Suppose you want to launch a startup, or some other world-changing innovation. You want to disrupt the blah blah market or fundamentally transform how people blah blah. Do it well, and maybe you can make a billion dollars. That’s the core of the argument, right?
Whatever you’re trying to do, you’re probably hoping to create dramatically more impact than you do today by launching something that didn’t exist before. And that added impact ought to create added dollars in your bank account. What if I told you that logic is backwards?
Sustainable impact starts with subtraction, not addition. To become a multiplier, you must first learn how to be a simplifier.
What If Being the Exceptional Disruptor is a Bad Thing?
We are pretty important. That is, I’m important to me and you are important to you. Not everyone is equally important. Don’t you agree? You do have ideas of global importance, after all, and most others surely don’t. The typical conceit of all of us startup types is that we think we’re exceptional.
The problem with believing in our own exceptionalism is that it creates a distorted view of the world. It clouds our judgment by applying circular arguments to almost every decision.
They go like this: If I am exceptional, that means I am exempt from the rules and constraints others must endure. It means I can do what I want. Because I’m disrupting shit, I will break things– maybe rules or business models. Whatever it takes. Get out of my way.
Seriously, like, I read Nietzche. At least I did once. In an intro to philosophy class. I’m pretty sure I’m an ubermensch.
The Golden Rule Just Got Real
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” makes sense in a small social group. If everyone generally assumes the best of each other, you can feel confident that your acts of considerate kindness will be reciprocated.
Of course, diverse groups being what they are, we don’t all want to be treated the same. We want different things from each other. You might say then, “treat others as they want to be treated.” That works a little better, given your own view of the world represents a tiny sliver of perspective. Most of the world does not want to be treated the way you do.
In fact, The Golden Rule breaks down quickly the moment you realize the “others” are mostly people you will never meet. Because we live on a planet with finite resources and interdependent commerce, our actions do affect others, and their actions affect us, too.
Supposing you’re that exceptional disruptor, are you also willing to be “disrupted” by strangers with profit motives and world views that don’t jibe with yours? It doesn’t much matter whether you’re willing. We’re all affected by the actions of others, often in ways we don’t even understand. More importantly, we’re affecting others without even trying to.
The Math is Inescapable
There are 7 billion people on this planet. That’s enough people to say we’ve entered the anthropocene– a geological age in which humans are the greatest influence on the planet. This isn’t a post about environmentalism per se. It isn’t about morality, either. It’s about how the effects of our actions multiply billions of times. We can’t escape that math.
Being indignant, or enlightened or otherwise appropriately self-righteous within your own little team of hackers (or more publicly on Facebook) about whatever issue you choose is not nearly enough. It’s the opposite of enough, in fact. Convincing yourself that you’re on the right side of history, but ignoring the math, is flat out ignorant. In the end, it’s self-defeating.
I’ll use this example:
You don’t sit in traffic, you are the traffic.
When you’re in your car (or Uber or cab) stuck in gridlock, yelling at some stupid driver making some road-clogging maneuver, it’s hard to see how you’re at fault. But traffic is not something that happens to you. It’s something you create, with your own choices, your own car, your own tank full of gas.
You are actively creating traffic. You are making people late for work. You are polluting your own neighborhood. You are killing polar bears. You are the waster-of-resources.
Sure, someone will “not do it right,” and that will be the thing that makes it all worse. But how much worse, really? The problem isn’t that one driver. The problem is all of us drivers.
I create traffic, too, just to be clear. I think of myself as an environmentalist, but I’ll also drive over an hour or fly several states away for a single business meeting. I haven’t squared that contradiction yet.
Not a big deal you say? Depends on your perspective. You can’t pick and choose your impact based on what you pay attention to. Your impact is happening regardless if you recognize it and own it. The math says an entire planet of people cannot behave this way.
If we put more people in more cars around the world, acting like me, would the world be better? And yet the goal of most car companies is to sell more cars to the consumers who share complementary goals of owning cars for independence, convenience and status.
Is that progress? If so, progress toward what?
How to Break the Status Quo without Breaking the Planet
Immanuel Kant was another German philosopher prior to Nietzche. I’ll save you the details, but suffice to say, they didn’t see eye to eye. Nietzche’s idea was that to transcend the ways we sacrifice meaning and value (acting stupidly and hurting our own interests) was to move beyond morality in the name of power. Power is all there is. It’s more subtle than that, but that’s the crux. That’s also the justification many startups, investors, big companies, big governments and others use to rationalize what they do.
It’s not just that I’m the exception, it’s that I have to be, because I’m also the best person or organization, so the rules apply to me differently. Therefore, the negative consequences my choices create are acceptable, because at least they are well-meaning, since I know better.
For ages, we could afford to be blind to the impacts of our choices, beyond what they get us. Not anymore. Now, Kant seems to have had it right. He said,
Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.
This is a fancy way of saying: Imagine everyone on the planet acting just like you do. Would the world be better or worse?
Imagine multiplying your choice by a billion. What would happen? Maybe your thoughts go straight to the rewards that flow to you– your startup. But that’s just a proximal result; an impact that you feel personally. That’s not your actual impact.
Own Your Impact
Like traffic and travel and other wasteful uses of resources, we in the western world don’t give them much thought. Each of us often has an impact on the planet that is thousands of times greater than individuals in the “developing” world.
We tend to take the frameworks that were provided to us and work within them. We consume stuff and think of solutions for more efficient consumption of stuff. And in that struggle, we normalize most of it because who wants to feel guilty for simply doing what everyone else does?
But you’re not like everyone else, right? You’re a disruptor. So you don’t get to ignore your impact. If you want to make a massive impact on the world, you’ve got to account for what you’ll really create.
Subtract the Waste
Real change starts by doing less: building less, wasting less. Because you have to account for all your impact– not just through the impact you think about, but by all the unintended consequences– it’s hard to balance your singular positive result against all the negative results you create along the way.
In the same way that credit card debt piles up through compounding interest, so do your negative impacts. You might create technical debt (too much code that’s expensive to manage), social debt (treating people badly so your “capital” is depleted), environmental debt (we already talked about this), physiological debt (your health), and the list goes on.
You simply can’t approach your ambitious goal like it has no impact unless you make it successful at any cost. The costs you incur along the way are real, which means your impact is real. And the interest is compounding daily, for better or worse.
Act Like Your Future Depends on It
Beyond your bank account, or the number of people who use your app, there are countless ways your impact multiplies. Be conscious of it. Make intentional choices to lessen your negative impacts by imagining what would happen if a billion other people made the choice you are about to make.
You won’t be perfect. None of us are. But you will be better at acting like your future depends on it. Because it does.