some sort of significance. In our work and in our relationships. We all want to be seen. Valued. Significant in something or to someone. We live in a culture that values fame. Likes. Achievement. Be the best. The smartest, richest, happiest, and best looking person. But in our quest for significance, we constantly fall short. Of course. We aren’t the smartest, richest, happiest, or best looking person. Annnnnnd cue existential crisis.
But is insignificance really something to be feared?
When visiting National Parks, one of the things I value most is the scale of it all. Driving across vast open spaces, hiking in the midst of tall trees, with huge mountain ranges towering over me. I feel my own insignificance. It’s visceral. I am a small part of a huge and beautiful world — one that’s existed before me and will exist after me.
I’m not (obviously) the only one who feels this way. Reminders of our own insignificance are a big part of why anyone goes into nature. To remember our place in the world. So why is insignificance seen as a negative in all other situations?
We live in a world that is more connected than ever before. I can have a conversation with a friend on another continent after reading an article posted one minute ago about a story that is unfolding across the country in real time. We have access to everything. We are constantly bombarded with notifications of the rich and famous. Those achieving things we’ve never even let ourselves dream of. And by the way they’re like, probably 12. We can’t compete.
So the downside to this fame obsessed culture is that we see the best of everything. The smartest, richest, happiest, and best looking people are constantly in our feeds. And we compare our own achievements to theirs. The big fish in a small pond analogy doesn’t really exist anymore. We are all small fish in the huge pond of life. And while we innately know that on some level — we now have the added existential challenge of seeing it. Constantly.
And when we compare ourselves against the most significant our fear of insignificance is only strengthened.
You know those 2 types of people memes? You’re either a _____ or a _____ person. You set one alarm or fifteen. You put your ketchup on the side or on top of your french fries. You use a bookmark or you dog ear the pages. You pick a side consistently. While I generally think there is a huge amount of nuance and gray area in almost everything — I do think there is a consistency when it comes to the fear of insignificance: those who embrace it, and those who don’t.
The people who are afraid of their own insignificance are in a constant state of anxiety. They’re comparing. They conflate their sense of purpose with their rank in absolutes. If they aren’t the smartest, richest, or best looking then they aren’t anything. Second place is the first loser. Of course, these people aren’t totally delusional and upon recognizing that there is even one person better than them at anything — they shut down. Become disillusioned. Identity crisis. Existential angst. Whatever buzzword that’s currently being used to describe the dread that is taking over a good portion of our entire generation.
And this realization leads to another bifurcation: you either give up, or you lash out. You believe you never deserved anything and are actually the worst at everything, or you still feel entitled to the best, feel like anyone who disagrees is a cheater, and then bully anyone who says otherwise. And hey guys guess what? Neither one of these people is likable (just fyi).
Happy and content people are those who recognize and even embrace their insignificance in the world. They aren’t afraid of it. Don’t stay up at night because someone else got more Instagram likes. They know that they can’t be fully there or supportive of anyone else if they think they are the center of the universe.
They know the world doesn’t revolve around them.
When I think about the fear of insignificance, I think of fear in general. Some is healthy and serves an important purpose, but too much is dangerous. We should care about our lives. Do our best. Set goals and achieve them. Contribute something meaningful in our work and in our relationships — but we shouldn’t wreck ourselves in the attempt to achieve unrealistic absolutes.
As a teacher I spend a lot of time differentiating. Because not every kid is the same. They don’t come in with the same skills or brains or attitudes. They are interested in different things. They process differently and the entry is different for everyone. An A+ isn’t the only way to master a skill. It’s the same in our lives. Our goals and achievements will look different than everyone else’s. And that doesn’t make one better or worse, or more or less significant than another.
Our ultimate insignificance leads to freedom. Really. There are so many people, places, things — I will never see it all, be it all, or the best at literally anything! (and if I am at some moment in time, chances are that will eventually be forgotten) That frees me up to so much.
There are so many things you will never do or ever be or even see — we are insignificant in the grand show of life — a small part of a big and beautiful universe — so why do we care so much about these other — also insignificant — things? Why are we so convinced that in order to be anything we have to be the best at everything?
You are not the center of the universe. At all. And holy crap thank goodness — otherwise your bad day would throw everything out of orbit.
Let me explain.
Earlier this week I was super sick and was forced to call in to work at the last minute. As a teacher, (and someone who has a tendency to think they are the center of the universe) I was super stressed about what would happen while I was gone. Who I would disappoint, what would get lost, and how would this one day off irrevocably ruin 150+ children’s lives (and my own). As I reluctantly opened my email the next day with one eye closed and a grimace anticipating what I was sure would be hoards of mean, disapproving, and urgent emails… I was surprised (somehow still, after all these years) to have not even one email regarding my absence. No one needed anything. I didn’t ruin anyone’s life. I didn’t miss any meetings or make anyone mad. The world kept turning.
Shocking. I know.
In fact, generally, I’m pretty sure no one even notices when I’m gone (maybe not even all of the kids in my actual classes) — and once I get past my own ego I’ve realized that’s a great thing. It means I’m doing my job well, not the opposite. Things can — and do — go on without me.
We are so conditioned to see the best and worst extremes that we miss the value in the middle. Significance is like anything in life — it’s relative. Things that are significant or insignificant to you are just that — to you. Everyone’s problems are more significant, their experiences more meaningful and the quality of their work more professional — to themselves.
It’s okay to just be okay at something. Humans have limitations. You can’t actually hack every area of your life for “unlimited productivity” or “crush all the obstacles in your path”. And that’s okay. It makes room for the things that, well, the things you still probably won’t ever be the best at — but the things in which you enjoy the attempt.
While insignificance can lead to feelings of disassociation and loss of identity — it also can make us feel more connected. Our own awareness of our place in the world has the ability to shift our focus from our self to the greater good. In fact, feeling insignificant has actually been shown to increase altruism. When I realize I’m not the absolute in anything, I can spend more time using my abilities to strengthen others. I mean, there’s no I in team right?
So the next time you start to doubt your significance in the world please remember that yes, you are insignificant. In a big and beautiful world. On a scale we cannot comprehend. And that’s a good thing. It gives you room for the significance that matters — in personal relationships and the smaller scale, but ultimately more important parts of life.
Your purpose in life isn’t rated on a scale of absolutes. It’s all relative. You aren’t the best at anything — but is anyone really?