The “How to” question that rarely gets answered


At different moments in our lives, we come across simple, legitimate and even mind-boggling questions. “If I could change anything in the world, what would it be?” falls in that category. Soulpancake recently asked a similar question to people of all ages. [link] Interestingly, they were able to give an answer with little or no hesitation at all. At some other point though, we come across another type of questions. The exhausting, wearisome, more philosophical ones. Like “How can I make a difference in the world?”.

This last category is so puzzling that there’s a whole array of books, websites and experts ready to help you find an answer to such “How to…”. (Just for the fun of it, as of today, can provide you with 777 289 books tagged with the “make a difference” keywords. If interested, there’s also 32 158 books tagged with the “job satisfaction” keywords)

Although self-help books are very popular, a recent comparative study found that most of the books reviewed were written without reference to scientific literature. [1] They also included unproved or unverified recommendations. Which made these said recommendations “too ambiguous to guide readers toward specific actions.” [2]


In part, it’s understandable. Because when you look at it, the World, taken as a whole, is “too big and vague of a pie to be eaten (or “made better”) in one bite”. Even if you decide to scale your efforts down to smaller pies – like “someone else’s life” or “your own life”.

Is it possible to answer such “How to…” question then? And do so while using facts and at least one specific action? Yes. It is. If you get specific and find a handle that provides enough grip so you can start working from. That’s where History, science and a statement can help you find such specific handle and then solve this “How to…“ puzzle.

For a starter, any past or recent event that leads you to say “I don’t want other people to go through ________ (ever, again or without being better informed, skilled and tooled)” needs to be kept in mind. Even more if it pushes you very hard toward taking action upon it – as a strong “let’s make a difference” statement can do. Here’s why.


First, from a Historical standpoint, Muhammad Yunus didn’t want women artisan to get caught up anymore in the “borrow-sellback” system a group of merchants had put in place in Muhammad’s community. So he used his knowledge in economics and lend 27$ directly to some of these artisans (without charging them any interest). It improved their situation and led to the creation of a now multi-billion dollar bank; Grameen Bank, that now serves millions or artisans. [link] Amelia Earhart wanted women to be better tooled when having to deal with gender inequality. So she made the best out of her interest for airplanes, founded a pilot association and an air derby (both for women only), among other initiatives. It helped improve the situation of women by promoting their equality with men (in their abilities to achieve anything). [link] Dr Seuss didn’t want children not to be aware of their full potential. So it would be easier for them to overcome personal rejection and professional failures as they grew up. For that, he pressed on his talent for drawing and wrote children books around a single idea: there’s more to the world around you than what it seems, than what others might want you to think. [link] It became (and still is) a go-to series for parents who wanted to develop their children’s imagination and self-confidence.

History if filled with other well-documented examples of people who made a difference. Let them be famous or not, known to you or not. One common thread usually set these stories apart. The main character gets to the point where solving a specific problem isn’t an option anymore, it’s a necessity. The said problem being one that he or she has both, personally experienced and have witnessed (firsthand) its negative impacts on someone else.

So the “I don’t want other people to go through ________“ statement then becomes useful for two reasons. First, to identify a personal handle to work a problem from – let it be banking, aeronautics or literature. Second, to find the motivation one needs to put on the time and efforts that “making a difference” requires. There’s a third argument that can be made.


When put in perspective, “wanting to solve a problem that matters to me” (as Dr Seuss and the others did) might seem more of a philosophical than a practical thing. Even more if you consider the initial “wanting to make a difference”. Yet, from a scientific standpoint, both are deeply rooted in our Human needs and even in the reason we “engage ourselves” at work or elsewhere.

For instance, Abraham Maslow has demonstrated through his works in psychology that “wanting to make a difference in the world” is actually the expression of our highest need as Humans; self-transcendence, also known as wanting to act in the perspective of the good of others. [3] Because a need is somewhat intangible, could self-transcendence be identified through specific behavior, set of actions, or related to certain habits at work or in our day-to-day lives? Extensive research on employee’s engagement by scientists from different fields – like organization development (William Khan), psychology and HR management (Adam Grant), organizational behavior (Douglas R May), public health & nursing science (Barbara Brush) – all point toward the same answer: yes, “wanting to make a difference” plays an important role at work and, by extension, in our day-to-day life.

As I previously wrote (in conclusion of a five parts series on employee’s engagement), “to stir up an employee’s engagement is the capacity for an organization to foster the willingness and support the ability of its members to contribute to the group’s success. For this to happen, it all starts with a problem, a challenge. The one you want to solve or help overcome – to the best of your capacity and abilities. The one that an organization wants to take on, with the help of an engaged team of employees and managers. Because thriving from overcoming a challenge is part of the Human Experience. Striving to overcome (a challenge) is part of Human Nature.” [P1, P2, P3, P4, P5]

When someone actually finds such a challenge (to overcome) and decides to act on it, it doesn’t only improve the lives of others on the long run, it makes a difference in his or her own life. As some of the positive impacts measured by the scientists mentioned above (including Maslow) go from an improved general wellbeing, higher level of energy, increased willingness to “go the extra mile” (when required), better relations with co-workers and an increase in both, the quantity of tasks performed and quality of the work.


How can I make a difference in the world?” might be an exhausting and tiresome question to answer. Yet, History gives you plenty of well-documented examples of people who asked themselves the same question – at some point in their lives – and found their answer, their handle. Scientific research also demonstrates that, although it might seem a philosophical puzzle at first, putting the time and effort to answer such “How to…” question actually brings-in more benefits than disadvantages on the long run.

In the end, answering that specific “How to…” goes down to the problem that matters the most to you, and the tool you use to dig it out. By simply completing the “let’s make a difference” statement I mentioned above, you get a free tool and a very specific while efficient way to start your research process.

Your answer might not be as spontaneous as if you were asked “If you could change anything in the world, what would it be?” though. It’s ok. Because, as Dr Seuss and many other people’s story proves it, the better a problem is thought through, the greater the odds are to find an answer (or solution) that will make the difference.

Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts or insights on the matter with me and the other readers.

Signature PF

_ _ _ Notes _ _ _ _ _ _

[1] Nathan Bowling – Pursuit of increased job satisfaction _ A critical examination of popular self-help books (Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Oct 2014)

[2] Nathan Bowling – Pursuit of increased job satisfaction _ A critical examination of popular self-help books (Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Oct 2014)

[3] Abraham MASLOW – The FartherReaches of HumanNature (Journal Transpersonal Psycho, 1969)

[4] William KAHN – Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement + Disengagement At Work (Academy Management, 1990)

[5] Adam GRANT – Relational job design and the motivation to make a prosocial difference (Academy of Management Review, April 2007)

[6] Douglas MAY – The Psychological Conditions of Meaningfulness At Work (JOOP, March 2004)

[7] Barbara BRUSH – Overcoming _ A Concept Analysis (, Jul 2011)