I’ve spoken to hundreds of highly ambitious, driven individuals about starting a company. I have found one common thread in all of these conversations: every single individual understood the allure of amplifying the impact their work had on other people.
It’s only natural to want the work you do, the actions you take, to have a tangible, visible effect on those around you — perhaps even on society at large. And starting a company is a great way to do that.
Last week I spent my day talking to researchers working with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
And I didn’t find that thread.
For the first time in two years — neither visible nor immediate societal impact featured in the individuals’ ambitions.
Breakthroughs are few and far between in the field of high energy particle physics. The last major milestone was the discovery and detection of the Higgs Boson in 2012. It took years of tiny, incremental steps in both theory and hardware — the chances of another breakthrough occurring even in the next ten years are minuscule. And even then, it’s neither a given nor clear how it would directly impact society. Yet some of the most ambitious individuals on the planet are happy to spend their careers in the pursuit of this breakthrough, all the while fully aware of its unlikelihood.
This very common theme amongst this group of people — of accepting that their work could very realistically have no tangible impact on society — made me realise a few pertinent things about impact.
1. The three types of impact
Whereas impact has always been one and absolute in my mind, I realise that it actually comes in three different types.
- Impact on you — the simplest and most direct of impact, the result of actions that affect you and those immediately around you
- Impact on society — the result of actions that affect people you may not personally know but exist in society around you
- Impact on humanity — the result of actions that affect humanity as a whole
2. Every action has a ratio of these three types of impact
It could be something as simple as eating a healthy meal (massive impact on you, negligible impact on society, zero impact on humanity) or as multi-faceted as teaching a class on your favourite subject (positive impact on you as you do something you love, great impact on society as you enlighten the students around you, and small but significant impact on humanity as knowledge is shared and protected); all actions will have a mix of these three types of impact.
3. Most people orient their lives to maximise one specific type of impact
Although individual actions can be a mix of the three types of impact, most people — consciously or not — will have oriented their lives around one particular type. All of their actions are slowly building up to having strongest, most tangible effects on themselves, society or humanity.
Some people will prioritise their personal surroundings, their family they care for, the house they live in. Others will prioritise societal impact, the students they teach, the books they write, the customers they serve; most startup founders will fall into this category. Finally we have those who prioritise the least tangible of the three: impact on humanity. People who are happy to not see the immediate effects of what they’re doing. People who are happy for incremental progress in a larger mission.
Now it made sense why a researcher at CERN would spend their career working towards detecting dark matter. They themselves might not be the ones to do it, but they are part of humankind as a whole taking one more step towards it and that’s all that matters, because they optimise for impact on humanity. This is also why it makes sense for another researcher to leave the field of particle physics after a few years and use their skills in another setting; working on discovering new physics simply doesn’t align with the type of impact they wish to optimise for.
It’s a useful paradigm to assess your actions through — how well does what you do every day align with the kind of impact you want to optimise for?