How to Make an Impact at Work in The Age of “Here and Now”
An essay about the value of patience, process and intention
During the past few years, I have seen many professionals start their careers with huge enthusiasm, drive and energy. But after a few months, the same guys that were eager to make a revolution become bored and disappointed.
Their most common feedback when they hit the wall? “I am not making an impact”.
When this happens, I usually see the same underlying factors at play. On one hand, a distorted concept of what impact is (and is not); on the other, a huge mismatch between short-term energy and lack of patience for time to uncover long term gains.
Impact, in short, has to be big and happen fast. Otherwise, it is not real impact.
1. Changing Our Idea of What “Making an Impact” Means
I find it most helpful in these situations to reframe what impact is, and how to make such impact “worth the while” of the person hitting the impact wall. It is not always easy, for we live in a world of accelerations, interconnectivity and instant feedback.
There is only one way to stop our fixation with the end game: shifting our attention to the process. And not any process, but the one available to us right away, the one in front of us. To adopt a craftsman’s approach to work: one piece at a time.
If you are seeking to make a difference, start by being proactive with small actions. You may help your team book meetings. Or bring lunch to the desk on a busy day. Even mentoring a younger colleague at work. All these are good ways to start making things better for people around you at work.
Yet, when I present this alternative I find immediate resistance. We tend to look into solutions from our complexity bias, our natural tendency to discard the simple for the complex, all else being equal. Simple is boring and not sophisticated, and both of us are fun and sophisticated people, aren’t we?
Well, a good place to start is to avoid seeking sophistication in the impact we want to make. It is more rewarding to build our contribution aiming to make things around us 1% better every day. If you do, the magic of compounding small gains on a daily basis will yield a 3,800% improvement. That is 38x “better”. The magic of consistent, small processes.
Small and simple things matter. Focus on the impact you can make in the next 60 minutes, and stop worrying about the impact you think you should be making.
2. Setting The Right Goals at Each Stage of Our Careers
The other day I was approached by one of my students at IE University. Here is a bright young man in his early twenties. He was struggling to make an important decision: should he become a quantitative structurer in investment banking, or should he take a different path in finance?
And so I asked:
- What are the things you can do to help yourself make the best decision, this week, with the information that you already have?
- What is holding you back from acting upon that choice?
The above is an example of a “goal too big to tackle”. The distance between our present selves and achieving the goal seems daunting. And the absence of milestones that we can tackle in small doses puts us into zombie mode.
To come out of it, we need to become masters of the 80/20 rule. Focus on identifying the few key factors that will help us make progress towards answering the larger question, dropping the excessive thinking and planning so we can kick-off the work. To do that, we need to tick off the right “Process Goals” (today) so you can make progress towards your “End Goal” (tomorrow).
How can you take one first step that makes everything else easier or irrelevant? Focus on that one thing, one per week, and take action.
In the case of my IE student, he ended up giving himself a shorter-term process goal. He decided to focus on gathering quality information first (about the industry, interacting with those professionals to understand their challenges, their growth path and their typical “day in the life”). By doing this, he allowed himself to build the necessary blocks to tackle the big question, later.
You can’t solve the big questions without finding the answer to the small questions first. Focus on learning when it is time to learn, and give yourself the chance to grow at the right pace.
3. Understanding That “Return on Time Invested” is Not Linear
We tend to focus on the linear path between ourselves, today, and our big goals in the distant future. And we do this without realising that it takes years to connect the building blocks and make them work.
The fact is, it is difficult to have a very good job without -first- becoming very good at something. But obsessing with the idea of “greatness” right off the bat is at the very base of the “I am not having an impact” conversation.
It takes time to build skills and relationships, and the path connecting one breakthrough to the next is rarely linear. Focusing on high quality, daily work and staying open to new relationships and new information is the key to progress. If you accrue and reinvest your career capital at every step of the way, you will see your impact grow exponentially over time.
Devote your energy to the small things you can control or influence, let the dots you can’t control connect themselves, and give time the benefit of the doubt. It will pay back.
Conclusion: Don’t Fall for “Success” Marketing
“Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values.” — Peter Drucker
Did Zuckerberg, Jobs, Bezos or maybe Vera Wang wake up one day, identified exactly how they would be making an impact, and defined a multi-year plan to stardom?
No, they did not.
Zuckerberg initial aspiration was limited to building an easier way to flick through Harvard student’s “faces”, and Jobs… well, Jobs spent a significant amount of time in Los Altos Zen Center in California, seeking a meditative life. The founding of Apple happened in the most opportunistic of ways.
Jeff Bezos founded Amazon at 31, not out of college. He spent 10 years in Wall Street before founding his company. Vera Wang started her career in fashion design at 40, having devoted many years before to journalism.
What would these people tell us about the link between short-term actions and longer term ambitions?
If you read about their early days, you will see a common pattern: they all embraced a “little bets” approach. They all stumbled upon a series of small but incremental opportunities and built upon them over time. None of them started their business thinking they would change the world, nor thinking that they had discovered their ultimate personal “raison d’être”.
Their purpose and their impact unfolded as they walked the path. Building one piece at a time. Through the work of a craftsman.