The most common cliché for people graduating from school is that they want to “change the world”. Of course, that is a very subjective statement since you change the world just by existing (because it’s different than if you didn’t exist) and there are plenty of ways to change everything—from the Pet Rock to travel to Mars—that can be seemingly good, bad, inconsequential, or contentious/debatable. People also seem to think that changing the world is by forcing others to behave in ways that they approve of, as shown by people who petition the government to create the change that they want—e.g., using solar power, creating new social norms—instead of just doing it themselves and leading the change voluntarily while letting people live their lives.
Some people go for the dramatic and seek to “save” the world. This happens on topics such as nuclear war, climate change, or even the eventual process that the Sun will take to Super Nova in a few billion years. Of course, the statement is metaphorical because the world doesn’t need saving in the first two instances—the Earth will be just fine even if it becomes impossible for humans to live on it—and no one is planning on shifting the Earth’s orbit out toward Pluto to save it from being engulfed by the Sun in the latter instance. But even taking its meaning of saving the human race, there are a million threats to any individual human, but otherwise the race in general is going to be just fine.
So what are people really after when they look to these things? Well, they range from the altruistic to the cynical, but the reasons for this desire are usually:
Note that there’s no judgment against any of those reasons here—people are welcome to spend their lives however they want. The reason for pointing these driving factors out is that no one has to do something that changes billions of lives to live a life of significance, purpose, and fulfillment. It works both ways: there are plenty of people who help one person at a time and feel very fulfilled, and even people who have invented life-changing devices for millions of people still cite their family and other personal experiences as their most fulfilling in life.
So this is great news for you because it prevents one possible misleading belief that can send you in the wrong direction in life: the fact that the size of your impact dictates its significance and, therefore, how meaningful it should be to you. Yes, there are some people out there who get the thrill of a lifetime “betting it all on black”, completing death-defying stunts, or trying to do something that will make them famous, but there are billions of doctors, psychologists, teachers, police officers, local politicians, parents, and servers who make others’ lives better one beneficial act at a time. Not many people might know their name or think of them as noteworthy in history, but all people need are to do things that matter to them, to have the relationships and things that allow them to thrive, and to have the life experiences that leave them with a sense that they spent their lives in the way that they wanted to spend them.
There is no doubt that you matter just by existing and that what you do matters to the people who choose to appreciate who you are and what you do. There’s also no doubt that more people will know you if you do newsworthy things. But fame and significance of contribution are not the same thing; there are plenty of Kardashians who are famous for being famous and plenty of people who work at technology companies who invented devices that you think are the most amazing things in the world and yet you’ll never know their names. That’s just the way the world works. It doesn’t need to be fixed, nor does it need to be saved. Do what you want with your life; if that is to help others, then help as many as you can. But don’t use fame or some subjective measure of significance to judge your impact. There are plenty of people who contributed to fields and yet history only teaches you a few names like Newton, Einstein, and Da Vinci. All that matters is that you make your own life as good as you can make it—including contributing to others if that fulfills you—and that you try not to hurt anyone else along the way.