In the 1940’s, Alan Turing played a significant role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis. It has been estimated that his contributions ended the war two years early and saved 14 million lives.
In 1983, during the height of the Cold War, Stanislav Petrov’s job was to monitor the Soviet Union’s Air Defense Forces. One night, the computers picked up five missiles sent by the US. Petrov suspected that something was off, trusted his gut and disregarded protocol to report what was happening to his superiors. It turned out to be malfunction in the system and he saved the world from a nuclear holocaust.
No matter how important the contribution you make is (and they are very important), most people still won’t remember your name. Because doing something important isn’t the same as doing something popular.
Tragically, Semmelweiss was locked away in an insane asylum and beaten to death, Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” for his sexuality and was given chemical castration treatment, Petrov was reprimanded for his courage and the most generous among us was crucified for challenging the status-quo.
I’m not sure if one person today could change the entire world. But I believe each of us has the capacity to make things better. While our culture emphasizes big splashes, it’s the ripple effects that reaches the masses.