Money or impact?
Those are your choices. Allegedly. Allegedly there’s no middle ground.
Allegedly, if you want to change the world, you should make money first. Then use your money to make an impact.
There are big advantages to having money first. You’re less susceptible to making bad decisions “for the money” (because you already have it). You can hire better talent (because you can afford them). And, most importantly, you can focus on issues that there are no financial incentives to fix. Like diseases drug companies ignore because they’re a bad market.
Money also leads to status and power, which is useful for impact. People with status and power are often called “A Big Deal.” Go to any fundraiser, in any city in America, and people will be whispering about which table is the Big Deal table. Or which keynote is the Big Deal speaker. “Big Deal” is a euphemism for people with access to wealth, power, status, and influence.
Big Deal people can have a big deal impact.
Ergo: Money is extremely useful for impact.
And money comes from work (or inheritance, but that inherited money still came from someone who worked). (In America, maybe not in England.)
Today, we are all seeking meaningful work. Meaningful work that matters. Which is a completely modern-day invention.
Work was not designed to be fulfilling or meaningful.
Work, in its inception, wasn’t a thing you did for money either. You did it for survival. Go back far enough and humans were “working” fields. Hunting, fishing, foraging. Fast-forward a few centuries and you get work beyond subsistence living, but still subsistence living. Like being a mason or carpenter or blacksmith. You had a craft, a trade, a skill. You brought your family into it. It still wasn’t a question of fulfillment or meaning. It was a question of survival.
Work as something you trade for money is very new. And, then, acquiring and saving that money to allow for upward mobility and the acquisition of status and wealth and power – that is very new. 20th century new. Just like caring about your employees is 20th-century new. Before then, you exploited humans like it was nbd (need I remind you that slaves were still a thing in the 1800s which is not that long ago).
As each decade passes, we get incrementally better at figuring out how to be better humans when it comes to work. We adjust. Traditionalists 100 years ago would have scoffed at your entrepreneurial dreams. Upward mobility was still new, as a concept. Your parents and grandparents and friends would have told you your dream was futile and they were mostly right. If you were anything but a white dude there were laws preventing you from access to wealth and power, no matter what Napoleon Hill said. And even if you were a white dude, but an uneducated and poor one, you were also up shit creek without a paddle (especially since you probably couldn’t read. Literacy is one of those modern day “entitlements”).
The men who did succeed didn’t set a very good precedent. They established monopolies, exploited their people, and neglected their families as they pursued the ‘American Dream.’ But they delivered on the definition of a “successful company” I learned in my one class at Columbia business school during grad school. A successful company is one that “maximizes shareholder value.” I thought a company was an entity that produced goods or services for people to buy. Like, I thought TCBY’s job was to produce good yogurt. I was wrong. TCBY’s job was to make a profit. Doesn’t really matter how.
If you’re sensing there’s something wrong with that premise, you are correct. But we’re not there yet.
We’re talking about the men who succeeded at business because they got lots of returns for their shareholders. And unlike kings and queens who didn’t really GAF about “doing good,” these self-made men cared about optics. And in our culture, “giving back” is good optics. It also increases your status if you do it in a way people can see, like donating a LARGE amount of money to a school or foundation. Which is part of where we get the “impact after wealth” axiom. You become a billionaire first. Then you make your impact.
Is the pursuit of wealth at all costs worth the impact? Is this just another Machiavellian argument for the ends justifying the means? Is this how capitalism has to work?
I have no idea, I’m not an economist.
(Hold on, I need to change my outfit for this portion of the performance).
I think that when we start pitting impact and wealth against each other, all the good people with a strong moral compass and ethical backbone default to the impact side. Which is problematic because it leads to tribalism. The bad bifurcating kind of tribalism like: Money vs Impact. Do good vs Do bad. Evil Greed vs Benevolence. It pits things against each other that aren’t actually mutually exclusive.
It’s also intellectually lazy. But more importantly:
It’s a waste of fucking time.
Pitting wealth and impact against each other is a waste of fucking time.
The debate is taking up your energy when the work should be taking up your energy. Whether it’s dedication to your craft or your acquisition of wealth or, more likely, to both because you’re a human being and nothing is go goddamn black and white.
Of course you need to acquire wealth. And of course you want impact.
You’re a human being, you want meaning and fulfillment and money and power. You want all the things.
What we should be talking about that we aren’t is how you define wealth and impact. What does it mean to be rich? What does it look like to have impact? YOUR VERSION, not the one you see on television. Is impact more quality time with your kids or SpaceX? Is wealth the ability to host Thanksgiving for the entire family without blinking at cost or is it a $20 million endowment to your alma mater?
The supposition that there’s a right answer to this is absolutely bananas. There’s your answer. That’s it.
Work was not set up to answer the question of fulfillment. But like most things set up by the circumstances of their time, work should be reevaluated. Whether we like it or not, agree with it or not, we live in a capitalist country. So you do need to contend with questions of money. But you’re not morally superior for avoiding it or morally bankrupt for pursuing it.
[Read my piece: Why Good People Should Get Comfortable With Wealth and Power]
Enough with this black and white thinking.
If you’re wondering how to make a difference and make money, go back to what “a difference” means. Because you are already making a difference, but probably not in the way you think you’re “supposed to be.” Which is why we need to start with you defining what you think you’re “supposed to be” doing.
That’s a good place to start to figure out what you actually want.
Work was not designed to answer these questions. But it was also not designed to support the biology of women or provide healthcare and benefits to people – so it’s fungible. We are ready for the next iteration of work. Where we don’t diminish our desire for meaning and fulfillment. Where impact and money aren’t mutually exclusive. Where we redefine what it means to be “successful” in business (h/t Small Giants) and in life.
You want an audience and influence, you also have to be after FAME. You want impact at scale, you need MONEY. You want to change the world, you need to DEFINE that change.
These things are not mutually exclusive. They work together.
Our job is to figure out how.