The more I think about impact, the more I think that it is erroneously used in today’s vernacular. I think it an amorphous term especially in the context of people that say that is what they are pursuing in their work, vocation, or otherwise. Articles like Gen Z wants to change the world pop up every couple of days and fair enough. Whether is is phrased as changing the world, making a positive difference, or making a greater impact: there an assumption of a false dichotomy. A lot of the commentary around this stuff presumes that a positive impact is something unevenly distributed across vocations and companies. This is flat out false. The misunderstanding, I think, comes from an inconsistent understanding of “impact”.
Impact is defined as: the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another. This can be extended to include a marked effect or influence which is a byproduct of a “collision”. With this definition in hand, let us try and build up a working model for impact.
By definition, every action we take will result in an impact on forces out of our control – no matter how trivial it may seem in the moment. If you choose to take the bus instead of driving somewhere there is a long list of impacts which include but are not limited to:
- One less driver on the road → reduce traffic congestion and contribute to people getting where they need to go faster + reduce carbon emissions
- One less parking spot taken → make another driver’s day in ensuring they find it is easier to find a park
- One more ride on public transport → contribute to the likelihood local govt. will invest more public transport if they see usage statistics rise
Choosing between public transport and driving, oftentimes, is a decision based on convenience, but there is an impact one can derive from it. The same could be said about every action you take. Don’t believe me? Lets run through a example that may hit closer to home, like the positive impact of purchasing a coffee: you are supporting a local business. In doing so, you are also supporting the livelihoods of everyone that café or restaurant employs as well as anyone they do business with. From the people that deliver supplies to them, all the way up the supply chain to the farmers that grow the coffee beans in Brazil, Vietnam, or Colombia.
So we have established that the pre-requisite for a positive impact is action; what I have omitted up until now is the negative impacts of our decisions. Most people would agree that they would like their positive impacts on the world to outweigh their negative impacts, and I am of the same mind. The difficult thing, however, is disentangling the positive from the negative. If you make a decision to choose one product or service over another – coffee over a smoothie; public transport over ride-share; reading a book or watching a movie – you are implicitly supporting the respective industries that they are built on. With anything, those industries will have less-than-good practices, practices which will be amplified through your decision to choose one product or service over another – a negative impact of your actions.
The point I wished to make in writing this article is that that the only pre-requisite for impact is action. It does not rely on working for an NGO, or the United Nations; it can be achieved through working as a barista or as an Uber driver. Our impact on the world relies on every little decision that we make. With this model for impact, it should not matter then if you are working for a Hedge Fund or even an Oil Company. While those two industries are often seen as villainous, perhaps there is a lot of impact to be made by working on the inside of them and trying to transform and change the culture. That would probably be just as, if not more impactful than working for a charity.