Impactful Work

What work that creates impact looks, and feels like.

I wrote about value and impact once.

Impact is the effect your actions have on others.

Effect meaning the area under the curve – the product of how many people you affect, and how much you affect them.

A doctor affects an individual at a time, but might affect him deeply.

A consultant or analyst working on a large project might have a very tiny impact per person, but it’s scaled over a huge number of people.

Value is what gives you happiness – whether it has any impact on others or not.

Eating chocolates or playing video games can give you value, even if they don’t have impact for others, and that would be sufficient reason to pursue them.

There’s no reason to feel ‘guilty’ if you chase value, and no obligation to create impact if you don’t derive value in that. In fact, it’s when people pursue what they value that they create the most impact, even if they didn’t intend to.

Scientific discovery and scientific knowledge have been achieved only by those who have gone in pursuit of them without any practical purpose whatsoever in view.

Max Planck

There’re so many examples that it’s almost a cliché at this point – Faraday’s experiments with a magnet, Charles Babbage’s ‘computer’, complex numbers in math – once considered of no practical use, today difficult to imagine existing without them.

Illusory Impact

I recall two incidents in the past year.

One, a poor washerman, whose father was critically ill.

Although covered under free state-provided health insurance, he was being denied the benefits.

In need of money, he was on the verge of selling the small plot of land he owned to pay for treatment. When I called the hospital he got the treatment under the insurance.

Something very small for me, hardly any effort on my part, taking barely a few minutes – and yet, something very big for him, perhaps saving the family from slipping further into poverty.

The second – a small craftsman-cum-contractor, who delivered work under a contract, but whose payment was held up by a corrupt petty official for over a year. As the funds had lapsed, there was no way to make the payment. The amount was big enough to push him into debt and poverty.

Again, a very small intervention on my part, not anything requiring much from me – a communication to higher authorities with the details of the situation, written more out of a tiny hope that something might come of it than any expectation of success.

It turned out that someone out there, with remarkable drive and empathy, pursued the matter to bring closure (if nothing else, this incident showed such people exist), as I found months later by accident when I ran into the craftsman, who seemed inordinately grateful to me for writing the initial letter.

It’s easy to spin this into a nice story, if you want to.

Something to tell people to ‘inspire’ them, or more precisely, to play games to feel better about yourself. A ‘good’ guy who does noble work, or, a more sophisticated game, the ‘humble’ guy who does it and just happens to mention it, not overtly bragging about it

A good deed, work well done, making a difference in people’s lives.

Creating a tangible impact – as a direct consequence of your individual actions, someone, somewhere, actually and substantially, immediately benefited visibly.

Why emphasize these words – direct, individual, actual, substantial, immediate, visible?

Anyone who’s worked in a typical office set-up can guess.

In larger set-ups, you often wonder if there’s a point to anything you do.

There’s a vague ‘big picture’, sure – but how strongly can you relate your actual work to it? And how often, if ever, do you ever see the impact of it?

And yet, to ignore the flip side is to be blind to truth, or worse to bend it, and to bend is to lie.

Looking at it objectively, my only contribution was making a phone call in the first case, and writing a letter in the second.

Something requiring no knowledge or skill, not even much of any trait – empathy, compassion or any of those, considering that the effort involved was minimal and didn’t require going much out of the way.

In short, something nearly anyone, educated or not, could have done. Easily replaceable.

The doctor who performed the treatment, the one who actually deserves the credit – his contribution required real skill, and his role couldn’t be filled by any random person.

Even in the second case, the one who sanctioned the funds did the real work, if you can call it that; not the one who asked him to.

It’s interesting because it’s so easy to spin a nice story and make something so ordinary sound impressive.

Strategy vs Execution – Mind vs Hands

Yet, nothing in this is surprising.

It’s the difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘execution’, between the mind and the hands.

Those who would be working at the highest level would have the ‘largest’ effect – in terms of scale. A CEO affects at a higher level than a plant manager, who affects at a higher level than a plant worker.

And to affect at this scale, they inevitably have to be removed from ‘tangible’ physical work – because you can physically only cover a tiny area, but the horizon you can mentally visualize and strategize about is unlimited. The worker is physically restricted to a much smaller scale – the one he can affect himself.

The scale one apparently impacts can be a source of satisfaction to the manager, who sees the forest from his helicopter, but one of frustration to the worker, who through his tunnel only sees the trees.

Although, because the contribution of a manager is intangible, it’s also hard to measure – it’s usually not easy to say whether an executive made a significant difference to an organization, but it’s relatively easy to say whether a worker met his targets.

And because of the intangibility, it’s rare to have managers who aren’t ‘average’ in terms of their impact on the organization. You rarely see a significant difference – the organization usually trundles along the same with or without them. It’s difficult for an individual to affect an entire system; his impact rarely percolates down to the lowest level.

But because of scale, when you do get a good manager, rare as it is, the difference between a good (or bad) manager and an average one is far greater than that between a good (or bad) worker and an average one. An executive significantly different from the average will leave a mark on the organization, for better or worse.

It’s common to hear that the work shifts from ‘physical’ to ‘mental’, from ‘technical skills’ to ‘soft’ skills. That’s true sometimes, but hardly an axiom.

A lot of intangible work purports to be ‘mental’, when it’s actually verbal – cliched talks and orders, generic pitches and decks – working the mouth, not the mind.

And this intangibility might influence satisfaction – when what you do seems so much handwaving and talking, whether you call it ‘brainstorming’ or bullshitting, you might wonder what you individually actually do, if you do anything at all, that is.

The person at the ground – whether it’s a farmer or a developer – might not have the same doubts. When you work with your hands, and not your mouth, you can see what you do.

But he might have other doubts.

“Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, a brain comes attached.”

Henry Ford

At the ground, when you work at a small scale, it’s hard not to sometimes be affected by the pettiness and triviality of a lot of what you do, especially when you can’t relate it to the bigger picture.

Like an analyst or accountant limited to working on small datasets or accounts, unable to see how anything he does could possibly be of value to anyone, and least of all to the organization that pays him to do it.

It doesn’t have to always be the case, though. When you know how your work fits into the big picture, when you see why you’re doing it, it doesn’t feel pointless. Like the story of the janitor at NASA, who, when asked by the President what he did, said he was ‘helping to put a man on the moon’.

Of course, those who exercise only their hands or mouths and not their minds never harbor such thoughts and remain blissfully unaffected.

When you come to strategy, you see that, because of scale, the farther removed you are from the actual work, the more money you make and the more status or power you have.

Which everyone seems to know – and which is why B-schools and government are popular, because they’re avenues to be managers / administrators.

And it’s easier and nicer to be ‘dissatisfied’ with your work when you make good money or have power and privilege – those who moan about such jobs mostly wouldn’t be ready to switch from high scale to low scale, from strategy to execution.

Science and technology – the creation of new knowledge, and the applications of existing knowledge -seem to offer a chance, although very minute, to defy this trend – an avenue where individual work can trump organization.

A few people can, working at a tiny scale, bring about immense impact. It starts bottom up, from a breakthrough in a small setup, rather than top down, from a vision at a high level in an organization.

Sure, it spreads with the help of large corporations or institutions, but that doesn’t take away the fact that it would never have gotten off the ground without those at the cutting edge.

Technology also enables the few to trump the many – Sanjay Ghemawat and Jeff Dean probably achieved more than most large organizations can ever hope to.


I recall a friend once telling me that Meta had a contract with Twilio for a hundred million a year for their services.

Why didn’t they create a similar service in-house? It’s definitely within their capabilities.

It’s opportunity cost.

You’d need very good people to deliver that, perhaps near your best.

The people that could deliver would also be those who could be working on other projects worth even more.

Perhaps it makes sense that way – the optimal use of resources is to pay the contract for a hundred million and work on something worth more than that.

In other words, to look not at absolute value, but value delivered relative to one’s potential.

You can do good work, and yet be capable of much more.

Potential and Impact

Coming back to impact, which is what this is about, and what ties the seemingly disparate threads above.

Impact is more than just the total effect of your actions on others, more than the number of people affected and the magnitude of the affect on each.

If it wasn’t more than that, it would be completely independent of the individual who creates the impact.

Yet, I believe impact would depend on the doer, the one who creates it.

It comes down to potential, to what you are capable of.

Impact is created when you perform near your peak.

The same work done by two different people will be different.

The one who performs close to his potential does good work.

The one who coasts by or who was capable of much more doesn’t, even if the outcomes are the same. This is not at all suggesting that he has any obligation to perform to his potential – that’s his choice to make.

The same tennis player wins a cakewalk barely losing any games one day, and a fiercely contested match another day.

Both are victories, both earn him the same outcome, but the satisfaction and pride, and I’d guess the fun of the game would vary considerably.

One was hard, one required the skills he had honed over years, and the other any ordinary player could have won – a player with his skills was not needed, any dilletante would have sufficed.

Which would he look back on? The one that pushed him, where he had to draw on his talents, the one where the outcome was not certain and failure was a real possibility, or the other?

The hard victory does something else too because potential is not static, but self-reinforcing.

If you actually achieve your potential, your new potential would probably rise – the summiting of a new peak tends to improve the climber.


In some ways, this is a reassurance.

It would imply that anyone can do good work if they want to, by doing the best they can.

Not everyone can disrupt industries or come up with breakthrough discoveries, but that doesn’t mean they can’t create impact in their own way.

The flip side is that perhaps many people who want to and think they do ‘good’ work actually don’t.

They fire much below what they’re capable of; not just because they don’t want to or they don’t try enough, but because of some other limiting factors – distractions, inefficient methods, missing knowledge, emotional disturbances.


Or perhaps they believe that they’re really doing great work – and never stop to assess if they actually are.

Maybe, if they look objectively at what they do – they might think differently.

You might create an illusion to deceive others, and, in order to make peace with yourself, try to deceive yourself in the process too.

It’s relatively easy to see through yourself though. When you hype and play up the work done, telling others how grand it is when you know the truth – how ordinary it really was, how hollow your claims really are.

But what if it’s genuine? When your team or organization actually does good work, and you take pride in it – yet, your own contribution, what you actually did, was nothing significant.

You essentially free-ride on their efforts, and it’s easy to get taken along for the free ride, because it feels good. And you can always tell yourself cliches like ‘there’s no I in team’, or ‘everyone’s part is important’.


That was about those who think they do ‘good’ work and yet actually don’t.

What about the opposite? There might be those who do good work, yet think they haven’t done anything. Those who genuinely believe that – not pretending or trying to – are usually very impressive, never resting on their laurels.

What does it look like? It looks like objectivity.

I recall seeing Lenskart founder Peyush Bansal once telling someone who admired him that he’s not done anything – just sold some eyewear and raised money at some valuation from some people who believed his company was worth something – not something he considers a ‘success’.

Which is true, albeit a very bland way of stating facts, shorn of all fluff, and yet indisputable. Whether it’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is hardly relevant, something individuals can decide for themselves.

What is undeniable is that it reveals immense drive. Of course, it comes with a price – near perpetual dissatisfaction, or at best temporary satisfaction – but what doesn’t come with a price?

And satisfaction, a feeling about a particular thing, has nothing to do with contentment, a general state – in other words, looking at yourself objectively doesn’t mean being perpetually frustrated with yourself.

Ironical then, that the ones who create real impact are the ones who think they didn’t do all that much, and the ones who create nothing will proclaim their deeds from the rooftops.


Potential is a funny thing.

By its very definition it’s intangible, what it makes claims about doesn’t yet exist – potential is what you’re capable of doing, but haven’t done yet.

No worthwhile claim about potential can ever be verifiable at the moment it’s made – it might be correct, but you can’t prove that till you achieve the claim.

It’s saying, “I could do this” – whether it’s saying I could climb Kanchenjunga or beat Federer.

It begs the question – why haven’t you already? What’s stopping you?

What you say you can do is irrelevant; the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof of the potential is in the doing.

And to make claims about potential is therefore redundant – you can say whatever you want, it can’t be falsified.

Better then, to say no such thing at all, and focus on the doing.

Ego in one form might say that I can do such and such.

And in another form, that the work I do is beneath me, I’m capable of more, I can do better.

But it has no answer to the question – why aren’t you already? If you really could do it, you’d have done it.