We often confuse our true impact with what we do directly. Instead of focusing on what you do directly, ask yourself what would have happened if I hadn’t been there?
The real difference we make is the difference between what happened because of us, and and what would have happened otherwise.
Thinking about impact explicitly like that opens up lots of new ways to make the world a better place.
Let’s explore some examples:
A charity runs a huge campaign raising money for medicine to prevent deaths due to HIV/AIDs, and raise millions of pounds.
What was their direct impact?
Directly, the fundraisers caused a large number of donations to their cause. This money is used to save many lives in the developing world.
What would have happened if they hadn’t run the campaign?
Some of the donors would have given less money to charity over the rest of the year. But other donors have only changed their donations. If the campaign hadn’t been run, these donors would have given some of the money to different charities instead.
What was their true impact?
If these other charities needed the money more, then the campaign might have even been harmful. At any rate, the fundraising didn’t do as much good as it first looks. To do more good as a fundraiser, you have to increase the total amount given to charity, and be wary of pulling funds away from other important causes.
2) The high impact secretary
Sarah runs one of the main research teams aiming to develop vaccines to end malaria. Everyone agrees that under Sarah’s leadership, the team has been enormously successful, bringing the development of the vaccine forward by several years and perhaps saving several million lives. Sarah, however, would not have been nearly as successful without her secretary, Dave. Dave has great judgement, and is the best secretary she’s ever found. He saves her lots of stress and time. This lets Sarah spend much more time and effort doing and overseeing the research.
What was Dave’s direct impact?
Directly, Dave’s just doing secretarial work. Not particularly high impact, right?
What would have happened if Dave wasn’t Sarah’s secretary?
Sarah would have found a different secretary, who would have probably been much less helpful than Dave.
What was Dave’s true impact?
If Dave saves Sarah an extra hour per day, which she spends pushing the research effort forward faster, then he might easily have sped up the research effort by 10%. That could mean preventing thousands of deaths due to malaria. Give him some credit.
3) Becoming a doctor
Chris works in the emergency room and sees hundreds of patients per year, many of which are in critical condition.
What was Chris’s direct impact?
Directly, Chris saves tens or hundreds of lives per year.
What would have happened if he hadn’t taken the job?
This is a critical function of the health system, so if Chris hadn’t taken the job, it would have been allocated to another doctor who is currently doing something much less important. Ultimately another doctor would have probably been hired.
What was Chris’s true impact?
The loss to the health system if Chris hadn’t become a doctor would be having to hire someone less skilled doing a much less important task. So by becoming a doctor, he’s saving far fewer lives than it looks. We’ve estimated that by becoming an average doctor in the UK, you allow people to live an extra 600 years of healthy life, which is roughly like saving one life every three years.
4) The ethical rice trader
Tish trades rice futures, pretty evil right? Excessive speculation in agricultural commodities could increase volatility, making life harder for developing world farmers.
What was her direct impact?
Directly, Tish is taking part in an industry that might harm the global poor.
What would have happened if she hadn’t taken the job?
Tish cares deeply about making the world a better place, so she avoids the types of trades that drive up volatility (trend following). If she hadn’t taken the job, odds are someone less scrupulous would have taken the job instead, and the market would have become more volatile. In addition, Tish donates a big fraction of her income to charities helping those in the developing world. Since she donates much more than the average rice trader, if she hadn’t taken the job, these donations wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
What was her true impact?
Despite participating in a potentially harmful industry, Tish has a positive impact by making it less harmful than it would have been without her.
5) The beautiful researcher
Sam narrowly gets a job at the World Bank allocating aid money, in part due to his good looks.
What’s his direct impact?
Sam goes on to do lots of great work, which makes the world better for millions of people.
What would have happened if he hadn’t taken the job?
His good looks swung the interview for him. But they don’t exactly help him in the job. If he hadn’t taken the job, it would have gone to someone who would have done it slightly better.
What was his true impact?
The job affects millions of people, so if it was done a little better, it could mean thousands of extra people would be helped. His true impact was to make thousands of people worse off.
Your true impact can be completely different from the impact you appear to have directly. Unfortunately, we usually give credit to direct impact in careers, and ignore what would have happened otherwise. And so, millions of people end up making less difference than they could have.
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