Relevance is in. It’s how we measure everything. What’s trending? What’s hot? What earns the clicks, the comments, or the buzz? How does that translate into currency?
I admit I struggle with the concept. Have for years. Who is listening to me? Who is reading what I write? How do I extend my reach? How will I know if I’ve achieved relevance?
The dictionary definition of relevance is “being connected to the matter at hand.” That’s vague enough to induce an anxiety attack. What is the matter at hand? How do we know? How often does it change? Who decides?
We do, “we” being an aggregate. Our impulses, our needs and our desires are reflected in our comments as well as our purchases. We affect and are affected by everyone else. We participate in and succumb to group-think. Everything we like, buy, rate or consume is quantified and measured. The results are used to determine what is offered to us, whether it’s commentary or the latest must-have thing.
Relevance breaks us out of the pack. Without it, we’re in the back row, out of the loop, powerless, maybe even voiceless.
Products and ideas struggle to be relevant. So do people. Irrelevance feels like invisibility. How many of us have tried to give a speech or teach a class to a roomful of people looking at their smart phones? I played piano bar for many years, which is only marginally less deflating. The job entails soothing without disrupting. The goal is to be ignored. It’s a profoundly disappointing way to entertain.
As Google helpfully points out, “artists and politicians are always worried about their relevance. If they are no longer relevant, they may not keep their job.”
So true. Ask any writer trying to come up with the perfect post-Harry Potter/Divergent/Hunger Games young adult novel. Ask any songwriter trying to come up with the next “Hello”, “Happy” or “Uptown Funk.” Ask any politician in 2016.
It’s not just artists and politicians who feel the pull of relevancy. Everyone worries about being important. At work, relevance becomes all about keeping the company at the leading edge of its field. At home, parents compete with the latest app or social media meme for significance in their children’s lives. It’s hard to be a knowing role model when the Internet provides all the answers.
Although relevancy (like everything else) seems amplified, it’s not a new concept. We want to be connected. We want to feel important. We want to stand up and shout, “Hey, I’m here!” The wealthy often insist on naming rights to buildings. Perhaps they hope their money can help them stay eternally connected. Legacy establishes immortality. The donor is relevant every time someone enters the [Your Name Here] Science Center.
The older we get, the less clear we are about how to be relevant or even how or where we might connect to what matters. Children grow up and move away. Spouses and siblings die. We are eased out of jobs and into a life of enforced leisure marked by secret struggles or stretches of isolation.
At some point, it may seem meaningless to think about being relevant. We can’t all be insiders. If our goal is to cast a really wide net of influence, we’re up against impossible odds. Some of us give up. Others continue to push back against obsolescence. What are we doing?
We’re trying to connect. We want to count or be counted. That’s what it’s all about. Somebody cares, somebody needs us, somebody is listening to us. We want to influence something, no matter how small that something is. That’s what floats our boat, gets us up in the morning, and makes us smile. I matter, you matter; we matter.
I argued in Hope in Small Doses that a life of purpose can just as easily involve sharing information as curing cancer. It’s not the scale; it’s the intent. We can be relevant by being a best-selling author or by being a damn good storyteller. We can shape change by running for office or by spending time with a friend in need. Relevance doesn’t require we compete for prominence unless our goal is to have an effect on the greatest number of people. In which case, we’re out of luck. There’ll always be someone with more followers or more money or more power. The next day or week or year, another person will come along to claim the influence crown.
I’ll be honest: I don’t always find it easy to embrace a more intimate definition of relevance. I’m a writer and I want to reach as many people as possible. That puts me in competition with others also vying for the attention of a public we’re trying to influence, enlighten, educate or entertain. We can’t all be relevant, can we?
Yes, we can: maybe to one or ten instead of a thousand or a million. The challenge is to acknowledge that we are all connected to the matter at hand by virtue of being alive.