The Significance Trap

I’ll never forget the feeling of being in my early twenties, having a bunch of disposable income (I worked a LOT), and dropping a ton of money on an iPhone. In retrospect, it was right at the beginning of Apple’s Golden Age: there were very few smartphone competitors at the time, the polished Apple Store experience was popping up everywhere, and smart advertising ensured that everyone who was anyone had an iPhone.

I bought my iPhone, laboured for hours setting it up, and it changed my life. I stopped making eye contact with people on my commute to work. I stopped communicating with my family at dinner. I barely registered when I was outside in nature. I was communicating with people all over the world from the comfort of wherever I happened to be. I was learning about the world through social media, podcasts, and Google. And it seemed like everyone else was doing the same thing. I worked hard for this expensive piece of status; this device that connected me to millions of other people who had bought the same product – the same lifestyle, in my perspective – and finally, because of this thing in my hand, I was significant.

The iPhone lasted 7 months. In September, when the next iPhone was released, I traded in my electronic friend for the newest model. And every year after that, when excitement grew about the latest release, I started to feel the urge. Started to feel like I had to keep up. Started to feel like to buy the newest iPhone would connect me to the iPhone cult even more powerfully. That I would become even more significant.

Being an Apple lover became part of my identity for awhile. In a crowd of artsy young (sometimes arrogant!) millennials, the Apple identity was an important and significant one. It gave one clout. It gave one artistic status over others. We all knew that if we wanted to be anybody in the world, Apple was the way to do it.

Thank goodness we know better now.

When I look back on this time in my life, I recognize a similar pattern. Young Kate was into having the right toys. Youngish Kate was into having the right clothes. Young Adult Kate was into having the right tech. All because I thought it would connect me to something more; because I would feel insignificant if I had that thing.

Here’s the thing: the significance trap is real. For you, it might be the number of followers you have, or the likes on your latest post, or the newest smartwatch, or a calendar that’s booked completely to the brim. Maybe you’re glamorizinging “busy,” and using your busyyness as a badge of honour. So many people are striving for those things that make us feel significant.

The truth is, though, that your significance isn’t up to you to determine. You cannot say how significant you are to your community. You cannot measure how significant you are to the world. And you sure as heck cannot say that because you have this new, shiny thing or because you got 1,000 likes on your last post, that you are significant.

Significance is measured by others, and it’s measured by the value you add to their lives. By the meaningful conversations you have with them. By the generosity of your spirit. By the way you make them feel. By the way you inspire them. By the example you set.

So, next time you find yourself falling into that significance trap – and most of us do, from time to time – take a second and ask yourself if you can channel that urge for significance in a different direction. If you can spend more quality time with the people who matter to you. If you can create something good, instead of consuming something good. If you can be the best version of you (not the version of you that’s pining after tech, or likes, or an Instagram lifestyle). And then, knowing that you’ve done all you can to have good impact, can you let go of your need to be significant? Because while the measure of your significance isn’t up to you, the measure of your character is.


Kate Marlow