Does “maximizing impact” lead to misery?

Would you rather have 5 people or 5,000 people at your funeral?

I find this question to be quite problematic.

My rational, logic-seeking brain says:

“Dude, you’re dead. Who cares?”

It then says:

“As long as it’s your loved ones, great!”

But then my chest gets tense. My heart beats faster. There’s a pit in my stomach. And my irrational and emotional heart says:

“I guess your life didn’t really matter.”

I recognize that this entire inner monologue is quite foolish.

But I know it’s making you feel a bit queasy too. Why is that?

Because our rational brain cares about metrics. It likes tracking things.

And 5,000 is greater than 5.

Which might mean you were more respected. More loved. And more impactful.

Our society is obsessed with metrics. And we’re obsessed with making an impact.

Those two things should peacefully coexist.

But what happens when you start to benchmark your life against the magnitude of your impact?

Will you have lived nobly? Or will you be destined to be dissatisfied and unhappy?

How much does it cost to save a life?

“I think dead children should be used as a unit of currency.”

The Effective Altruism movement rigorously assesses the ROI (i.e. Return on Investment) of charitable donations. In this (archived) post from, the author argues that you can save a life for $800.

GiveWell an ROI-focused charity calculates on its website that it costs ~$5,000 to save a life via malaria nets or malaria medication.

Now I have zero experience in personally evaluating the cost of saving a life. But if these numbers are reasonable (which they seem to be), we can set them as a baseline for impact. Whether it’s $800 or $5,000, we know that we can convert our cold hard cash to alleviate suffering in others.

This provides a quantitative anchor for assessing the impact of one’s life. For example, if you donated $5k a year starting at age 30 and lived to be 85 – over the course of your life you will have saved 55 lives.

If you were more successful and died with $10 mm in the bank, you will have saved 2,000 lives.

As a result, leading an impactful life gets reduced to a pretty simple calculation: the more you earn, the more you give and the more lives you save.

So we’re done, right?

What to do about a burning Picasso

Let’s probe a bit deeper. Because this seems too simple, too easy to be true.

So consider this example (of my own creation):

You’re walking to work and you see a burning mansion. You’ve been in that mansion and know that there’s a Picasso worth $100 million. (Quick math: 100,000 lives saved.) You’re about to run into the mansion to save the Picasso

But right next to you, there’s a lake. And in that lake, there’s a drowning child.

View as Instagram Reel

So you’re faced with a dilemma:

Save one child, forgo saving 100,000 lives.

Let the child drown, and save the 100,000 lives.

I suspect you know what you’d do.

As we opened in this post, the heart and the mind do not always act in unison.

So you can immediately see some of the problems of an impact-driven worldview (more precisely defined in philosophy as Utilitarianism).

Making an impact at scale

I am personally surrounded by ambitious, hard-charging and caring professionals. For many of these professionals, a life well-lived is the result of “making an impact.” And to go back to the 5 person vs. 5,000 person funeral, they seek to “make an impact at scale.”

@Noahzender on Twitter

This tweet is very representative of secular-based knowledge workers who measure (a portion) of their self-worth on their usefulness/impact. They subscribe to the following playbook:

Work my butt off → Make an impact (either through donating or through the work itself) → Give my life meaning

So it follows that this group should maximize their earnings potential to save as many lives as possible.

What could possibly go wrong?

Personally, I’ve wrestled with the burning Picasso example, the desire to make an impact and what it means to live a fulfilled life.

And I’ve personally come to realize that this obsession with impact is misplaced. And it can be unhealthy.

That’s when I stumbled upon a FANTASTIC essay titled Effective Altruism in the Garden of Ends by Tyler Altman. This essay gave a real-world case study of how “maximizing impact” can lead you down a slippery slope. (In this case, depression and suicidal ideation.)

Does every activity need an outcome?

Let’s take a brief detour from drowning kids and burning Picassos to examine a more common daily frustration.

The need to make every moment productive.

In the never-ending rat race to get promoted, make more money and get more free-time – many of us (myself included) have turned into productivity machines.

Instead of hiking in the ambient silence of nature, we listen to business podcasts (to slay the competition).

Instead of enjoying the grand works of literature, we turn to Shoe Dog (to emulate Nike’s success).

And instead of letting our 5 year olds play aimlessly, we teach them Mandarin (to ensure they can get into Yale).

We’ve completely abandoned the concept of leisure and rest – because they are, by definition, unproductive.

I suspect that you can see where this is going.

If your goal is to “make an impact,” then all your activities should be in service of said impact.

So ditch the music and the literature and get your ass focused on something that moves the f**ing needle.

And this is specifically what happened to Altman as he pursued the path of maximizing impact as an Effective Altruist:

I stopped making art, because my art was not worth a child’s life. I swore off emotions that might hamper me. I let go of girlfriends and live music and old friends and calling my mom because these things were now wastes of time in the face of The Big Problems. I stopped dressing in the crazy outfits and bright colors that I’d become famous for; I did not want to harm the respectability of the movement. I gave up my lifelong hope to become a dad. I gave up on love.

But it gets more intense. Not only did Altman abandon things that did not serve his purpose, he doubled-down on things that boosted his output:

But it was not all about giving up. It was also about adding things. I added sprinting up hills every morning. I learned rationality techniques, hundreds of them, to the point where nearly all my thinking happened through rationality techniques (the stakes were too high for things like mind-wandering). I ordered the wakefulness drug modafinil from India. Although I had a policy against lying, I sometimes began to mislead, if I thought doing so might help with the greater good. I started networking with people who I cared about only insofar as their talents, money, connections, or prestige were instrumental for saving or improving the lives of others.

As a former hyper-optimizer who used to do tabata burpees followed by cold showers, I can absolutely relate. Even though my cause wasn’t as noble as Altman’s (I just wanted to be rich and successful), you can see how quickly (and innocently) the pendulum of life can swing towards maximizing activities.

But why this obsession with output?

Whether it’s lives saved or lambos in your garage, there’s still an unanswered question:

Why are we so obsessed with our output?

My pet theory is as follows. We live in a largely secular society. We worship at the alter of self-reliance and individualism. The bonds of community and family have broken down. This has created a vacuum for meaning and fulfillment. And it’s been filled by work. But intuitively we know that we don’t want to live to work, so we use a little sleight of hand and pivot it towards “impact.”

(The sleight of hand is so obvious amongst high-earners. So many of them “justify” the trade-offs they’ve made in service of “changing the world.” Yet really it’s no more than a tax write-off or moral signaling. Many, not all.)

The path of Effective Altruism leads Altman down a death-spiral of depression and suicidal thoughts. He describes how he had “instrumentalized” himself to an end (i.e. maximizing impact). And it became so entangled with his identity that he couldn’t just let it go:

It was a core part of me, as much as my love of music. Dropping my impulse to help in a big way would be as hard as dropping my love of music. Both of these things were sources of inherent meaning, ends-in-themselves – things I engaged with for their own sake.

We just want to be good

But we still haven’t gotten to the root of the question. Why is it so important to make an impact?

This essay has gotten long in the tooth. But let me shift it back to me.

Why do I care so much about making an impact?

It’s the same reason that I am a people-pleaser. (“I really do care about you!”)

And that refund requests scare me. (“I didn’t try to take advantage of you.”)

And why Internet trolls get to my head. (“I swear, I’m nice.”)

I want to know that I’m a good person.

I want to know that I’m loved.

I want to know that I’m worthy of love.

Back to Altman. Part of his pursuit of impact was driven by a desire to not be bad.

I didn’t want to be Bad. So I needed to spend all my time becoming Good.

Altman’s commitment to “becoming good” is deeply relatable:

There was no time for other seemingly meaningful pursuits. Art, relationships, and so on – these apparent ends-in-themselves would need to be cast aside, or become means to serve my moral obligation, like coal that feeds a furnace. I could not bear the thought that someone might die because I mindlessly enjoyed a movie instead of working on the Effective Altruism movement. This subjugation of my “non-altruistic” ends to moral ends was what led to my depression.

But it turns out that eventually we pay a price for the sleight of hand of “impact:”

I felt like I’d drunk the kool-aid of some pervasive cult, one that had twisted a beautiful human desire into an internal coercion.

To be clear, the cult (IMO) is not Effective Altruism – it’s the need to “make one’s self useful” as the driving purpose of humankind.

So where to, next?

Doing good is a beautiful human desire. And I didn’t spend 2,000 words to conclude that we should not strive to do good. But maybe we should use Oscar Wilde’s approach:

“Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

After all, what’s the point of dedicating all of our aliveness into a singular outcome – if in the process we destroy the aliveness that makes life worth living? I leave you with Altman’s “hard lesson” learned:

My life goes poorly when revolves around one end only. What would happen if I failed to partake in a well-rounded life of ends, eudaemonia, in other words? The real punishment of giving up on making art or serving a flourishing world was not that a god strikes me down or that society punishes me. The punishment was that I would start to feel empty, depressed, weak, irritable, or brain-foggy, as if I was missing some vital spiritual nutrient. And the reward of pursuing my ends was simply that I would feel healthy, energetic, wholesome, content, alive.

Editor’s note:

I’ve wrestled with the idea of leading a life that “matters” and I couldn’t be more grateful to randomly stumble on this essay by Tyler Altman. A sign of a great writer is their ability to communicate thoughts that lived inside you, but you couldn’t actually form them yourself.

And Altman’s essay did just that for me.

We’ve been wrestling with these issues in Supercharge Your Productivity (spoiler alert: productivity people care deeply about impact). Here’s a slide from Session 6.

We also worked with hyper-optimizers to strike a balance between telic (i.e. outcome-oriented) and atelic (i.e. inherently joyful) activities during Session 7:

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