All my life I have had different things that motivated me to do what I have done. But for the past few years, a constant driving force for the choices I make and the work I do has been the impact that those choices and work have on the world. Unfortunately, I have been self-deceiving myself into believing that what I am doing has or is going to have a measurable impact on the world.
For past three years I have been working on synthesising a large chunk of an even larger molecule. The way I put it to ninth graders, recently, was that I am attempting to stitch atoms together in a very restricted manner. I am using the technology that chemists have developed over the past two hundred years to produce something in the lab that nature took millions of years to do. Sounds cool and it is.
And yet, when I finish writing my thesis I am not sure if it will be read by more than a handful chemists in its lifetime. The paper that will eventually be published in a reputed journal may be read by a few hundred chemists around the world and a small percentage of them may even cite my work.
A total of ten man-years of work, including three years of my work, and ~£1 million of tax-payers money will have what impact on the world of chemistry or on the world in general? Maybe nothing and maybe a lot, I don’t know.
This blog is very shortly going to reach the 100,000-hits mark since it was brought back to life in June 2009. What impact my writing has had on the world? I don’t know.
“Some people will bring a small stone to the building called science and some people will bring a big one, but nevertheless no one can take that stone away from you.” These words by the Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Lehn’s, may soothe my scientist soul and may be I can find such words to do the same for my writing soul. But I cannot deny that walking into something thinking it will make a measurable impact on the world is a little foolish.
Looking back at one’s activities one may be able to understand what is the ‘impact’ those activities have had, but looking forward it is incredibly hard to do be able to predict that impact. But such is human nature that, as someone venturing in to a new area of work, I find it hard to be able to convince and motivate myself to keep working hard if I can’t see the impact of that work.
I posed this as a question to someone who has been working in sustainability for the past 10 years after having switched from a successful career as an accountant. The answer I got was an obvious one, but I think I needed to be told. He said, “The world is incredibly complex. One may never really be able to understand the impact of one’s work and, in this case, the only piece of advice I can give to you is something that won’t be satisfying. Learn to let go off the expectations and you will find it simpler to deal with the world and keeping doing the incredible work that you are doing.”
Knowing this is one thing, applying it to my life is another.
Related: It should be about choices not goals
8 thoughts on “Living under an illusion”
Such a beautiful article!
Don’t give up on having an impact. There seem to be some simple activities that are unusually highly leveraged such that a relatively small contribution can have quite a large overall impact, partly because so few others are putting resources into such important areas. I’d place X-risks and efficient charities here, but there are probably others too.
Not giving up. Just think that given I know the area of work that I will be in, it’s better to give ‘making a great impact’ a lower priority in my decision making process.
Its the internal growth and satisfaction that matters. This feeling of lack of impact of your contribution exists in many profession, even if you are an mba or software professional or simply an accountant. Only few of us are lucky to get a job/career that you actually like and that fulfills all your expectations. The key is doing the best you can, and a job well done always gets noticed so keep doing what motivates and pays you and make most of every opportunity life throws at you and that will bring change even though it maybe invisible. If not external, it definitely brings a change within you, which itself is a good start to bring change in the world. And its not that you make all the choices, sometimes life also chooses you!
I agree with you on everything except that I would phrase ‘life chooses you’ as ‘being at the right place in the right time’.
Very well analysed!!! I would like to add something. When we are children we have so many dreams because we are brought up that way. As we grow our dreams also grow with us and with our knowledge about things around us we feel that we can do so many things. We keep doing and we are happy that the world around us is as we create but then the real truth comes, that every one of us is weaving some dreams. Then we realize that how are dreams differ from each other. Know I create, you create, he creates and she creates but if they all are in different dimensions then which one will shape our reality in which we all live. We interpret the way we understand. Then we realize that we can’t change the world we can only change the way we see and understand complexities around us and keep doing well what ever we are doing ….. 🙂
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