Terminal impact

15 August 2016
15 Aug 2016
West Lafayette, IN
5 mins

It’s a pretty relaxed Sunday afternoon, and I’m sitting in my office chair in a quiet room instead of lying with my back against my pillow and my feet on my bed in my room. And let me tell you, I miss my bedroom dearly.

Let me explain.

Sometime Friday morning, my home Internet connection inexplicably went dark, taking with it a couple of websites, all of my day-to-day notes, and a whole lot of my productivity. After some phone calls, I had a repair scheduled for Monday morning, leaving me with three full days of downtime on my websites and an unusable working environment at home.

So I am here, where the Wi-Fi game is strong and I can get back to getting some stuff done offline while the other half of my work gets fixed.

But once I sat down to work, I had a strange feeling come over me – something akin to the feeling you get when you return home from a really tiring travel overseas. I felt at home in my office. My school year started again on Thursday, so I’d only been away from my office and my workplace for two days (and a Saturday), but the feeling is strong. I was missing something for those thirty six hours, and quite terribly, too.

I want to explain why I felt that way, and the thoughts that crossed my mind as I went through the mental transition of being back to work, but before I can, I have to get a bit of terminology out of the way.

Terminal Impact: n. the end result or impact by which the effectiveness of arguments or decisions are measured*

Simply put, the terminal impact of an event or idea is the final result. Whether we’re discussing goals, debate arguments, or an action, the terminal impact is what lies at the end of the chain of events that ensues, and it’s how we weigh an action’s consequences – the terminal impact is the end result we measure to determine how effective something was.

There’s a parallel between the idea of terminal impacts within actions and arguments, and the idea of a mission within life. And having specific, real-world missions in life is essential to getting anywhere meaningful.

Let’s come back to my office chair. I think the reason I prefer sitting here to sitting in my classroom chairs forty hours a week is because one gets me closer to achieving my personal missions than the other, more effectively. Or, at the very least, it feels so.

I’m not denouncing the value of high school education – on the contrary, I support it wholeheartedly, as do countless statistics, on the whole. I would be out of my mind not to. But I think our relentless tunnel-vision focus on formal education for a quarter of our lives pulls us away from thinking about life as a march towards a mission, and towards thinking of it as a list of checkboxes on an exam, at the end of which everyone gets a score in an equal grading scale.

The reality couldn’t be further from that, and that’s not just my opinion. That’s the conclusion of millions of collective voices of the most successful people in history, written down in books, explained in stories, taught in lectures, and broadcast in talks. It’s not a secret, it’s old news, but it is a realization, I think, rarely acted upon in time, and the blame in part goes to how we think about education.

My personal mission is to innovate in education, to bring more people the tools and motivation needed to be self-taught and self-grown. My progress towards that goal is my terminal impact, and it’s how I measure the value of time and effort investments I make. Because I measure my progress and growth against that mission, rather than against a list of checkboxes, I’ve made some controversial decisions and surprised some of my peers, but each and every one of those decisions are justified, in my view, by measuring my progress against a real-world goal rather than a grade point or an admissions letter. And yes, it has paid off consistently.

Setting goals against an educational path as the end result doesn’t work, because academic milestones can never make an impact on the world on their own. A skyscraper GPA won’t save lives; a graduate degree doesn’t battle inequality; a Harvard admissions letter won’t give anyone else a better education any more than my breakfast bowl of cereal.

But it does get me closer. And that’s the key.

Education and academics are important, not because they matter on their own, but because they’re tools and intermediate steps towards a bigger, more impactful mission. The problem lies in the fact that most of us start out believing that an education is the end goal, the terminal impact. And most of us stay under that facade for too long. To illustrate the flaw in that idea, I’ve prepared a simple diagram of the conventional school of thought:

Quality Education => Degrees => ??? => Changing the World

Education in itself won’t solve anything. It’s an intermediate step at best, and while it is almost always the most valuable intermediate step, it’s never the mission we should be striving for in life, only the milestones we could step on.

To me, sitting in a classroom feels as if I’m preparing myself to run toward my goals, and working on projects and building a company feels as if I’m already sprinting toward my goals. One can’t work without the other, but the latter does feel more genuine, and correct or not, I can’t blame myself for feeling that way.

Here’s the bottom line: when it comes to our missions, the goals we set for our lives, the “dreams with deadlines”, to quote Keith Ferrazzi, they need to be more than a diploma, a degree, or an executive position. They need to be impacts rather than credits, something you leave behind rather than something you get.

* In scholastic debate, where this phrase is more commonly used, the definition is typically a bit more dire, encompassing things like nuclear holocausts, extinction events, and global economic collapses. We’ll stick with the layman’s definition here.

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