If you’re in a race, your impact is marginal

Many people are motivated by money, fame and the lure of success. Some of them achieve it. Others, probably a smaller collection, are more deeply motivated by aspirations to have meaningful impact, to make a difference, to change the world (perhaps profiting along the way). This post is directed at you, the aspirational others.

To make a difference, to change a future that has not yet happened, the world needs to end up significantly different thanks to your actions than it would have had you done nothing. This aspect of “what would have happened anyway” that is easy to skip over if you don’t stop to think about it. Will the world become a better place because of your actions, or is it on track to improve in a similar way anyway and you’re just hanging on? Are you actually causing the improvement you wish to see?

This perspective is valuable both within companies and teams, and within society in the large. Michael Abrash tells an enlightening story of his first few weeks at Valve (the company that makes games like Half Life, Counterstrike, and Portal). Valve run a very unconventional organisation, and one of their defining cultural features is that there is no management hierarchy, no authority, and no-one to tell you what to do. So everyone has to figure it out for themselves. This quite understandably leads to an initial period of loss and confusion for people who are used to having at least some direction imposed on them. Abrash found an existing team who were working on a problem in which he was also quite experienced. He writes:

…most of the Source engine team was working on Portal 2 optimization; I’ve done a lot of optimization, so I suggested to Jay Stelly that maybe I should work on Portal 2 as well. Jay said, “Yeah, you could do that, but we’ll get it shipped anyway.” After a couple of discussions like that, I realized that he was saying was that I should think about whether that was really the most valuable thing I could be doing – there were plenty of people who were skilled at optimizing the Source engine already working on Portal 2, so it would be more useful to think about what high-impact things I could do that no one else was doing.

Working on the Portal 2 engine sounds like an obvious fit: joining a great team on a highly-anticipated title, a game that would be enjoyed by some four million people while continuing the genre-defining innovation of its predecessor. But, as Abrash came to realise, his contribution wouldn’t have real impact because all that would happen anyway, without his help. His marginal impact would be minimal, maybe a slight performance improvement or a few weeks earlier ship date. That’s not making a difference.

Think of your role in our society, in our global civilisation, in the same way. We’re all in this together and we (aspirational others) share some common goals and values of improving life and furthering humanity. There are lots of exciting projects going on. It’s an amazing time to be alive. Seemingly boundless possibilities are opening up before us as our knowledge and our technology accelerate us into a future unimaginable a generation or two ago. There is a ton of buzz around some of these ideas and the companies pursuing them, and some of them, no doubt, will have huge impact.

But they’re going to have that impact anyway, whether you jump in or not. Unless you have some unique insight or perspective, a true innovation beyond the obvious consequences, or unmatched talent, your involvement would be marginal. Someone else will probably arrive at a similar insight before too long, especially in areas with a lot of attention. Even if you were highly successful, even if you dominated the market that forms, your impact would be small if someone else would have done approximately the same thing had you not been there (although it’ll be a lot easier to delude yourself about your impact if you do succeed).

The clue to look out for, the hint that maybe your impact will be marginal, is whether or not you are (or will be) in a race. If  being first to market is a significant factor in your odds of success, and there is some chance you won’t be, then you’re racing. If you’re racing and you just stop then someone else will win. And if someone else winning implies that the world sees a more or less similar outcome to that you are trying to bring anyway, then your participation isn’t making a big difference. Society doesn’t care who makes the next crowd funding platform, the next group chat app, the next ride sharing market. The good variations on those ideas will be discovered, tested and marketed by the many people motivated by money and success. If you’re racing against them, if you’re worried about being beaten to find those winning combinations, if the pressure is on to launch first, then you are not making a real difference. If you want to have real impact, if you want the world to be better because of your actions, then you need to do something different, something that other people are not doing, something where you won’t be racing to the same finish line.

Don’t confuse this warning against racing as a suggestion not to improve on existing products or ideas, as a suggestion not to do something better (as opposed to just faster). If you can solve a problem better that everyone else, that’s of real value. There’s nothing wrong with making an incremental improvement. Many products which have had huge impact over the past few years started out essentially incrementally, taking an existing idea and doing it better or differently than anyone had tried before. Where multiple social networks had failed to stick, Facebook did it better and is still growing eight years later. Everyone thought search engines were boring and a solved problem when Google set out to make the world’s best. Smartphone and tablet manufacturers could already reflect on years of failure when iOS and Android devices hit the shelves. The market had conclusively proven that no-one really needed a file synchronisation service when Dropbox decided to make one that normal humans could actually use. None of these products were racing against competitors who were producing a similar product with similar quality. Indeed, most were overturning a stagnant industry segment, upsetting a market already thought to be explored. They had real, unique differentiation and their developers had no need to race except behind their desire to bring their benefits to the world as soon as they could.

Of course, the time pressure brought by competition has many advantages: a race incentivises rapid development and release, products reach the market faster, benefits arrive sooner, and poor ideas fail before sucking up too much development effort. But the role of competitive foil is not high impact, it’s marginal. If you have high talent or insight or experience and you really want to make a difference, leave that to someone else. Alternatively, accept that that is your role for now. Accept that together with your competitors you will effect some change and that your part will be small. Understand what your impact really is when evaluating the cost to your lifestyle, your health, your relationships, and your time.

If you’re pursuing something innovative, something really new, then you shouldn’t have to race. You should be laying down the track for everyone else. If you think you do need to race, consider that if you’re right then even if you win, your marginal impact was small. Someone else would have realised the same value a little later. You might succeed in reallocating some wealth towards yourself, and that’s great as a stepping stone to higher impact later, but if you have loftier goals already then consider doing something else. If you really value changing the world, you need to change it some way that no-one else will.

2 Thoughts on “If you’re in a race, your impact is marginal

  1. Geoff Langdale on April 12, 2013 at 5:21 pm said:

    I’m confused as to what consitutes a “race”. Apparently it’s not a race if you run fast enough and produce a product that is now considered hugely successful, like Apple’s iOS or Google search or some such, that overtakes previous entries in said race to the extent that they actually win. It sounds suspiciously like companies weren’t engaged in a race if “Alex North likes their products enough and they win”.

    [ We will pass over in silence the utter horrors of the counterfactual world where Myspace, Blackberry, Nokia and Altavista managed to survive and prosper; a veritable dark ages if ever such a term was justified. ]

    I am also far from convinced that racing is such a bad thing. First of all, the outcomes from “two companies racing to do something” are often qualitatively different from “one company drifting along enjoying being the only company that does something”, especially for the consumer. I shudder to think about the quality of mainstream CPU architecture in 2013 if it wasn’t for AMD coming along and scaring the shit out of Intel during the Pentium 4 / Megahertz Madness era, for example.

    There’s also the assumption that the victors of a race are all equivalent and will result in the same outcome. Perhaps Company A will embrace open architectures and improve matters for their customers and create a vibrant ecosystem, but Company B will screw all the profit it can, kill Company A and fall over 5 years later, leaving the whole market discredited and dead. Right now I’m wishing that someone had raced Google a little harder in the RSS readers space…

    It seems like there’s a simpler, less grandiose, but more valid point buried somewhere in this post, like: “don’t do stupid, unoriginal stuff” or “don’t build startups solving problems that aren’t real problems for anyone, even if said problems are considered ‘hot’ right now”.

  2. Thanks Geoff. I accept the charge of grandiosity, in the name of crafting a message with a strong enough image and story that people might remember it.

    I agree that there are big advantages to there being competition, though perhaps I downplayed them too much. I think there’s a big difference between causing a race to happen by entering a stagnant/dominated market like AMD did, and joining an existing race that already has momentum. It is that latter case that I’m trying to steer people away from. So, ok, if you realise you’re in a race because you caused it, that’s also high impact.

    And try Feedly for your RSS needs. I’m loving it.

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