The Exponential Impact Equation: Why Simplifying Your Life Leads to Greater Impact

Simple Takeaway:

You’ll likely only impact a handful of people in your life. But if you’re intentional about the relationships you build and the seeds you sow into other people, and you’re willing to wait for a return over multiple generations, then the impact you can have on the world is truly limitless.

Let’s do a little thought experiment.

Let’s say in any given decade of your life, you have a close relationship with approximately 20 people.

This includes friends, classmates, coworkers, or anyone else you spend a substantial amount of time around.

Now, for the sake of this exercise, let’s say that the majority of those 20 people are exchanged for another 20 people every 10 years.

Realistically, people move, change jobs, or otherwise move on from the majority of their relationships in some way, every 5 to 10 years.

Now, let’s say you live for 80 years.

With just some simple back of napkin math, we can see that the average person will have a significant influence on somewhere between 150 and 200 people.

Of course, this is going to vary substantially depending on the type of job you have, how many times you move, whether or not you attend a church regularly, etc.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that you will have a significant impact on 150 people throughout your lifetime.

Now, you may not realize this, but every interaction you have with the people you’re close to has an influence on their character. The way you talk, the way you carry yourself, the words you speak to them – all of these things have a significant impact over time on the people who are close to us.

It’s no stretch to say that for every person you have influence with, you also have at least some influence on the people they interact with. So you see, your influence on them then has an exponential effect.

Let’s assume, then, that those 150 people will also have a significant impact on 150 people throughout their lifetime as well. 

Conservatively speaking, of the 150 people you will influence throughout your life, you will also likely influence about half of their network indirectly.

So, throughout your life, let’s say you’ll have direct influence on 150 people and indirect influence on 11,250 people (150 people in your network times 75, which is half of each person’s 150-person network).

This is where it gets interesting. 

If every one of your 150 people that you influence turn around and then have an influence on 75 people, and those 75 people turn around and have an influence on 75 more people, then the number of lives you can have a substantial impact on in just two generations beyond yours would be 843,750 people.

Carry that out to the third generation and you’ve impacted 63,281,250 people. Carry that out to the fourth generation, and you’ve impacted 4.7 billion people.

Apple is easily one of the most influential brands in history. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is listed as one of Time Magazine’s most influential people in the world. And even at the apex of influence in the world, there are still only around 2 billion Apple customers in the world.

Within just a few generations, you can have a much more substantial and long-lasting impact on the world than even the most influential people and brands, and you can do it without slaving away at trying to have a large-scale impact.

If you’re intentional about the relationships you build and the seeds you sow into other people, and you’re willing to wait for a return over time, then the impact you can have on the world is truly limitless.

What’s even more amazing is that influencing billions of people over the course of a few generations doesn’t take a substantial amount of effort. It’s actually a conservative goal.

To have a substantial influence on 150 people over the course of, let’s say, 60 years of your adult life, you would only need to impact 2 to 3 people each year.

Said another way, if you spent five years cultivating relationships with 10 to 15 people, you would be well on your way to having an exponential impact on countless lives.

The problem is, that isn’t sexy. It also doesn’t scratch the itch of significance that we all have.

For some reason, telling you that you could impact millions of lives in a positive way if you diligently cultivated 20 to 30 relationships every decade doesn’t make you feel as important or as valuable as the idea of building something big and flashy that captures the attention of 1 million people in a single generation.

What’s truly sad is if you spend your time trying to impact 1 million people in one generation, the longevity of that impact is inevitably low.

In other words, having a short term impact on 1 million people in one generation pales in comparison to the long-term positive influence you can have on the world by having a deep impact on only a handful of people in your lifetime.

We’ve gotten this twisted in the age of social media, and it’s evident by the rise of the term “influencer”.

By definition, an influencer in the digital world is someone who has the ability to influence the purchase behavior of consumers online, primarily through social media.

We’ve effectively turned influence into a commercialized product. As such, influence is seen as something to be maximized to produce the most return in the shortest amount of time. 

What we fail to realize, though, is that by reducing influence to some sort of asset to be profited from, we end up gaining influence that is cheap, shallow, and valueless.

True influence, on the other hand, is like farming.

Farming is best done at a slow pace – not in a hurry to produce. Growing mass amounts of crops in a short time produces low-quality and often dangerous results. 

Here’s why:

Farming begins and ends with soil. Nutrient-rich topsoil is a product of ground that has been cultivated by the elements of nature through decomposition and soil regeneration for generations – sometimes thousands of years. 

In order to keep the ground from becoming infertile, farmers have to rotate their crops and periodically allow the ground to go unplanted for an extended period of time – typically one to five years.

If the farmer decides to take a short-term approach by planting in the soil repeatedly every season without allowing it to regenerate, the soil loses its nutrients, becomes infertile, and becomes a more inviting environment for pests.

This leads to the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which, as we’re learning more and more, can cause long-term health issues in those who consume produce from these types of farms.

In the same way fast farming produces bad results, striving to gain influence with large amounts of people in a short time (i.e., one generation) produces low-quality impact and often dangerous results for both the “influencer” and the ones being influenced.

Real change takes time. There are no shortcuts. 

Just like fertile soil needs time to regenerate, so too do human hearts need time and prolonged exposure to positive influence in order to progressively change in the direction of that influence.

You might not change the lives of a million people in your lifetime. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s preferable that you don’t. 

It’s much more beneficial to everyone if you spend your life focusing on having a positive influence on a handful of people in a long-term, profound way.

Those people will not only be the ones telling stories at your funeral about the moments you created that mattered deeply to them, but the actions, values, and stories you left imprinted on their hearts will also tell the countless generations to come about the legacy you left behind.

And that is the only kind of influence worth living for.

Success Does Not Equal Significance

Let me tell you about someone you’ve probably never heard about. 

His name is Matt Mullenweg. Matt changed the course of history, and there’s a decent chance you have no idea who he is.

See, Matt is the developer and founder of a website content management software called WordPress.

You may or may not have heard of WordPress before, but it’s easily the most popular system used for building a website – and it’s the leader by a long shot. 

In fact, it’s been estimated that nearly half of the entire Internet is built on WordPress. There are over one billion websites on the Internet, which means there are hundreds of millions of websites using the platform Mullenweg developed.

For context, Facebook and Instagram both have somewhere around 2 to 3 billion users. Of course, nearly everyone in the civilized world has heard of Mark Zuckerberg, and he’s often looked at as the pinnacle of success in the tech world.

Matt Mullenweg is right there with them in terms of impact on the marketplace, yet he’s relatively unknown by anyone outside the web design world.

WordPress as a company is worth billions of dollars and it’s safe to assume that Matt Mullenweg is a millionaire multiple times over. But when Matt’s life is over, there will only be a subsection of the population who knew who he was.

Within 100 years it’s likely that only a handful of people will know who he was.

Within as little as 200 years, it’s likely that he will be all but forgotten.

Now, it’s doubtless that his name will go down in history books for revolutionizing the publishing process in a digital world.

But within a couple hundred years, it’s safe to assume that the fame of Matt Mullenweg will have all but completely faded.

Take that to the extreme and consider Matt‘s legacy 1,000 years from now.

It’s also probably safe to assume there will be very few people on earth who know who he was. Again, the documentation of modern society is extremely thorough, so his legacy will likely never completely die. But the point is, the number of people who know who Matt Mullenweg is in 100, 200, or 1,000 years from now is a very small number, in all likelihood.

Let’s make some assumptions about Matt.

I don’t know any of these things personally, and these probably are not true of him, but let’s paint a picture and use him as an example.

Imagine Matt in his office, surrounded by teams of developers devoted to the mission that Matt began that has culminated in immense success.

He has done what he set out to do – he changed the Internet forever.

He takes a deep breath, walks to the elevator of his large downtown office building, takes the elevator down to the lobby, then walks out onto the busy morning street.

As he walks down the sidewalk towards the corner, coffee shop, no one greets him. No one stops him to take pictures with him, and no one is aware of who he is. He walks into the coffee shop and places the same order he’s placed countless times before. The barista simply knows him as Matt. He smiles as he greets this familiar face. 

“Morning Shaun.”

“Hey, Matt! How are you this morning?”

“Oh, pretty good. Busy morning with meetings and whatnot. You know, the usual. “

“Yeah, I hear that. Sounds like you’re staying pretty busy. How’s that project you’ve been working on?“

“It’s going about as well as it could be, I suppose. Lots of hard work trying to iron out the kinks of the software we’re working on. But we’re getting there.

“Well whatever it is, it sounds like it’s pretty important. I hope things slow down for you soon. Sounds like you guys don’t get many breaks.”

“Ha, no, we don’t get too many breaks in my world. But you’re right, it is important work we’re doing, so that’s what keeps me going. How was your holiday break?”

“We had a really good time with the family. I did what you recommended and took a couple extra days off to be with my son. And, hey, thank you for giving us those tickets to the game. It was probably one of the best memories he and I have made together.”

“Oh, that’s so good to hear! I’m glad you took the extra time off to spend time with your boy. He’ll never forget these times.”

“Well, thank you again. It meant more than you know. Glad to see you again, my friend.”

“Absolutely, no problem. Have a good day; I’ll see you tomorrow!“

Matt walks away from the busy coffee shop like another normal person with another normal drink on another normal morning. No one recognizes him, and no one understands what he’s doing or what he has done in his career. He’s just Matt to most people.

To most, he’s the guy who smiles and asks genuinely how your day has been.

He’s the guy who goes out of his way to recognize you on your birthday. He’s the guy who noticed when you were having one of the most difficult days of your life, and he stopped to make sure everything was okay.

To most people, Matt is a husband or father, or son or brother or friend.

In fact, the most meaningful interactions in Matt’s life are with people who don’t know him as the founder of WordPress.

After all the years and all the sweat and all the hard work put into building one of the world’s most innovative and impactful platforms ever, after building a multi billion dollar empire, Matt‘s most impactful work is in the lives of those who don’t know him as the founder of WordPress.

One day, hopefully at a very old age, when Matt passes away, at his funeral there will be people telling stories about the legacy Matt Mullenweg left behind.

Those stories will not be about how innovative the initial launch of WordPress was. They won’t be tales of lives impacted by the countless blogs and small business websites that were able to be launched because of Matt. The endless number of businesses and legacies changed by the ability to publish information. Openly on the web will not be what’s recounted on that day.

On that day, his wife will tell a story of the time she and Matt laughed themselves into the early morning hours as he and his wife tried to set up Christmas gifts without waking their kids.

His brother will tell the story of how he and Matt wrecked their dirt bike as kids and Matt pulled his brother out of a ravine, pushed the ragged dirt bike 2 miles back to their house, then took the blame for the whole ordeal when their father asked what happened.

One by one, the people who knew Matt from his service in community organizations, and from interactions in the local gym, will approach his wife and give her condolences. They’ll all share stories about the impact Matt had on them through his kindness, generosity, and humility.

When mats kids have kids and their kids have kids, the stories they pass down from generation to generation about Matt will all be centered around the kind of man Matt was. It’s likely that his life’s work will be discussed, but it’s highly unlikely that it will be at the center of his legacy.

Instead, his kids will recount the kind of father their dad was to them. They’ll talk about the trips they took and the late night conversations they had after middle school break-ups.

They’ll talk about the nights spent working together on school projects and the heart-to-heart talks that got them through some of their lowest moments.

More than anything, Matt‘s legacy will be most evident in the character of the people he interacted with most. 

  • The friend who was on a destructive path until he met Matt, and was inspired by the kind of man Matt was.
  • The coworker who’s outlook on leadership was forever changed because of the example Matt sent by serving and caring for his team.
  • His kids who became positive and productive members of society, and through who’s exponential impact on the world Matt’s impact as a person has infinite reach.

Those are the things that Matt’s life’s work – the project he likely saw as being his most important contribution to the world as a young man – can never compare to.

It’s true that your work makes a living, but your character and your relationships make a life.