A man was walking along the beach one morning when he came upon a young girl. As he watched, the young girl reached down, picked up a starfish, and threw it out into the ocean. She repeated the action several times, moving a few feet down the beach for each episode.
Finally he was drawn to ask, "Little girl, what are you doing?"
"I'm throwing the starfish back out to sea. If I don't, they'll die."
"But there are thousands of starfish out here on the beach, and more wash up with every wave. You can't possibly make a difference."
The little girl picked up another starfish and heaved it far out into the ocean, and then she turned and said with a grin, "I made a difference to that one."
(story adapted from The Starfish Thrower by Loren Eiseley)
I've heard this story used (often without attribution, unfortunately) by motivational speakers/writers and lots of other folks, too. It's a nice story, even just taken at face value. Who wouldn't want to help the poor, defenseless starfish survive Mother Nature's wrathful tidal action? Of course it's tough, perhaps even impossible, to help them all, but by taking positive forward action you can at least help some. Right? Similarly, at work, I can't help 400 students at a time, but I can smile at and talk to one, which will make a difference to her and possibly even have ripple effects to others.
I have to admit that the cynic in me drove an investigation into whether or not starfish actually die due to being left on the beach. They usually don't, if the results of my primitive research can be trusted. Starfish can live out of the water for up to five days, according to the most trustworthy source I could find, and that's plenty of time for the next tide to come in and rescue the poor animal. That's if they don't take their fate into their own hands--er, limbs--points?--whatever--and use their own strange method of locomotion to work their way out into the water when they wish.
I don't think anyone has ever successfully communicated with a starfish, but I can't help but wonder if, when that occurs, we learn that starfish actually like sunning themselves on the beach between tides.
Now that I've ruined a perfectly sweet little story, replacing a cute, helpful little girl with the Dark Lord of the Sith, let me briefly mention the other message to be taken from the story. It's the same message, really, that is contained in the proverb regarding eating an elephant.
"How do you eat an elephant?" someone asks.
"Why in the hell would I eat an elephant?" I reply.
Life is full of tasks that seem gargantuan in stature. Consider writing a novel, for example, or earning a college degree. Trust me, nobody can write a novel. Sorry, my fellow authors, but you know it's true. I can't write a novel. You can't write a novel. At the same time, nobody ever earns a college degree. I know, my retention rate is somewhere between 70% and 80% on a regular basis, so what are those people doing, you ask?
Simply put, they're conquering learning objectives. Every day, instructors come in with a learning objective or two in mind, and students achieve those objectives. Objectives, then, become courses, which in turn become academic periods (such as semesters, quarters, and years), which finally morph into degrees.
Nobody writes a novel. I sure don't. I write a scene. Sometimes, like when NaNoWriMo is going, I write a certain number of words, though I prefer to write scenes instead. Scenes become chapters, which combine in what is hopefully a pleasing order to become a novel. But I don't write a novel; I can't write a novel.
And back to the story, neither a young girl nor the Dark Lord of the Sith can save or terrorize an entire beach of starfish. By saving/terrorizing one at a time, though, progress can be made, and if the progress in this case is faster than the tide, making your good/evil mark upon the whole beach is possible.
So--go write a scene. If you're in college, learn the next objective. If you're at the beach--well, I'll leave it up to you as to whether you'll risk it.