“Too many of us who start down the path of [career] compromise will never make it back. Considering the fact that you’ll likely spend more of your waking hours at your job than in any other part of your life, it’s a compromise that will always eat away at you.”
– Clayton Christensen, “How Will You Measure Your Life?”
Are you doing the work that you want to be doing? I’ve recently been considering different ways of thinking about careers and work, and I have started to formulate a small philosophy I am dubbing the concept of highly-leveraged impact. In short, it speaks to the multiplicative effect the work of one person can have on many people, ideally in strongly positive ways. It is composed of two key factors: reach and impact.
- The number of people affected by the work performed.
- The net effect (positive or negative) the work performed has on the lives of other people.
What is leverage?
When these two components—reach and impact—can be combined, a significant leveraging effect can exist that can impact people’s lives. What is leverage? As a quick refresher and as an (over-simplified) analogy, consider the leveraging effect of money in real estate. If a real estate investor with $20,000 in available capital purchases a property worth $100,000, using a bank loan to finance the remainder of the purchase price, and then sells it a year later for $150,000, he or she would stand to have made about $50,000 ($150k – $80k back to the bank – $20k initial investment). The investor did not have $100k to make the original purchase, but by leveraging the bank’s capital, was able to amplify the net effect of the $20,000 into a 150% gain.
What if you could do the same with your personal time, skills, and work? This is the idea that I am exploring through highly-leveraged impact. With the two components of reach and impact, we can analyze the idea in a quadrant format. In each quadrant below I’ve identified different examples (not exhaustive, and certainly not applicable in all scenarios), examined through the lens of the high-tech sector, that with which I am most familiar.
Major disclaimer: the concept of highly-leveraged impact is NOT intrinsically tied to the value of a job, and is by no means a concept through which to judge one’s worth. Someone working in a high-reach, high-impact position is not by nature worth more than someone in a low-reach, low-impact position, or vice-versa. This philosophy is only appropriately applied to fulfilling one aspect of a person’s internal motivations and desires.
|High||II. Many tech companies: Instagram, Farmville, Snapchat, etc.||IV. Medical device companies, leading a charitable org, educational innovations, pharmaceuticals|
|Low||I. Internal IT operations||III. One-on-one tutoring, small scale humanitarian work|
Let me give a brief explanation of each quadrant:
In the bottom left quadrant, that of low reach and low impact, I identified internal IT operations. In such positions, the work done typically reaches a relatively small number of individuals (often not even the entire population of the company), and while it does help those affected do their jobs better or easier, it doesn’t represent a critical change in their lives.
In the second quadrant (high reach, low impact) one might find many technology companies. Technology, by virtue of its extremely scalable nature, is able to reach an extraordinary number people very easily, and at relatively low cost. Therefore it fulfills one side of the reach/impact equation. However, it also can be used as an avenue of pushing low impact solutions: for example, Farmville. (Or in the specific instance of Farmville, maybe even negative societal value…)
The third quadrant is the opposite: high impact with low reach. Some life-changing people work in this quadrant, and I’ve certainly greatly benefited in my own life from wonderful people like this. Kindergarten teachers, tutors, people working in small-scale humanitarian organizations, or specialists in an extremely narrow but important field might fall into this category.
The final quadrant, and the most interesting one in this framework, is that of high reach and high impact. This is affecting many people in important ways. As an example, in this quadrant I identified medical device companies, leveraging the scalable nature of technology to be an influential part of many peoples lives, improving their customers’ health and standard of living. It is running large organizations (charitable being the easiest example). It is being a scientist at a pharmaceutical who assists in creating a medicine that reduces the risk of heart attack or relieves cancer. Some people who work in this quadrant are celebrated, but the majority are not. However, it does seem to allow identification of opportunities that would be extremely fulfilling on a personal basis at the very least.
Opportunities in the final quadrant are much fewer and further between than any of the others, and often require specialized training or rigorous demands. Given the high societal value of much of the work performed in this quadrant, one would think that more of us would be engaged here. But that often doesn’t seem to be the case. Why is this? Perhaps society and current economic incentives don’t reward work in this quadrant as readily as those in others. Perhaps the payback period, both in terms of actual dollars and in terms of preparation, is too prolonged or non-existent. Or perhaps it’s just easier to solve less complicated or less important problems, and so we go for those instead.
Whatever the case, it would be worth taking a step back to see if more of us couldn’t put our skills to work in more high-reach, high-impact positions.