Everyone thinks it’s a good idea to make a difference. Making a difference is the stuff of commencement addresses, strategic plans, electoral manifestos, boardroom platitudes.
But making a difference is, to say the least, an underexamined conviction. Would any difference do? Hitler made a big difference, but no one is commending him for doing so. The armies that invaded Iraq in March 2003 made a difference, but it’s still not clear whether this difference has been a positive one. Clearly “making a difference” means more than narcissism—more than leaving one’s mark on the world in such a way that no one for centuries afterward could possibly miss it.