People who do important work often delude ourselves about relevance in two ways:
- We believe what we do is relevant to everyone. We can connect it to everyday life, ergo, it is relevant. Everyone can see the door, everyone already has a key, and they can open the door anytime they like.
- We believe that relevance is irrelevant, since people will be attracted to our work for its distinctiveness. It is NOT like everyday life, and that is the glorious point. There is no door, there is no key, there is only a magical experience to fall into like Alice through the looking glass.
Both of these are delusions. Let’s pierce them one by one.
DELUSION #1: WHAT WE DO IS RELEVANT TO EVERYONE
This delusion is borne from the theory that we can’t possibly be irrelevant because our work is relevant to everyone. It sounds like this: “Shakespeare is relevant to everyone because it illuminates the human condition.” Or this: “Climate science is relevant to everyone because we all live on this planet.” Or this: “The word of God is relevant to everyone, whether they attend church or not.”
Whether these statements are true or not is immaterial. You cannot assign relevance by fiat. People choose for themselves what is relevant. You can’t dictate it from on high.
Nor, frankly, should you. Arguments for universal relevance are weak, even desperate. The more vociferously you argue for the relevance of your work, the more it implies fear that people believe otherwise. If you have to cry out “history is relevant!,” you’re already losing. You can’t force a connection by argument alone.
Arguments for universal relevance are nearly impossible to win. Relevance is always relative. “Is it relevant?” is an incomplete question. The question is always: “WHO is it relevant to?” or “WHAT is it relevant to?”
If you love football, then a news story about last night’s game is relevant to you. If you’re a parent, a law changing local school district lines is relevant to you. If you’re a Harley enthusiast, an exhibition on motorcycle design is relevant to you.
Relevance often functions in the binary. Information is relevant or irrelevant, the door unlocked or locked. The newspapers from the dates surrounding the Japanese-American man’s birth were relevant to him. The other issues were just paper.
What is relevant to one person can be irrelevant to their neighbor. What’s more, what is relevant today may be irrelevant tomorrow. Today, you care if your plane is delayed. Tomorrow, when you are enjoying your destination, the flight schedule no longer matters.
Occasionally relevance is linear. Information is more or less relevant, the door more or less open. Think about that law changing school district lines. If the law is being considered two counties over, you probably don’t know or care much about it. If you don’t have children, it’s not even on your radar. But threaten to change the law in your district, for your kid who loves her first grade teacher with all her heart, and suddenly, the issue is relevant.
Relevance is relative even when it comes to the most commonly shared experiences. There are some people who will never watch the Super Bowl. There are some people who will never feel an impulse to spirituality. These people are not bad, wrong, or in need of fixing. They have found relevance in other pursuits.
The sooner we start focusing on becoming relevant to the people we most care about—as opposed to proclaiming our relevance to everyone—the more successful and powerful we will be.
It may be true that our work, or our issues, touch everyone. But that doesn’t mean that they matter to everyone. Relevance is relative, and people are busy. Our work is only relevant when people tell us it is. When they feel connected to it. When they believe that it matters.
DELUSION #2: RELEVANCE IS IRRELEVANT
Maybe you are more drawn to an opposite delusion: the belief that relevance doesn’t matter. That you don’t need it to reach people. That people will discover the magic in your work without you reaching out to them and opening the door. That your work is so transformative, so awesome, that it doesn’t have to be connected to the thrum of daily life.
I believe in this magic as much as anyone. When I was a child, I spent hours in the living room of my mother’s house. It had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves packed with her books. She’d arranged them using her own system, partly thematic, partly alphabetical. I’d climb up on the back of the couch, my feet sinking into the cushions, running my fingers across their mysterious spines. When I hit twelve, I started picking books out, haphazardly. I found books that blew my mind. Tropic of Cancer, which taught me that swearing wasn’t invented in my lifetime. Understanding Comics, which I still consider one of the most important books on design I’ve ever read. Sex Tips for Girls, which my mom still can’t believe I read when I was a kid.
None of these books were relevant to me. They were enticing because they were irrelevant to me. They were books of the adult world, mysterious and powerful. And a few of them changed my life.
This is the kind of story we often tell ourselves as an argument against pursuing relevance. That a visitor will wander into the Rothko room and be overwhelmed with the paintings’ pulsing power. That someone will show up for an opera for the first time and get swept away by the richness. That a person will peek into a church and feel the word of God as true and powerful and unmistakable as a thunder clap.
And in a way, it’s true. Many of our most powerful experiences are not rooted in relevance. The things that shock us, blow us away, or confound us—many of these things are unexpected. We aren’t ushered in by relevance. We just slam into that tree, fall into that painting, lock eyes across a room and BAM—something new matters.
But lightning strikes are few and far between. Most of our days, most of our experiences—both important and mundane—are steered and filtered by what we deem relevant. Most of the books I read as a child were NOT the ones I pulled off my mom’s shelves. Those were the rarities. I found many more life-changing books through relevant channels—school, age-appropriate book lists, friends’ recommendations—than I did through the random mystique of her living room.
When you start looking more closely at lightning strike stories, the watermark of relevant doors and keyholes becomes visible. Someone had to drag that newbie to the opera. Something pulled that person up the church steps to the door. I only encountered those transportive adult books because they were in my own house. It doesn’t get much more relevant than that.
Relevance determines most of what we do. The paths we walk. The choices we make. The things we read. The new things we try—or avoid trying. If we deem something relevant, we’ll open that door. And sometimes it pays off by leading us somewhere important. Into a coffee shop that becomes a second home. Into an art form that sparks new ideas. Into a temple that becomes a spiritual haven. Into a relationship that changes our lives.
If you work for an organization that seeks to provide meaningful, powerful, significant experiences, you should care about being relevant. You probably already do. You care about opening the door of relevance to those powerful experiences. Don’t rely on people walking in on their own and getting hit by lightning. Lightning strikes too infrequently. Our work is too important to wait.