My suit was wet. The worst thing about London is the month of February. Winter in London is the sun setting at 4 pm, endless clouds, constant rain, zero snow. The clouds vanquish the sun so completely that nights in London are sometimes brighter than the days, the city lights being reflected back down by the impenetrable veil. By the end of February, it’s been so dark, and so cold, for so long that everything is damp and no one is happy.
But today was different for me. On this particularly dank, dark day, my group at Visa had signed one of the biggest mobile payments partnerships in history. Vodafone was our partner and we had beat out a heroic, last-minute push to steal the deal by our largest competitor. Hundreds of millions of dollars were being invested, sleepless nights were paying off, mountains were moving, and the world was changing.
It was a good day, but I had this nagging feeling that it wasn’t time well spent. Why didn’t I feel I was having the impact I worked to have? When I arrived home at my flat overlooking Covent Garden, I sat down at my computer to finish a wireframe I was working on. Totally unrelated to my work at Visa, I had a product in my head that I believed would make the problem of managing money easier for people like me. I was building a prototype of a simple mobile application, designed to replace traditional budgeting with an automatic cash flow. It was totally extracurricular, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. Was it weird that I felt more fulfilled working on my little product than I did on a massive deal?
I want to help people. I’m extremely fortunate to be in a position where I can choose a career in the first place. It’s important to me that I give back what I can, maximizing any positive impact I can have on the world. And that’s what bothered me about what I was doing for a big corporation, one that processed 10% of world GDP. The stated purpose of our project, while it had the possibility of helping people, was “to drive incremental revenue for Visa.” That purpose may have been the best thing for the corporation, but that’s not what I considered the best use of my time. I wrote a simple equation on a napkin:
The best moments I could spend are when I personally had a big impact on a project that changed the lives of millions of people in a fundamental way, and it could all happen tomorrow. Clearly it wasn’t going to happen exactly that way, and I needed to make a living as well, but I felt that pursuing impact was the right place to start. Nowhere in my equation is purely driving revenue for the business, though revenue may be a byproduct of impact.
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I thought about the following things:
Personal contribution. If I were not there, what would happen differently? Would the project not exist at all, or would it happen anyway, exactly the same way?
Depth of impact. Will someone’s life be changed by what I do? There are lots of ways to measure how lives are changed, but I wanted to work on something that solved a real problem for real people, not just made money for shareholders.
Scale. Bigger is better. That is why, rather than running a shop or restaurant, I lean towards technology-enabled businesses that can reach millions of people .
Time. My most valuable asset. Less is more.
While my work at Visa had the potential to do good, social impact was never an objective. That meant that it would probably take too long and any impact it did make would be shallow. I had no idea if my side project was going to succeed, but I also knew there were precious few companies in the finance space that truly valued positive impact. To go out on my own risked failure and wasted time but the status quo posed the same threat, only with better healthcare and retirement plans.
I looked at the slowly drying suit I was wearing. I thought about what the suit represents: influence, establishment, and the statement that the market is rewarding you for what you do. But it also represents structure, security, and an environment where you walk only where others have trod. I was part of the machine, serving the interests of that machine. I was happy to be a cog, as long as that machine was doing large amounts of good at a massive scale but it wasn’t. To change the machine from the inside would take more time than I had.
The suit would not satisfy my sense of urgency, so I had to trade it in. For what, I didn’t quite know yet. I hung up the suit, reached for a pair of jeans, and went back to work on the prototype that would become Level Money. Denim is the journeyman’s uniform, the attire of those who are searching and hacking their own path. Perhaps I would return to the suit one day, but I needed to know what I could do without it. I didn’t have many answers, but I knew I was starting to ask the right questions.
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