Brian Shaler

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Archive for October, 2009

Scaling Your Impact on the World

Life is short, so you want to get a lot of bang for your buck. Whether you want to help people in poverty, find a cure for cancer, bring new technology into the world, build a business that effects the lives of many people, or make any other mark on society, the scalability is one of the most important ways to make the biggest impact possible within a finite lifespan.

Even if you could live forever, it would take a vast amount of resources to do everything directly and personally.

You can use scalability to increase the speed and reach of your impact. You can also use it to reduce the cost.

In terms of world hunger, the direct and unscalable approach would be to feed everyone individually using your own food and money. The ultimate scalable approach would be to come up with an innovative method to feed people that is free to distribute, such as a technology or technique that only requires word-of-mouth to spread.

I was thinking about this when I read an article recently about Bill Gates, entitled Can the world’s richest man feed the planet? Even if he had enough money to buy everyone on the planet a meal, is that the most optimal way for him to feed them? Of course not. He would exhaust his capital in one fell swoop and in a matter of days, people would be starving again. Instead, he said this: “Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people get their food and income by farming small plots of land. So if we can make smallholder farming more productive and more profitable, we can have a massive impact on hunger and nutrition and poverty.”

It’s like the adage, “Give a man a fish feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” In this case, Gates could either give people food to feed them for a day, or he can find innovative ways to help people feed themselves for a lifetime.

I like to extract principles from things so I can apply the same ideology to other aspects of my life and my work. In software development, creating platforms does just this. You create the foundation that allows other people to build upon it. Cumulatively, you’ll have the potential for great things that would simply be beyond anything you could come up with if you typed code into a keyboard for the rest of your life. Creating an innovative new IDE or a language can accomplish the same thing, but in a different way.

In the last few decades, the power of peer-to-peer and/or crowdsourcing technology has brought the world some amazing things, such as the Internet and Wikipedia. You don’t have to type out the greatest encyclopedia of all time, because you can instead create a simple mechanism for the world to contribute to one.

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