What if the little things were all that mattered?

Hello friends and welcome back Life Reimagined, a free weekly elixir designed to make you feel good and live better.

This week, I wrote about how our endless striving to leave our mark on the world leads us to overlook the simple source from which real impact emerges.

You can read the full essay below or find it on my website here.

P.S. If you missed last week’s essay about love, loss, and encounters with the supernatural, you can read it here.


I stumbled upon this sign the other day. 

Keep Nosara Green. Leave Only Footprints.

It reminded me of Leave No Trace, an environmental conservation philosophy that encourages people to leave nature as they found it. Basically, leave only footprints.

I trekked onward and noticed the sounds of leaves and sticks breaking beneath me. With each step, the jungle path became more matted and lifeless than it had once been. The change was almost imperceptible, but it was happening.

It occurred to me that no matter how hard we try to minimize our impact, we can never leave nature quite as we found it. Even our footprints transform the places we walk.

The impact of small actions in the natural world is obvious, hence the popularity of ideas like Leave No Trace. But we seem to forget that this dynamic also occurs outside of nature.

As we navigate careers, conversations, and the responsibilities of life, our goal is not to leave no trace. In fact, we often want to leave the biggest trace we can imagine. We strive for an impact large enough to create a positive legacy, garner adulation, and imbue our lives with meaning.

But in our relentless striving to leave our mark, we forget something important. We forget that it’s the tiny footprints we leave behind, not our grand plans, that actually change the people and world around us.

The importance of footprints became clear to me a few years ago. I was writing a memoir and interviewed friends and family to get a better understanding of myself.

At the end of the interviews, I always asked: What’s something you know about me that I don’t know about myself

I hoped this question would reveal my blind spots through the people who knew the best and worst parts of me. Most people said something unmemorable, but my friend Dror said something that shook me:

“You would be a great dad.”

A tight ball formed in my chest and remained long after the interview ended.

At the time, I had never seriously considered being a dad, let alone a good one. In part, that’s because I had a complicated relationship with male role models.

My biological father was a drunk gambler who disappeared when I was two years old. In his absence, my mom fell for a rotating cast of sketchy and selfish men. My grandfather is likely the only reason I didn’t end up in jail. He was a good man who showed up when it counted.

But even with my grandfather’s influence, the idea of fatherhood never sat well with me. I always assumed that I would be no better than my father or the men my mom brought around.

It’s with this backdrop that Dror offered those six penetrating words: you would be a great father. I don’t know if he remembers what he said, but he left a footprint that changed my life. 

His words opened a door that allowed me to reconsider my self-image and ideas about fatherhood. Over the next few years, I began to understand that I was not the same as my father or my mom’s other love interests. I was not destined to leave my kids in the dust or exist as an unreliable outlaw.

I could have been like these men, but I made different choices. And as Dror helped me understand, those choices mattered. Perhaps I could be a half-decent father.

I don’t have children, so the jury’s still out on the great dad thesis. But no matter what happens, it’s clear that Dror’s footprint nudged my life in a better direction.

Looking back, I can think of dozens of similar examples. Each event started with something as simple as kind words or an act of generosity from people who took their footprints seriously. And those small acts made a profoundly positive difference in my life.

Taking your footprints seriously requires you to believe that the little things count, even when you can’t see the outcome. That’s because the impact of your footprints, unlike the dollars you donate, is not measurable or predictable.

Footprints are like a gust of wind at sea. That gust can start a chain reaction of energy that moves thousands of miles across the ocean. The energy slowly builds until it has transformed into a wave that arrives to the delight of a surfer looking for his next ride. The wave crashes onto the shore, subtly changing the sandy ocean bottom and the spirit of the surfer who will re-enter land life with a smile.

Every day, we leave behind dozens of footprints that have the potential to be like this gust of wind. Those footprints could be the attitude we bring to work, the presence we offer to loved ones, or the curiosity we bring to a conversation. These subtle acts are less about what we do and more about how we show up in the world.

Trusting that how you show up matters is an act of humility and faith. No one will put you on a magazine cover for being consistently kind, patient, and generous. And you will never quite know when you change someone’s life. Yet, you show up anyway.

We’ve all heard of or met people who make a name for themselves by saying that they care about this or that cause. But behind closed doors, they are mean-spirited and uncharitable. Magazines love these people and don’t care to mention the muddy footprints they’ve left around the world.

But it’s that mud, not the praise, that will define their lives.

We all reach the end of our time at some point. It’s at this moment when the seriousness with which we took our footprints will matter most. Hooked up to a series of tubes, we will no longer be blinded by the legacy, fame, and admiration we once craved. Those desires will have faded and lived on with the young.

With clear heads, we will finally have time to think about the millions of footprints we made as we traversed the world. And hopefully, we will be satisfied with the traces we left behind.

That's all for now. See you next Sunday.

— Cal

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