There is a saying that says everybody gets 15 seconds of fame in their lives. Talk to an elderly person and ask what his or her most famous moment was, and you might be surprised. Time forgets everything eventually. Even the person with the lowliest appearance in old age was mighty once… for 15 seconds.
But the saying is not entirely accurate. It’s an oversimplification. Some people are great for only a second of their life. Others are great for decades. No person is higher than another, but there are significant differences in how much impact each person has on the world around them.
(A person’s impact on society) = (number of people affected) × (magnitude of impact) × (duration)
Take Louis Pasteur. He had a massive effect on the world with his discoveries of vaccination and pasteurization. His work had an impact on millions (if not billions) of people, in no small magnitude (life or death of people), and over several generations of time. If you attempt to plug empirical numbers into the equation above for Louis Pasteur, you would have a huge number.
Now take your average nobody. The faceless person on the street, who has accomplished nothing of note in life. Perhaps this person once treated a homeless person to Thanksgiving dinner. That was the “15 seconds” of fame for this person. Plug empirical numbers to the equation for this average person, and you will get a very small number. It is not to say that the small number is insignificant (because even a small number is significant to the people affected), but the impact on society as a whole is much less than that of Louis Pasteur. I am also not saying that Pasteur was better than the faceless person on the street, only that he had more impact on society. For all we know, Pasteur may have been a jerk, and you might be more eager to share a beer with the faceless person.
A person’s impact on society is not necessarily positive either. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin had a massive effect on society. But we wish they didn’t.
So what can we take away from this? I don’t know. Maybe it’s this: If you want to be regarded as a great person, help as many people as you can in the biggest way that you can, for as long as you can.