I’ve spent what seems like an unnecessary amount of time over the past couple years trying to define exactly what impact means to me.
Every decision that I’ve made goes through this nebulous filter of impact — decisions such as whether to go to college, whether to take a job in big tech or a startup, or what problems to even care about. Essentially everything I’ve done has been defined by my definition of impact.
I think most of us have a colloquial definition for what we think impact means. When asked, most people say something about how it’s the impact our work has on others or the good we leave behind.
The more I think about it, most of this is bullshit.
While I don’t promise to have a better definition now than I did years ago, I’ve found a starting point.
Over the past few months, I have become somewhat familiar with Søren Kierkegaard’s work. Kierkegaard is, of course, a Danish philosopher and the first true existentialist. His work on despair is a freakishly good way to think about progress in entrepreneurship and technology.
The Finite and the Infinite
Kierkegaard viewed the self as having two opposing aspects that cannot exist without each another — we call this a dielectric in philosophy. Kierkegaard referred to one as the infinite and the other the finite, one cannot exist without the other and they are at constant tension. Additionally, he defined a synthesis, a point where these two a balanced — much like two equal masses in orbit about each other.
Kierkegaard defined the Finite as little worldly facts about an individual. It’s the condition in which you exists on a day-to-day basis — your name, sex, gender, race, and all the other things things that socially define you like your political or cultural environment. The finite is everything that is necessary about you. It is the opposite of everything that is possible. It is, simply, everything that is predetermined and preordained for your life.
Opposite this, Kierkegaard defined the Infinite as the part of the self that deals with abstractions, interpretations, different meanings, and ultimately all of the possibilities that could be but are not. Imagination is the primary device of the infinite and, as such, Kierkegaard viewed it as the opportunity to break free from the rigidity of experience defined by the finite.
Kierkegaard believed that if an individual lacked either side of this dielectric, either the Finite or the Infinite, they would exist in a permanent state of despair. You can just as easily become limited to the role the Finite has set out for you, as you could get lost in the possibility of the Infinite, and both would be equally debilitating.
However, Kierkegaard was clear in defining the Finite as the default condition. When you are born, there is a path that is easiest to follow. Like it or not, the vast majority of choices are made for us by our parents, or our culture, and our society. Over the past few years, I found myself following these tracks. After graduation, I went to college, worked my way through becoming an adult, and got a job and contributed as a small part of a greater whole.
Kierkegaard would argue that I had lost myself, for I had ignored the dialectic of self and only existed in the Finite.
The opposite of this is just as deadly. To engage in the Infinite aspect of the self is to balance out the Finite. Essentially, the work of coming up with new ideas or understandings of the world in any way is to indulge in the Infinite. Kierkegaard teaches that unless this process is grounded in reality (the Finite), the self would become too abstract, too fantastic, and too unreal. In short, a person too caught up in abstract knowledge would never be, and I hate to use this word, impactful in the real world.
Finally, Kierkegaard defined the concept of being lost in wishing. For example, setting out to achieve a lofty goal could be identified in the Infinite all you want, but if the goal was so far out of your control, you would just get lost dreaming.
Kierkegaard would argue that you should ground your path to the Infinite in the finite. To not avoid being lost in wishing, you should come up with the smallest possible tasks that allow you to step towards the Infinite state.
I’m sure by now you can see where I’m going with this, but let’s make it explicit.
Inroads towards the Infinite: a Framework for Entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurship is the means of bringing together the Finite and Infinite to a balanced dialectic. To start a company is to venture into the Infinite — to go into your imagination, understand what you believe is true about the best world, and bring it back to the Finite.
Becoming an entrepreneur is learning to take these small steps towards the Infinite until it becomes Finite. Then repeat. The continued balancing of this dialectic, in the best of companies, is a never-ending process.
Friedrich Hegel and Immanuel Kant later explored this concept in what became known as the Hegelian dialectic, a cycle of development of thesis — antithesis — synthesis. It starts with a thesis. Which then gives rise to its reaction — an antithesis, contradicting or negating the thesis. And the tension between the two resolves through a synthesis.
This was the source of all progress.
That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense, so let’s get concrete. For an early stage company, there exists a tension between what actually is and what could possibly be. For every startup that is stuck in the status quo, what Kierkegaard would call the Finite, they’re equally as many that are stuck in utter imagination, without any clear actionability.
This framework allows for the easy definition of impact as simply the actions that allow for the quickest iteration of the Hegelian cycle. To have impact is to most effectively reach into the Infinite, and manifest it within the Finite — to come up with the actionable tasks that can be done in the here and now.