Once upon a time there was an old man who walked on the beach every day before breakfast. One morning he was strolling along the shore after a big storm had passed. The beach was littered with starfish that had been washed onto the sand by the roiling seas. In the distance, the old man noticed a young boy walking toward him. Every few moments the boy bent down to pick something up and toss it into the sea.
“Good morning!” the old man called out when he reached the boy. “What are you doing?”
“I’m throwing the starfish back into the sea,” the boy replied. “They’ve washed up onto the beach and they can’t get back into the water. When the sun gets high, they will dry up and die unless I help them.”
The old man frowned as he scanned the miles and miles of coastline. “But there must be thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you aren’t going to make a difference.”
The young boy reached down and picked up another starfish and tossed it as far as he could back into the ocean. Then the boy smiled and said: “Well, it makes a difference to that one!”
I first heard this story when I was in high school. It was adapted from an essay by the American author and anthropologist Loren Eiseley, and has been retold many times since. For me, the starfish story was lifechanging. It moved me in a way that nothing ever had. It taught me that everyone has the power to create positive change, even when we feel small. Even when our efforts seem insignificant and pointless. It inspired me to write my third book, The Gift of Influence, which is about how ordinary people can create lasting impact in our everyday interactions. Just as that boy changed the lives of those starfish, we can change the lives of our friends, neighbors, coworkers, and even strangers on the street if we simply open our eyes and our heart.
In my second book, The Heart-Led Leader, I wrote about a beautiful young woman named Nikki, who is like a second daughter to me. Nikki lived with our family in Denver for four years and nannied for our kids. About six months ago, she and her wonderful fiancée, Marcial, had their first baby girl, Journey. Last week, Jill and I flew down to Santa Fe to meet her for the first time.
Santa Fe is an important place for Jill. Her great-grandfather was a tinsmith who owned a prominent shop in what is now known as the historic art district. Santa Fe’s famous Canyon Road intersects Delgado Street, which is named after her great-grandfather. Just down the block is one of our favorite restaurants in the world, Geronimo, which is where I asked Jill to marry me almost twenty years ago. Last week we stayed at a nearby hotel, and each morning we’d walk by where the Delgado tin shop once sat. It’s one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city, dotted with fir trees and low-slung, earth-colored homes made from adobe bricks.
Early one morning we were all alone except for a distant jogger. The dew shimmered in the hazy sunrise as we watched her. Every thirty seconds or so she’d stop and bend over. I thought at first she was constantly tying her shoes, but as we got closer, I saw that she was picking up trash and putting it in a small garbage bag she was carrying. Suddenly I was transported back to high school, listening to the starfish story for the first time.
“Hold on a sec,” I said to Jill. I jogged across the street and approached the jogger.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said, “but I can’t help but think how much better the world would be if all eight billion people did what I see you doing.”
The woman smiled at me warmly and we got talking. Her name was Carol, and she lived just down the street. Carol explained that she jogged every morning and picked up trash along Canyon Road. “It’s such a beautiful treasure to our state, and I want to make sure people who visit here have a clean place to walk.”
Then Carol said goodbye and jogged away, pausing every few seconds to pick up a gum wrapper or coke bottle. I imagined the boy on the beach strewn with thousands of starfish. What impact could he possibly have by tossing a few dozen back into the ocean? I watched Carol pick up a beer bottle from a gutter. Santa Fe is a lovely place, but like anywhere, there are fast food wrappers, milk cartons, and water bottles constantly tossed from car windows or falling out of recycling bins. What impact could Carol possibly have?
Except, it did matter. Canyon Road is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the country because folks like Carol care enough to keep it clean. People like Nikki and Marcial live there because of her. People like Jill and me visit because of her. Carol wasn’t looking to get her photo in the paper or win an award. She didn’t care that I had seen her admirable work. All she wanted was to do her part for her community.
Carol isn’t going to singlehandedly make the world a greener place, just as that boy from the story isn’t going to save the entire starfish population. But imagine if everyone picked up a single piece of trash or helped a single creature in need on the way to work or to the grocery store. What if we all played our part during our day-to-day lives to make the world a little cleaner and a little kinder? Can you imagine the breathtaking impact eight billion Carols would have on the world?
We all lead busy lives, and it can seem like there aren’t enough hours in the day to give back to your community, your city, or your country. But if we can find just a few minutes each day to be a little more like Carol, the world might spin just a little bit better.