2017 in Retrospect: What's Impact

Measuring Impact

What does impact look like to a creative facilitator? What is the real nature of impact? Three stories from everyday life

This post was written on 4 January 2018

4 min read / 863 words


My 2017 retrospection was kickstarted a few weeks ago by a friend who asked (thanks, James):

How do you measure your impact?

It was hard to hug all the thoughts that flashed into my mind into one concise answer. As I spoke, it surprised me that my response came as three stories: one of a special needs teacher experiencing burnout, one of a moving wall, and one of deciphering stories with a thought leader. These are my stories and reflections they carried with them.

The Teacher

Around thanksgiving last year, I had the opportunity to reconnect with an acquaintance who follows my drawings via Instagram. He shares about his mother, a special needs teacher taking care of programs for the region who had once studied art. She was in a valley of sorts, a kind of burnout that left her feeling exhausted and questioning. Most times, the thread-thin effect you might have on others does not return to you, and it leaves you unknowing. This time, I heard the story of how by sharing Instagrams of my scribing work catalyzed a wave of creativity within her: her return to art through visuals makes planning and teaching her classrooms a more joyful experience, one which affects her students, their families, and those in the region whose lives this creativity touches.


A visual by Jane Sawyer, a teacher of life skills (special needs) in Texas

It Takes a Village

Seeing how ideas travel in A Terrible Beauty, and The Innovators, I wonder if we misattribute impact to single sources, usually ourselves. When we mark ourselves against KPIs, it holds us accountable to the work that needs to be done, but also undermines the reality that every idea and its execution is and always has been the work of the people it touched and passed through, each of them playing their role to materialize as director, carrier, facilitator, community stirrer, funder. Walter Isaacson and Peter Watson take a lens through time, and observe the same: the hallmarks of innovation did not arrive through an isolated idea through an isolated person; it was the confluence of resources, energy and passage of time of many networked characters which moved these ideas and their evolutions into being.

The Moving Mural

A climate change organization gathers 150 participants in La Fabbrica Del Vapore, an electric tram factory which now serves as the centre for innovation and culture in Milan, to deepen collaboration between its members. The design workshopping the day involved a wall onto which their sparks and synergies would collect. The wall mirrors the synergies made in the group, expliciting our invisible connections to each other and hidden resources and synergies to tackling the complexity of climate change as a knowing whole.

Building (Good) Walls

With all the noise about building walls we hear, this is one example where a wall was built for good: this is a work of diversity and collaboration piece which will travel to its next events, as a material reminder to the immaterial bonds the people in that space, that time, share. It is a wall that quietly endures.

Deciphering the Palatial Mind

Last year I met a mind which holds more complexities than I have ever known. Complete systems of thoughts were locked in her mind and I had somehow the privilege of deciphering this visually with her. The work was what I imagine brain surgery is like, as described by Csikzen...{check name}. This project passed through an intellectual barrier, and into an empathetic, appreciative friendship, one which allowed us mutual enjoyment of each other’s mind and also understand the labour of creating words and pictures that will help the stories in her palatial mind to standalone in their fullest meanings. This has opened worlds between us, and this work gives back in other forms beyond expectation.

Soul & Joy Work

Even as I recount these stories, more come in quiet waves. They are what the impressionists tried to capture, turning the immaterial material: Monet’s water colour paintings of glistening light on the Thames that drove him to madness, pivoting between some 90 canvases in order to stay true to the ephemeral but alas abandoning the whole project because he could not do its beauty justice by any artistic or practical means. These moments are joyous: when scribing work with a human rights advocacy group was met by a single remark so casual that, if you blinked, could have missed:

You put your soul into this, don’t you.

I watched the spirit of creative problem-solving refresh a team fearful of running a new workshop series take ownership and find confidence in their project, through fresh eyes.

You brought a real sense of pride to the work

The Million or One

Silicon go-getters define impact as a problem solved for at least a million people. Oprah’s viral commencement speech defines legacy as the individual lives you touch as a mark of your impact. And I’m sure impact has been given names and measures every point in between and more dimensions than we think.

Sometimes the effect of your work and actions never make it back to you. Some very privileged times, it does. However, you may always trust that all which you create from a place free of fear and from a good, creative spirit will have its effect in the world it enters. The consequences of our actions persist and live on, and through these examples, sometimes physically, but always lasts through the intangibles.

Ever learning, unlearning, relearning,

2018JoyJan, ExperiencesComment