The difference between true and tangible impact

When people think about the impact of their actions, they tend to think only of the immediate results – what we call their tangible impact.

But that is only part of the story. To get the full picture, you need to compare the world you bring about with the world as it would have been without your involvement. We call this your true impact.

Here’s an example to illustrate the difference. Imagine you’re at the scene of an accident and you see an injured person. In your enthusiasm to help, you push the paramedics out of the way and perform CPR on the injured person yourself. You’re successful and bring them back to consciousness, but because you’re less well-trained than the paramedics, you cause permanent damage to the person’s spine. If you had let the paramedics perform CPR instead, the injured person would have made a full recovery. In this case, your tangible impact was to save their life, but your true impact was to cause the person spinal damage.

This example also illustrates that your true impact is what really matters. Even though the tangible impact of performing CPR was good – you saved a life – it wasn’t in fact the right thing to do. It would have been even better if you hadn’t acted, since the injured person would still have survived and would not have suffered spinal damage.

The same is true when you seek to make a difference with your career. The true impact of a career option is what really matters, but that can be very different from the tangible difference it makes.

For instance, a charity fundraiser could raise a lot of money (positive tangible impact), but the true impact could actually be harmful if it takes away money which would have been given to a more effective charity.

As another example, say you take a job in a harmful industry: your tangible impact will clearly be negative. However, if you work to make the industry less harmful than it would have been otherwise, your true impact will be positive. We’re not saying that it is the best course to take, but is an example of how much true and tangible impact can come apart.

See more examples of the difference between tangible and true impact.

Replaceability and Diminishing Returns

One general way true and tangible impact come apart is replaceability: if you don’t take a job, someone else usually will (or the work will be assigned to someone else) and the overall effect will be more or less the same. As a result, the true impact of you taking a job will often be significantly less than the tangible impact. (See this piece by Rational Analysis for a closer analysis of this effect.)

Another, related way in which tangible impact is misleading is the law of diminishing returns. When you only have one person working on a problem, they will focus on the most crucial things which can be done. For each additional person added, the group is able to add less crucial activities into their work, reducing the impact of each individual.

As an example of both of these, we undertook a case study of the true effect of doctors. Although doctors appear to improve the health of hundreds of patients with their own hands each year, the true impact of going into medicine is significantly smaller. Firstly, your impact will be replaceable: there are plenty of people who would be willing and able to take the job if you do not. Secondly, your impact will be subject to diminishing returns: as there are already thousands of doctors, adding another one will be less effective than if there were fewer to start with.

Becoming a doctor still does a lot of good compared to most jobs, but it’s less than it appears at first.

What does the difference mean for your career?

It’s usually very hard to assess the true impact of an action, because it’s difficult to work out exactly what would have happened otherwise. Rather than attempting this, we instead recommend using certain rules of thumb to factor true impact into career calculations. Here are a couple of ways that this is reflected in our advice:

The importance of personal fit

The greater your chances of excelling in your job, the less replaceable you’ll be. This is especially true in paths with a wide dispersion of outcomes, such as entrepreneurship, politics and research. This is one reason why personal fit is one of the key four factors in our framework.

The importance of cause selection

You can increase your chances of having a significant true impact by working on interventions with strong evidence in favor of their effectiveness. The best evidence is from randomized controlled trials: where we take a group of people and randomly apply the intervention to some of them and not to others, the difference in outcome between the two groups will be the true impact of the intervention.

You can also increase your chances of having a true impact by working on causes that are neglected. If an area is neglected, then it is less likely that someone else will do the same work if you do not.

Both of these factors are considered in our page on cause selection. Cause selection is part of role impact, one of the key four factors in our framework.

The importance of using positions in new ways

Just because someone else would have done your job if you had not taken it, doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can do with it to make a difference. The most obvious example of this is earning to give: take a high-earning job but donate a high percentage of the income to charity. Usually, wealthy people donate very little of their salary to charity, so this is a great way to have a large additional impact.

The same could be true within the advocacy strategy. You could become a journalist but use your column to write about pressing, neglected causes that wouldn’t have been covered otherwise. Or you could work in a foundation and promote a more strategic approach to grant selection.

This is one of the reasons we include earnings potential and advocacy potential within role impact.

Even if you can’t do this kind of job, there are a number of ways to make a difference in any career.