Rethinking Significance

As usual, the UBC Student Leadership Conference was a great start to the term. Drew Dudley was amazing. The Buried Life boys were cool. If there were a few pieces of advice I would give to new students, one of them would be to go to the SLC at least once during your time here. Like many things in life, you simply don’t know if you’ll like something or not until you give it a go. So give it a go.

I trust that my fellow bloggers over on the UBC Blog Squad will give a much fuller and more exciting account of their experiences on Saturday, so I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to share what I have actually been rethinking, as a result of the SLC, and also of my own thinking over the last several months:


Let’s think of it in terms of leadership first, because that’s what the conference was about anyway. The conference which I’d faithfully attended for three years and was seriously considering not attending for a fourth.

You see, in third year the question I asked myself had changed from ‘What can I do on this campus?’ to ‘What have I done?’ I wasn’t really happy with the answers. In fourth year, the question has become even more pressing, and I felt even more dissatisfied, particularly when I compared myself to the many high-achieving students that I know and hang around — you know the kind, the ones who seem to do everything, and everything well. Many of these truly admirable, wonderful human beings were presenters and facilitators at the SLC this year — and part of me didn’t want to go because I was afraid of thinking, all the time I was there, how much they were giving and how much I was not. It took some encouragement on the part of one of the SLC Faces of Today (who didn’t know what I was thinking, bless their heart) for me to sign up, but I was still nervous about feeling lousy.

Until I got an email about opening keynote Drew Dudley, and I knew it was going to be a good conference.

His story hits home for me because it clarifies something I’ve been wanting — and struggling — to believe: that the small things matter.

As Drew so eloquently pointed out, we’ve made leadership into something bigger than us, a title that has to be given to us by other people. We think we can only be significant when we’ve made big changes, so most of us go about thinking that we’re not significant, because we’re not among the exceptional 10%. We’re so used to considering that topmost tier as the standard of excellence that we fail to acknowledge the hugely significant groundwork that’s been covered by the other 90%.

And yet what we do everyday is perhaps what leaves the greatest impact for all of us — including that top 10% — because they are so daily.

The Buried Life guys were lovely, but they didn’t affect me as much because I already have lists (e.g. Day Zero) that ask me what I want to achieve by certain set dates, rather than my death-day. It’s never a question of what I want to do before I die — because frankly, I could die at any time — but how I want to do it all. How do I want to live my life?

A couple of months ago, an old classmate from my primary through secondary schools died after a decade-long battle with cancer.

Over the winter break, one of our volunteers also passed away.

I don’t really know about their other commitments and achievements, but I do know that they were both exceptional in the lives of their families and friends. Their love and kindness mattered. They were significant in the gentlenesses they exhibited and the sincerity and enthusiasm with which they approached their lives. They were important.

For most of my life, I thought I had to do everything in order to get the upper edge on someone else in university, job or other applications. I was inspired by the sheer number of meaningful activities that the student leaders who mentored me in my first and second years here could do, and told myself I had to be like them before I could think of myself as significant. I’ve made my resumé as jam-packed and high-achieving as many other people do (particularly in my first two years here) — yet I’m not feeling any more significant than when I started at UBC. I still worry that I’m not competitive enough.

And there are an extraordinary number of people who manage to achieve extraordinary things in their limited time. It’s a little impossible to hear the sheer number of activities with which the SLC Faces of Today and the Nestor Korchinsky nominees are involved and not feel overwhelmed and admiring. They deserve to be recognised for what they do.

Not everyone can be like them, however — and the rest of us end up despairing, because we don’t know how we’re going to stand out in what sometimes feels like an ocean of exceptionality.

I’ve got a theory I’m going to test, though: be passionate.

Some people do things just to put on their resumés. They don’t really care. I can tell you that at Speakeasy, we don’t want that kind of people, and if we, a volunteer organisation, can afford to look for the people who want to be here, then it stands to reason that larger organisations which are going to pay you will ask for the same. Caring about what you do will make you significant.

I’m not saying you don’t need skills and qualifications to succeed — obviously you do. What I’m saying is to get the skills and education you need and get involved in the things that matter to you. This last clause is important, because there are plenty of people with skills, but a shortage of people with passion. Find what you like, and do it well, because when you really care, you make a difference. Passion is one of those things that is hard to fake; we can tell when someone genuinely believes in what they’re doing, because it lights them up and changes their whole being.

Doing twenty things at once is surely impressive, but doing a few things you are truly passionate about will also make you stand out.

Doing what you care about is also what will stand out to you when you look back on this period in your life. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the things I’ve been involved in, many of which I’ve enjoyed, but few with as much dedication as I devote to Speakeasy. I want more of that — more times when I feel like I’m committing myself to something I really believe in, more certainty that I am giving something back to the community.

Finally, I’ve decided to stop moping about what I haven’t achieved and focus on what I can still do in my time here. I want to be significant and do the things I care about, to have the courage to follow my dreams (the ones I hide under my bed because I’m too afraid to tell people about them).

More importantly, I want to be significant to the people around me, on a daily basis. Because I’ve decided that if I change the world in some large way yet neglect the people around me, I will feel like I’ve failed somehow. Even if I don’t change the world, however, as long as I feel like I’ve been important to the people around me everyday, I will be okay with that.

Will you?

14 responses to “Rethinking Significance

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