Stop Worrying About How Much You Matter

Stop Worrying About How Much You Matter

Stop Worrying About How Much You Matter

For many years — almost as long as he could remember — Ian* owned and ran a successful pub in his small town in Ireland. Ian was well-known around town. He had lots of friends, many of whom he saw when they came to eat and drink, and he was happy.

Eventually, Ian decided to sell his establishment. Between his savings and the sale, he made enough money to continue to live comfortably. He was ready to relax and enjoy all his hard work.

Except that almost immediately, he became depressed. That was 15 years ago and not much has changed.

I’ve seen a version of Ian’s story many times. The CEO of an investment bank. A famous French singer. The founder and president of a grocery store chain. A high-level government official. And these are not just stories — they’re people I know (or knew) well.

They have several things in common: They were busy and highly successful. They had enough money to live more than comfortably for as long as they lived. And they all became seriously depressed as they got older.

What’s going on?

The typical answer is that people need purpose in life and when we stop working we lose purpose. But many of the people I see in this situation continue to work. The French singer continued to sing. The investment banker ran a fund.

Perhaps getting older is simply depressing. But we all know people who continue to be happy well into their nineties. And some of the people who fall into this predicament are not particularly old.

I think the problem is much simpler, and the solution is more reasonable than working, or staying young, forever.

People who achieve financial and positional success are masters at doing things that make and keep them relevant. Their decisions affect many others. Their advice lands on eager ears.

In many cases, if not most, they derive their self-concept and a strong dose of self-worth from the fact that what they do and what they say—in many cases even what they think and feel—matters to others.

Think about Ian. If he changed his menu or his hours of operation, or hired someone new, it directly affected the lives of the people in his town. Even his friendships were built, in large part, on who he was as a pub owner. What he did made him relevant in the community.

Relevancy, as long as we maintain it, is rewarding on almost every level. But when we lose it? Withdrawal can be painful.

As we get older, we need to master the exact opposite of what we’ve spent a lifetime pursuing. We need to master irrelevancy.

This is not only a retirement issue. Many of us are unhealthily—and ultimately unhappily—tied to mattering. It’s leaving us overwhelmed and over-busy, responding to every request, ring and ping with the urgency of a fireman responding to a six-alarm fire. Are we really that necessary?

How we adjust — both within our careers and after them — to not being that important may matter more than mattering.

If we lose our jobs, adjusting to irrelevancy without falling into depression is a critical survival skill until we land another job. If managers and leaders want to grow their teams and businesses, they need to allow themselves to matter less so others can matter more and become leaders themselves. At a certain point in our lives, and at certain times, we matter less. The question is: Can you be OK with that?

How does it feel to just sit with others? Can you listen to someone’s problem without trying to solve it? Can you happily connect with others when there is no particular purpose to that connection?

Many of us (though not all) can happily spend a few days by ourselves, knowing that what we’re doing doesn’t matter to the world. But a year? A decade?

Still, there is a silver lining to this kind of irrelevancy: freedom.

When your purpose shifts like this, you can do what you want. You can take risks. You can be courageous. You can share ideas that may be unpopular. You can live in a way that feels true and authentic. In other words, when you stop worrying about the impact of what you do, you can be a fuller version of who you are.

That silver lining may be our anti-depressant. Enjoying the freedom that comes with being irrelevant can help us avoid depression and enjoy life after retirement, even for people who have spent their careers being defined by their jobs.

So what does being comfortable with the feeling of irrelevancy — even the kind of deep irrelevancy involved in ending a career — really look like? It may be as simple as doing things simply for the experience of doing them. Taking pleasure in the activity versus the outcome, your existence versus your impact.

Here are some small ways you might start practicing irrelevancy right away:

  • Check your email only at your desk and only a few times a day. Resist the temptation to check your email first thing in the morning or at every brief pause.
  • When you meet new people, avoid telling them what you do. During the conversation, notice how frequently you are driven to make yourself sound relevant (sharing what you did the other day, where you’re going, how busy you are). Notice the difference between speaking to connect and speaking to make yourself look and feel important.
  • When someone shares a problem, listen without offering a solution (if you do this with employees, an added advantage is that they’ll become more competent and self-sufficient).
  • Try sitting on a park bench without doing anything, even for just a minute (then try it for five or 10 minutes).
  • Talk to a stranger (I did this with my cab driver this morning) with no goal or purpose in mind. Enjoy the interaction — and the person — for the pleasure of it.
  • Create something beautiful and enjoy it without showing it to anyone. Take note of beauty that you have done nothing to create.

Notice what happens when you pay attention to the present without needing to fix or prove anything. Notice how, even when you’re irrelevant to the decisions, actions, and outcomes of the world around you, you can feel the pleasure of simple moments and purposeless interactions.

Notice how, even when you feel irrelevant, you can matter to yourself.

*Not his real name.

Originally published at Harvard Business Review

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  • Yvonne Moncovich June 27, 2015 Reply

    Hi Peter! As usual I loved this post and am viewing myself through a different lens. I am a longtime reader and look forward to your insight.

    This post comes at a perfect time, as always. This isn’t a professional dilemma for me yet but as a single mother, I’ve been defined for years by my kids. Now that they are growing and flapping their wings to leave the nest, I sometimes wonder who I am if not nchockeymom.

    My One Word this year is listen so #3 shouldn’t be a stretch but I’m still working on it. I have a situation at work that needs this advice. #2 is the one I will work on personally. I always lead with my career, my industry or my kids. It will be challenging to let my personality say who I am.

    Thanks for the words of wisdom. Am sharing this to help my friends before they find themselves trapped in a persona they can’t sustain.

  • Luiz Hamilton Lima June 30, 2015 Reply

    Peter is brilliantly relevant to those that admire his work and have participated in his latest Leadership Intensive at the Connecticut River Valley. I am a BIG fan of his! Congratulations Peter! Cheers!

    • Peter Bregman June 30, 2015 Reply

      Thanks Luiz!! I hope all is well with you!

  • Kathy Kiernan June 30, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for the insight, as always, Peter. Your timing is spot on. I am already doing all the items on your bulleted list but feel like I need to take it to the next level. So, I just started “Four Seconds…” and will let you know how it goes.

    A devoted follower…

  • Laela Erickson June 30, 2015 Reply

    Thank you, Peter! I have been dealing with this exact thing recently. Like Yvonne, I have two girls just out of high school and I had them young. Don’t know what life is like without them taking up parts of my day. I have my whole career ahead of me but the idea of making money and being successful for the sake of being successful are losing their glow. I’ve been finding myself trying to find the beauty around me and making connections. Just enjoying the moment and life. Trying to detach a bit! I have found when I base my happiness on success, and if I struggle, it devastates me! Puts me into a low state that I am unable to get out of, putting me deeper into a rut. Still struggling to find answers. I very much appreciate this post!

    • Peter Bregman June 30, 2015 Reply

      Thanks for your thoughts Laela – it reminded me of a feeling I had as I watched a sunset over the mountains in North Carolina last week: Perhaps the magic of life isn’t so much in making myself relevant to the world as much as being open to having the world be relevant to me. In other words, one challenge might be to impact the world. The other is to feel (and relish) its impact on me.

  • Jay E. Valusek June 30, 2015 Reply

    For the past two weeks I have been contemplating a poem by David Whyte on this very topic. Maybe it will inspire a few others, whose work and self-image seem trapped in “the burning wreck of ambition.”


    In midsummer, under the luminous
    sky of everlasting light,

    the laced structures of thought
    fall away

    like the filigrees of the white

    dandelion turned pure white and

    hovering at the edge of its own

    discovery in flight. I’ll do the same,

    the shimmering dispersal of tented

    lodge in the tangled landscape

    the least discrimination. So let my own

    escape the burning wreck of ambition,

    through the hushed air, let them spread

    into the tangled part of life that refuses
    to be set straight . . .

    Let them find safety in the growing wild.
    I’ll not touch them there.

    -David Whyte (Fire in the Earth, 1992)

    • Maria van Hekken June 30, 2015 Reply

      Thanks for sharing this poem, Jay. It’s beautiful.

    • Peter Bregman June 30, 2015 Reply

      Love the poem Jay – thanks for sharing it!

  • Julie June 30, 2015 Reply

    Yvonne – I agree! This article happened to land in my email box at exactly the perfect moment – when someone found it necessary to remind me that they were “in charge.” So funny to me now.

  • Doina-Adriana Florescu June 30, 2015 Reply

    …once, I asked myself where will/would go everything what I have in my head? or brain (as you like it). Funny? Must I be ashamed of this idea, now, I “shared” it?
    Must I believe what I’ve heard about this, a while after?! What do you think, dear Peter? All this “stuff” goes there where our spirit goes, or, in Romanian “Nimic nu se pierde, nimic nu se câștigă, totul se transformă”
    Silly question!

  • Aadharsh Rao July 1, 2015 Reply

    There is a Hindu ideal referred to as “Anashakti”or non-attachment (to results of our actions). For a long time, I used to wonder about the practicality of this principle dismissing it as an ideal meant for ascetics/recluses. As I grow older, I realize that it is the one wonder-pill to maintain our sanity and peace.

    When someone does his job but at the same time remains non-attached to the results, he begins to enjoy the process itself not just the results.

  • Marie Fernandes July 1, 2015 Reply

    Thanks Peter. This comes to me at the right time. I need to work on this as its a challenging period for me right now. Very insightful.

  • Saijee Rao July 1, 2015 Reply

    Thank you for articulating something that I felt, soon after retiring early from a full time job. But it wasn’t, and continues to be a difficult thing to explain – especially to family who see too many of my friemds and colleagues continue with keeping busy.
    Life calls us to ‘shift gears’ and begin an inner journey in preparation to our ultimate irrelevance! As one spiritual mystic once put it: to be ordinary is the most extra-ordinary thing… But to see this perspective, I guess one must be fortunate to be standing in the right place.
    Best Regards.

  • Mapaseka July 1, 2015 Reply

    The best article you have written that speaks to me directly in all the 5 years I have been following you. You talk to me about things I didn’t even know I need to talk about.

  • Wendy Nutbrown July 1, 2015 Reply

    Hi Peter,

    What a brilliant article this is. Its also well timed as my hubby was saying only this weekend that he would like to leave a mark or a legacy that would continue after he is gone. I can see how this could lead to a depressed state. Its not easy to understand why we don’t know the answers to the big questions, and a feeling of importance can be grown over our lifetime to let that go takes courage and understanding. Thanks for this insight – it will help.

  • tom g July 2, 2015 Reply

    Peter …

    Damn happenstance … below is post i shared privately with a friend of mine on this very topic and came to a similar conclusion as both you and he … becoming unimportant ushers in freedom.

    If you don’t have time to read it the gist is this … when we stop being IMPORTANT the moment we are in becomes … IMPORTANT.

    tom grimes – amarillo texas

    June 11th, 2015

    BJ …

    Funny how when you are on a certain wavelength and article pops up and helps you see the idea more clearly.

    Lately i have been thinking more and more about the IMPORTANCE of not being IMPORTANT.

    important |imˈpôrtnt|

    of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being: important habitats for wildlife | it is important to avoid monosyllabic answers | [ sentence adverb ] : the speech had passion and, more important, compassion.

    • (of a person) having high rank or status.

    • (of an artist or artistic work) significantly original and influential.

    ORIGIN late Middle English: from medieval Latin important- ‘being of consequence,’ from the verbimportare (see import) .

    Becoming Un-important.

    At mass one Sunday our parish priest shared a story. A man he called Dave and his wife had a high profile in the parish. They were on the parish board. Headed up the youth program. Active in a number of different ministries. Never missed a Sunday mass and often went to daily mass … then the wife divorced him. Dave stopped attending mass. This went on for several months and finally Dave’s brother went to his house early one Sunday morning and said “Get dressed, we are going to mass”. Dave said he couldn’t. He had let the parish down. People would be disappointed in him. His brother started to laugh then looked Dave in the eye and said “You’re not that important”.

    It started the wheels turning.

    Maslow described the idea i have been trying to encapsulate with the idea of becoming UN-important.

    If you are not important (and none of us really are) it frees you from a good deal of baggage that being IMPORTANT demands.

    If you were abducted by aliens this coming Friday at precisely 11:59 PM … would the world stop spinning?

    Yes, the small band of people who are connected to you will be wondering where the hell you went or why did you get beamed up into that flying saucer … but truth be told even they will get about their business and keep on keeping on.

    Doesn’t matter how big your shoes are … world will keep spinning when you aren’t around.

    All those emails your friends, fans and countrymen are impatiently waiting to land in their mailbox … well actually they aren’t that worried about it cause they got lots of stuff on their plate.

    In fact a power move is to SAY LESS, MORE OFTEN and when you do speak … people will listen … and view what you say as more IMPORTANT.

    And how many of us go through life worried that we aren’t important, we aren’t doing important work, we aren’t hanging with important people and fail to realize that importance is over-rated … but being authentic isn’t.

    Being UN-important doesn’t mean you don’t have important roles or responsibilities.

    A surgeon has an important job but outside of the surgery room he still burps, farts and poops like you and me.

    A parent has an important role to play in the lives of their children … but they aren’t as important as they think they are …

    [note: parenting is much like raising a potted plant … feed it, water it, give it ample sunshine and it will grow … over or under feed, over water or under water, too much or too little sunshine and you stress the plant … and you can’t turn a rhododendron into a rose … just help the plant be the best version of whatever it already is.]

    Actual self actualization is essentially becoming Un-important.

    If you do your job instead of polishing up your “importance” you will likely have more influence and impact on those around you.

    And the old saying holds true … “if you don’t care who gets credit you can get sh#t done”.

    This post genuinely helped me get some clarity on the topic of Importance or the lack thereof.

    UN-importantly yours,


  • Tess July 2, 2015 Reply

    Peter, your article gave me goose bumps. I’ll share this with my co-workers. What a sense of freedom on this 4th of July weekend.

    Thank you, Peter.

  • Vaidy Perinkulam July 3, 2015 Reply

    I too have been irrelevant post-retirement from the IT industry in the manner that you describe.I do or do not do many of the things that you describe.To that extent i am content although i could not have articulated it as well as you have.I like the simplicity yet depth of your message.

    However i am prone to very low moods,feeling that i am not ageing as well as i would like(i am now 66).Perhaps this is only due to the fact that i have a mentally ill daughter whom i love very deeply and am not able to reconcile to the “why” of her condition.

    Best regards,

  • John Duncan July 3, 2015 Reply

    Peter, thank you for this post.

    When we gather as equals, do new things and engage the views of others, a space forms at the center of our togetherness where we are seen for “who” we are – that is, as unique individuals independent of social roles, talents, skills and capabilities.

    This accounts for the experience that we don’t really know each other until we speak and act together.

    This “space-of-appearance” is central to psychological and social health, because we live in a world of appearances and deep down inside what we desire most is to be seen for who we are.

    When we step away from the groups in which we are active, we step away from this space and suffer the soul-sickness we see around us: addition, depression, anomie …

    The good news is that the “space-of-appearance” is latent always in our togetherness and can be brought into being once we re-engage – but groups characterized by relational equality, action (the doing of new things), and revelatory speech can be hard to come by.

    My advice to most of my friends: we all enjoy intangible benefits from work relationships; we are largely unconscious of them because we see the purpose of work is to get something done not the disclosure of unique beings; before we step away from one set of relationships, we should have another set in place.

  • Mary P. August 13, 2015 Reply

    Good word Peter! Timely also. 🙂 Thank you.

  • Bhavana October 15, 2015 Reply

    Hi Peter,

    A very well written article. Gives insight of how we can stay happy all the life. When I read the article I actually felt that it’s written for me.
    I have one point that makes me confuse here, when we say we shall be all happy in life it means personal as well corporate both. Because
    we cannot live two separate lives together. but I think, to climb the corporate ladder, relevancy matters. We cannot be successful and
    irrelevant at the same time. You have to show yourself relevant to your peer as well as the manager. I have observed that persons who show
    themselves more relevant than others are more successful and have better say in the team. For every better opportunity, they are considered
    first and it really does not matter how much knowledge the other possess.

    Please suggest if you have different thoughts about this.

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