In the late summer of 1977, NASA’s two deep space probes, Voyager 1 and 2, were launched from Cape Canaveral for the start of their journey to explore our solar system and beyond. I read recently that Voyager 2 is now at the very edge of our solar system. It’s travelling at over 35,000 miles per hour and Earth is just a small, distant blue speck. Incredibly, it will now take 40,000 years to come anywhere close to another object – and even then, it will still be some 12 trillion miles away. I’d have trouble counting up to a trillion – let alone twelve of them.
Given the vast context of the universe, it made me think that at times it can be difficult to see how whatever we do as individuals can be significant. Zoom in a bit and it can still feel the same in our everyday lives. So how can we find meaning in what we do?
We’re often advised “Think big”, but actually, thinking in the exact opposite sense can be more relevant. To think small. All great things only take on real meaning when we can break them down into smaller pieces and understand what they mean to individuals.
As an example, I worked with a pharmaceutical company a little while ago. They make some incredible drugs that have caused a global breakthrough in the treatment of a particular disease. That’s wonderful, but when I walked down the main corridor of their manufacturing facility, it was what was displayed on the walls that gave this breakthrough real meaning. They had large poster-sized photographs of the people their drug had helped, together with that patient’s story. I could read about ‘John’ or ‘Susan’ – and the real difference the drug had made to their lives. It was inspiring. All of a sudden, this incredible scientific breakthrough made sense – real sense.
During my 24 years as a Royal Air Force officer, there were many headline ‘accomplishments’ that might have been mentioned in reports or annual appraisals. However, what gives real meaning – real significance – are the small, seemingly incidental moments. In 2003, I landed back in the UK after having been a Force Commander during the Gulf War. As we were gathering our kit together, one of the 200 people under my command came up to me – his wife on one arm and his new born baby in the other and said “Sir, I just wanted to thank you for bringing us all home safe”. I doubt the airman concerned would remember – and I confess that amidst the tiredness and emotion of family reunions I can’t recall his name. But it captured what I had meant to that individual, and probably others, at that time. The really important point of this story though is that I also doubt that airman realised the significance his comment had for me. Yes, I was the senior officer, but what he said in those few seconds carried, and still carries, more significance for me than any formal acknowledgement or comment made by my superiors.
I guess in the simplest terms we all want our lives to have some meaning for others. But often, it isn’t so much what we do that carries the most potential to be significant; it’s more about how we are being as individuals, and with others, that has lasting effect.
As a Leader of any organisation, you can create significance – and the fulfilment that goes with it – by creating the context within which everyone can recognise the part they play in the bigger picture.
As Voyager 2 leaves our solar system, it does so because of that tiny speck called Earth, and all the planets in between, without whose gravitational force it would never have been able to gather enough speed to continue its journey. In your universe – your life, your work – consider all the individuals that play a part and take a moment to think of the seemingly incidental that creates significance. Think small.