things that matter, or proximity >> scope

My brother is writing college essays this week, and, as I not-so-fondly remember, Stanford has a question that reads “What matters to you, and why?”

It’s ironic, because I think that this is a question that people, especially at Stanford, or in the Valley or in finance or in whatever “high-functioning” environments emerge in the next ten, twenty, thirty years, don’t ask themselves enough. This has probably been even more true recently, with the decline of religion, which tends to provide followers with answers. It’s a scary question. How, after all, do we even go about deciding what matters? It seems a lot easier to push it away and work really really hard, heads down, on having a billion users, or making a billion dollars.

But let’s at least think about it a little bit. To be nihilistic for a second, we’re all anchored to a random floating rock by this thing we call gravity. This rock is zooming around empty nothingness, is here basically by coincidence, and will eventually hit something bad and burn up. On a sufficiently large scale, it seems pretty reasonable to believe that we don’t actually “matter.”

On the flip side, if you are lucky and you look hard enough, you probably have one, or two, or three people to whom you are a rough approximation of everything. People who would have a really hard time going on without you, to whom you definitely “matter” in just about every sense of the word.

Things that matter, then, are not things that are huge, but things that are close. If you strive to focus on things that matter when you zoom out, all you have to do is zoom out a little more and your meaning is gone. If you focus on things that matter on a personal level, enhancing that personal connection only enhances that purpose.

There’s an interesting aside here: Last year, I thought I wanted to work for McKinsey (junior me thinks sophomore me was an idiot, just like senior me will inevitably think junior me is). And so I did all of the usual interviewing and networking, and somewhere along the way I asked an associate what the most impactful thing she’d done was. She responded with a story about an analyst she had coached, internally, at the company. And I remember being really disappointed at the time, because my idea of important was still measured by scale and lives changed or saved and things that were very far away and abstract.

It’s starting to feel more and more like she’d just thought about the different meanings of “impact” a lot more than I had, though. To me, “impact” has always been a metric, something you could measure in quality-adjusted life years or lives saved or wealth added. But I’m starting to think more and more that it’s just as important to have “meaning,” which seems like impact (especially in tech), but is a lot more personal. Fortunately, the two don’t seem to be horribly irreconcilable, although I guess it is hard to do cool impactful shit when you’re busy writing meandering blog posts about meaning like this one.

What I’m trying to say is, maybe we should obsess a little less with starting companies that have a billion users or make a billion dollars. Pay attention to the people who are close. Do shit for them. Build stuff for them. I promise it’ll be worth it, even if you don’t turn it into a startup.

And if you do? Make sure it’s something you personally care about. Meet your users. Fall in love with them. This is often prescribed as a growth strategy, but I also think it’s a fulfillment strategy. Deeply improve the lives of hundreds of people you really care about, instead of marginally helping millions of people you can’t even imagine.

Thanks to Rishi Bedi, Theo Chu, Margaux Giles, Anita Lo, Vicki Niu, and Kate Park for reading drafts of this.

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