What is impact?

As we sit in a coffee shop on a beautiful September afternoon in midtown Manhattan, we reflect on where we are now and where we would like to go next. With both of our careers taking a turn to coaching, we recognize that the times when we have felt truly accomplished are the result of them being meaningful to us and having made an impact on others. We consider it all: successful corporate and board careers, organizational change-makers, and families with thriving children. As we ponder our past patterns of success and contemplate our future endeavors, we wonder how we can create even more impact as coaches. This takes our curiosity to the definition of impact.   

According to the Oxford dictionary, impact is “the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another.”  It is physical and concrete – at the moment, with more than one object involved – one to one or many.  It may be final and perhaps even explosive; it is a collision. This startled us. Explosions often imply accidents or outcomes we did not predict and did not want to happen, events that make no sense. What comes to mind is the quote by Elon Musk, “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on Impact.”

            What is the difference between dying on impact and dying on Mars? There is impact in both; however, the former is accidental, while the latter is intentional, lasting, and exponential.  We research and cannot find a definition that reflects this distinction, so we embark on redefining impact – what does it mean to create an exponential impact and leave a lasting mark?

            In the context of neuroscience, for humans to stay alive and survive, our brains continuously make meaning about the surrounding world. We do so within a social context and within ourselves. Through making meaning, we determine “what” is important and “why” – we identify our values. The way we bring our values to life and focus attention on making things happen, the “how”, reflects our intentions. Values and intentions are deeply interconnected; they exist in the present moment and are essential to creating a meaningful outcome.  

            We turn to Victor Frankl as his story best depicts a deep relationship between making meaning and survival in his renowned book, Man’s Search for Meaning, where he described how he survived the Holocaust by finding personal meaning in the most difficult circumstances. This meaning-making process (his deep-rooted value of life) and Frank’s determination to show up with optimism and courage (his intention) gave him the will to live through the horrors of multiple concentration camps. Frankl famously said, “Striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man (Frankl 1992, p. 104).”  Frankl’s contribution to our redefinition of impact did not stop there.  

            Responsibility was another very pivotal component of Frankl’s story. He viewed responsibility as the “essence of existence” (Frankl 1992, p. 114) and a major factor in one’s ability to respond to life and make meaning. He acknowledged that we are not only the product of heredity and environment, but we can make decisions and take responsibility for our own lives. The responsibility of self begins with the important work of introspection, examining our own thoughts, feelings, values, and intentions. In essence, this is the process of making meaning and results in self-awareness. Nelson Mandela said best, “You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself.”  

            Reflecting on ourselves, we recognize in all our past experiences where we created meaningful outcomes, we were responsible for making meaning, identifying our values, and setting intentions. That process was always very self-directed, and it started with us.  Integrating all these critical parts made our outcomes more expansive and fulfilling, and made an impact on others.

            As we consider others, responsibility is essential. Our evolution as humans is a function of making meaning within a social context – in teams, communities, and the world.  No bigger leader encompassed this sense of a lifetime devotion to duty and service than Queen Elizabeth II. Twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth said in a statement, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” This would ring true throughout her 70-year tenure – not only serving her people but people around the world. Responsibility in this context is one of service and contribution, to matters bigger than us.  

            While Viktor Frankl’s story exemplifies that process of making meaning with intention, and the Queen’s is one of ultimate duty and service, what else is essential to create an exponential impact and leave a lasting mark?  

It is the “what we are going after” and “what we are doing to get there” – Vision and Action.

            Vision is what we are trying to achieve; action translates the vision into outcomes. Vision is bigger than a goal; it has the power to drive and move forward with the energy of a pull; this is a compelling vision. Defining a compelling vision requires the imagination of what can be possible, described as “the faculty of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” This ability of the mind to be creative and resourceful enables us to determine our vision. When our vision is aligned with our values and intention, it creates the resonance needed for our outcomes to come to life; it fuels our commitment to action. Going back to Elon Musk’s famous quote, dying on Mars was an outcome of his compelling and audacious vision of colonizing space. He is relentless at achieving his vision, taking no number of failures to stop him – his actions are right on par with his vision. Now it all made sense.

            So there it was, the pathway to creating an impact and leaving a lasting mark.  The process of making meaning and defining the values, setting powerful intentions, and outlining a compelling (and maybe audacious) vision – all brought to life through the focus and commitment to relentless action. Our experience and research reflect that responsibility for ourselves, and others, is what makes this pathway resonant and exponential.  It all starts with us and expands to others.

It was getting late, and the coffee shop was closing.  We stepped outside into the evening streets of New York and looked up at the bright lights in the sky.  We thought about what this means for us and our vision to serve others.  And at that, we felt our own lasting mark was within our reach, and we had the courage and commitment to create an exponential impact. 

Now that you know the pathway to exponential impact, what is your lasting mark?

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