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Struggling With Motivation? Do It For The One

When I was in high school, I had an incredible history teacher. She would begin every lesson with a short story; a story intended to make us think, to challenge our assumptions and to inspire us.

My favourite was always the Starfish Story. It goes like this: One day an old man was walking along the beach. In the distance he saw a boy, picking something up and gently throwing it into the water.

As the old man got closer, he saw that the boy was picking up starfish. There were thousands of them, washed up on the shore by a storm that had taken place the night before.

Approaching the boy, the old man asked, “What are you doing? Why are you throwing starfish back into the ocean?” The boy replied “The tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realise there are miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You can’t possibly make a difference!”

In answer, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he replied “I made a difference for that one.”


No matter what you do in life, there’s something that motivates you. It might be personal development, earning an income, making a difference in the world, or all of the above. But there’s something that makes you get out of bed every morning and do what you do.

In my last post, I wrote about the concept of the grind. The grind is what you’re left with when the novelty and excitement of whatever you’re doing wears off. It’s showing up every day to do what you do, regardless of how you’re feeling.

What I do every day is speak to high school students about the topics of love, sex and relationships. It’s an incredible job, but it isn’t immune to the grind. There are times when it’s deeply challenging; when it feels like what I’m saying isn’t being well-received by the students.

When I’m feeling this way, the thing I remind myself of is this: if what I say today makes a positive difference in the life of one person, it will all be worth it. I call this philosophy doing it for the one.

Maybe there is one girl in the audience who leaves my talk believing that she deserves respect in her relationship. Maybe there is one guy who realises that physical intimacy means more than what he has heard in the locker room.

If that one person leaves my talk positively impacted, then it’s all been worth it.

This philosophy of doing it for the one isn’t exclusive to public speaking. It can be lived out in healthcare and human resources, music and marketing, teaching and tapestry weaving (look, it turns out there aren’t many careers beginning with “T”).

Regardless of what field you’re in, there are four good reasons why you should adopt it:


If you have any kind of big, hairy, audacious goal (and I hope you do), it probably leaves you overwhelmed at times. Your goal can feel so big that you’re unsure how to even begin. Setting out with the goal of positively impacting at least one person is a good place to start.

This goal isn’t about setting the bar low, it’s about adjusting your focus. When I’m speaking, it’s not that my goal is to only impact one listener. My hope is that I will make a difference in the life of every single member of my audience.

But even if I don’t manage that, it will be enough if one person leaves my talk better off.

There’s something powerful about this goal. By focusing on positively impacting at least one person, I’ve found that my talks are more authentic, my content is more practical, and I work harder to form a personal connection with my audience.

Somewhat paradoxically, by focusing on positively impacting at least one person in my audience, I’ve significantly increased my chances of having that effect on the whole audience.


When I’m working towards any kind of daunting goal, it’s easy to get caught up in what I call “busy work” – checking emails, making lists, and trying to juggle 25 different tasks at one. This work makes me feel like I’m busy, but it’s often a subconscious strategy to avoid the daunting aspects of my work.

Take writing a talk, for example. When I’m writing a talk, I’ll do just about anything to avoid actually writing the talk. I’ll do more research than necessary, I’ll double and triple check all the logistical details for the talk, I’ll watch videos of other inspiring speakers. I’ll do anything except the thing that actually matters.

Doing it for the one challenges me to get rid of this superfluous stuff that holds me back from actually changing people’s lives. This isn’t to say that everything I do always has to have a direct impact on people. A significant portion of my time is spend on admin.

But the question I’m always asking myself is: Will this task help me to achieve my ultimate goal of having a positive impact?



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When I’m struggling with the grind, I often think back to past successes. I remember the student who wrote me a note saying “Your talk today helped me realise my worth. Thank you.” I remember the guy who came up to me after a talk and told me that he wanted to start treating physical intimacy like it was something special. I look back at emails I’ve received from schools thanking me for the positive effect I’ve had on their students.

Knowing that you’ve made a difference in the life of another human being is incredibly motivating. It reminds you that what you’re doing does matter, that you have successes you can build on, and that you absolutely need to keep going.


Not only does doing it for the one have practical benefits, it’s also a sure-fire way to change the world. Why? Because you can bet that the person who has been deeply impacted will positively impact others in turn.

It’s always going to be better to have one person who has been deeply impacted by what you do than 10 or even a 100 people who are vaguely interested.

Someone who was well aware of this was Jesus. Read through the gospels and you’ll find numerous examples of Jesus doing it for the one. Even in the midst of enormous crowds, His focus was often on transforming the life of just one person.

One of my favourite examples of this is the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). One day, Jesus was passing through a town named Jericho. No doubt Jesus’ visit was the talk of the town and Zacchaeus, a man who lived there, wanted to catch a glimpse of him.

The problem was that Zacchaeus was a short man and he couldn’t see Jesus over the top of the large crowd who had gathered around him.

The crowd probably wasn’t particularly accommodating of Zacchaeus. See, Zacchaeus was a tax collector, the chief tax collector in Jericho. It wasn’t unusual for tax collectors to over-tax the local population, using the excess to supplement their personal income. Understandably, this meant that tax collectors weren’t particularly high in public opinion.

Adopting a different strategy, Zacchaeus decides to climb a tree, hoping to gain a better vantage point. Boy, does he get more than he bargained for! When Jesus arrives at the spot, he approaches Zacchaeus and says “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”

Let’s pause the story here. Jesus was surrounded by a huge crowd, some of whom were likely the respectable Jews of Jericho. If Jesus was going to stay at someone’s house, it probably should have been one of them. But Jesus’ focus was on Zacchaeus, the reviled tax collector.

Jesus’ efforts aren’t in vain. Upon encountering the Messiah, Zacchaeus undergoes a complete change of heart. He declares that he will give half his possessions to the poor and repay anyone he has cheated four times over!

Given that Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector of the region, you can bet that his transformation would have positively affected just about every person in Jericho. By impacting just one person, Jesus indirectly benefitted the entire community in a profound way. That’s the ripple effect that can take place when you do it for the one!

When you’re struggling to find motivation, remember that ripple effect. Remind yourself that if you just have a positive impact on one person today, that will be enough. Like the boy throwing starfish back into the ocean, you’ll be able to smile and say “I made a difference for that one.”

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