Paul Jarvis

Making an impact with our work

A lot of folks I’ve spoken with who own companies want their businesses to grow substantially larger because they want to have a huge positive impact on the world. This came up a lot when I was doing interviews for Company of One – the idea of questioning growth and focusing on better instead of bigger was theoretically appealing, but not as appealing as their vision to reach and help as many people as possible.

Which seems unquestionably well-intentioned, right?

Sometimes having a positive impact for a huge group of people makes a whole lot of sense. If you want to end world hunger, you can’t just feed one child. Or if you want to cure cancer, you can’t just do it for one person. Unquestionably, both of those things only make sense at scale. Those problems are global, so their solutions would also be global. So the answer and idea here is nuanced and more of an “it depends” than anything else.

For a lot of businesses global reach isn’t entirely necessary, even if the desire comes from a wholly altruistic place. For example, if you want to help small business owners file their taxes faster and easier, you don’t have to help every small business owner on the planet, since not all of them need help, most are using existing solutions, and some may not even be able to afford external help.

This is where our ego gets tricky. When we believe our ego isn’t guiding us, or that we’re being guided positively by it, it can be much more ham-fisted (if an ego can be ham-fisted, of course) in guiding our decision making processes.

A lot of times, making a difference or a positive impact abstracts out humans from numbers. For example, if you see you have 164 customers, that number may seem small, especially if the market you reach is millions of potential customers. Or if your mailing list is 4,247 people and someone else in your industry reaches hundreds of thousands of people. But when we look at stats or numbers or data in this way, we tend to forget that every single digit represent individual people. If you gathered them in a room, and spoke to each one, you’d probably feel a whole lot different about how large your positive impact is than simply viewing that number in a spreadsheet.

Of course, we need to reach enough people to generate profit. Profit means we can continue doing what we’re doing, and if that’s helping others, then that’s a truly great thing.

As business people or freelancers or entrepreneurs or whatever we call ourselves, I’m not sure it’s our job to be remembered though. Our legacies aren’t about us. They’re about the impact of our work. And surely helping one person or a small handful of people is completely valuable and impactful.

For myself, I don’t even want to be remembered in that sense. Only a handful of people in every generation (out of billions of people) are remembered. Those odds are higher than any lottery. Chasing a goal that large feels like we’d be opening ourselves up for constant and supreme disappointment as well as not simply being grateful for the people we can reach, however few or many, and help in some way.

Even outside of work, if the true mark of worth is a multi-generational legacy, then all but a tiny few would be failures, and I just don’t think that’s true. It feels too large and unachievable to most to be valid. Maybe instead it’s that we make a difference, period. For one person, for 164 people, or however many. That feels attainable, valuable and useful.

I also think the larger a business gets, even if its goal is positive, the harder it is to stay altruistic. Sometimes what’s best for helping someone else isn’t what’s best for revenue. So growth leads to sacrificing values to appease shareholders, investors, markets or the lowest common denominator. By staying small, and helping only some (not all) people, businesses can instead let their purpose and mission take the driver’s seat.

I feel like my job is to make some difference in the lives of the people that I reach. If that number is small, then the help I  provide can be more intimate and specific, and I can really get to know my customers. If that number is slightly larger, then that’s fine too as it isn’t taking away from the help. But if I’m constantly chasing more or higher numbers in the hopes of greater positive impact, then my focus will be split between the actual help and the constant seeking of more. And I’ll probably end up disappointed that I wasn’t able to be of service to more people, while undervaluing the people I did in fact help along the way.

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