Sounds good, right? Not to me. "Making a difference" is code for redistributing fiscal and human resources from the haves to the have-nots. Still sounds good, right?
Not to me. For example, let's say a financial or intellectual "have" decides to devote money and time to a "make a difference" initiative, say, to the cause du jour: environmentalism: trying to cool the globe or restore some swamp (oops, wetland) to a more pre-human state. Do you think he'd make more of a difference doing that or devoting his time and money to providing a program for intellectually and/or emotionally gifted kids: those with the greatest potential to cure our diseases, create an ever more helpful iPhone or Google, or revolutionalize (finally) education? For me, it's not even close--especially when most funds for gifted programs have been redistributed to programs for special education and other at-risk students.
Another example: Let's consider a literacy program. Its students, by definition, have long struggled in learning to read. Even extensive, expensive, one-on-one tutoring will raise their average reading score only modestly--at best, say from a third to a fifth grade level. That will have only a minor impact on that person's ability to be even self-sustaining. Even assuming that government-run literacy program were run efficiently (dubious,) a have who invested time and money on that would likely be of less benefit to society than if he had invested the money and time in high-ability kids.
Let's turn to career. Let's say there's a pair of identical twins. One chose a "make-a-difference" career like social work, teaching the at-risk, or administering a government or nonprofit program for the have-nots. The other twin chose a career, for example, developing a better search engine, car engine, disease cure, or even something more mundane, more accessible to more people, like selling items that offer good value to the consumer: Whirlpool appliances, Toyota cars, or even no-iron cotton. Do you honestly believe the "making a difference" twin would actually have made a bigger difference?
No doubt, this essay evokes an "ugh" response, especially from liberals (oops, "progressives.") That visceral response will likely be followed by a slightly more intellectualized version of "ugh," labeling me "elitist," "mean-spirited," or some such.
I challenge such readers to put aside their reflexive response and instead try to be really honest with themselves: If your goal is really to make a difference, wouldn't you--beyond a humane level of investment in all humans--invest your time and money not on those with the greatest deficit but on those with the greatest potential to profit?
Alas, most of us cannot resist fads--we'll feel compelled to "make a difference."