How to Have Impact: Operating at the Margin and Beyond

Originally published at michaeltefula.com

In 1942 Howard Hughes set out to build the world’s largest aircraft, the Hughes H-4 Hercules. With a wingspan close to 100 meters and a weight of 180,000 kilograms, it was questionable whether the gigantic bird would ever take off.

The Hughes H-4 Hercules — 2 Nov 1947

What’s just as uncanny is that most of the aircraft’s structure had to be constructed using wood, since a world war had restricted the supply of steel. A few years later, when Hughes had to testify before the US government (the aircraft was partially funded by the tax payer), he remarked:

“The Hercules was a monumental undertaking. It is the largest aircraft ever built. It is over five stories tall with a wingspan longer than a football field. That’s more than a city block. Now, I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I have my reputation all rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure, I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.”

Hughes operated at the margin: When he wasn’t wooing beautiful actresses or breaking air speed records, he was busy developing the world’s first communication satellite and designing a moon lander that contributed to the success of the Apollo mission. The billionaire loved reaching for the edges. However, these attempts also came at a cost.

For example, legend has it that when qualified pilots refused to perform a dangerous aircraft stunt for a movie Hughes was directing, the stubborn billionaire decided to pilot the manoeuvre himself. He pulled off the feat but also crashed violently shortly after. Hughes almost died in the accident. And though some say he kept bits of the wreckage to remind him just how close to death he had come, the event did not diminish his appetite for risk. Indeed Hughes went on to have more brushes with death, and in less threatening scenarios, brushes with bankruptcy (he lost $90 million — no less than $400 million in today’s money — in a failed helicopter venture.)

Operating at the Margin

Whenever I come across stories like those of Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, I’m reminded of a quote by the poet T. S. Eliot:

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

That’s what operating at the margin is about. It involves reaching for the edges, pushing the limits, and breaking new ground. Marketer Seth Godin calls it edgecrafting, or to it put more plainly, finding an edge. Here’s an entrepreneurship example offered by Godin:

“You must go all the way to the edge . . . accepting compromise doesn’t make sense. Running a restaurant where the free prize is your slightly attractive waitstaff won’t work — they’ve got to be supermodels or weightlifters or identical twins. You only create a free prize when you go all the way to the edge and create something remarkable.
[Remarkable things are] the cheapest, easiest, best designed, funniest, most expensive, most productive, most respected, cleanest, loudest [and so forth.]”

That’s what operating at the margin in business can look like. More generally, operating at the margin is when you move past a cushy status quo to pursue something extra — ordinary. Of course, you might fail spectacularly — in fact you will probably fail more than you succeed — but unsuccessful grand efforts often leave a trail of stepping stones that enable other forms of achievement in the future. The giant airplane that Howard Hughes built, for instance, ended up flying just once, and for a mere 50 seconds. But without his ambitious contribution to aircraft history, efforts in the sector could arguably have been more timid in the years that followed.

A Hypothesis on How to Have Impact

These observations bring me to paraphrase Theodore Levitt: the world is driven by what happens at the margin. Put more precisely:

“. . . what’s important is not the average . . . but the marginal . . .; what happens not in the usual case but at the interface of newly erupting conditions.”

Indeed, it is the ‘stubborn courage’ of a few, as Nassim Taleb puts it, that “disproportionately moves the needle” when it comes to change and progress.

So here’s some practical advice. If you want to have impact in the world, operate at the margin. Pursue a ridiculously ambitious project or two in your lifetime. Stand for something you deeply care about. Have the courage to go against the grain. You will polarise people (some will love what you’re doing and others will hate it) but what you won’t have is indifference. You will have impact.


Thanks to Natalie, Gifted, Dino, and Renee for reading an early draft of this essay.