Editor’s Note: Guest contributor Justin Rosenstein is the co-founder of Asana.
We have a greater capacity to change the world today than the kings and presidents of just 50 years ago. Whether you’re a programming prodigy or the office manager holding it all together, technology empowers small groups of passionate people with an astonishing degree of leverage to make the world a better place. Yet I fear that our industry is squandering its opportunity and its talent. In companies large and small, great minds are devoting their lives to endeavors that, even if wildly successful, fail to do great things.
We who work in technology have nurtured an especially rare gift: the opportunity to effect change at an unprecedented scale and rate. Technology, community, and capitalism combine to make Silicon Valley the potential epicenter of vast positive change. We can tackle the world’s biggest problems and take on bold missions like fixing education, re-imagining energy distribution, connecting people, or even democratizing democracy. And with increasingly severe threats to our survival — rapid climate change, an unstable international economy, and unsustainable energy consumption — it is more important than ever that we use these gifts to change the world, foster happiness and alleviate suffering, for us and our fellow beings.
But we are falling far short of our potential.
Within many large companies, brilliant engineers are convinced to toil away at ultimately-unimportant features. When the company was one-tenth its size, they would have worked on projects with ten times the long-term impact, but now measure success by the number of users they touch rather than the value they create. But do millions of eyeballs really make the work more meaningful? Our brightest minds are recklessly allocated to turf wars where winning is paramount above all else. When did beating the competition or protecting your existing business become more important than serving users?
It’s time to wake up! We’re all in this together: when we stop worrying about egos and focus on helping each other, the world will get better for everyone. The opportunity cost of not doing so is staggering. Asked why they stay, my friends respond with a combination of inertia, complacency, and attachment to seeing projects through that often limp along interminably. I definitely empathize: it’s easy to hope things will get better any day now, or fear giving up comfortable compensation. But I’ve never regretted following my heart — and, in our industry more than any other, doing so is less financially risky than ever.
The startup world suffers from less bureaucracy, yet, as Sean Parker, Michael Arrington, and Peter Thiel have observed, there’s a proliferation of companies with smaller, less-impactful ideas. An abundance of angel capital and increasing fetishization of entrepreneurship has led more people to start companies for the sake of starting a company. But the 100th engineer at Facebook had a greater positive impact on the world — and a much better personal financial outcome — than most of the startup founders we see heroized.
The result is a massive talent dilution, one so acute that both of Facebook’s founders are doubtful they could have started Facebook in this environment. It’s good that starting a business is easier than ever, but the pendulum has swung too far from Silicon Valley’s hey-day when a handful of great companies were able to gather a critical mass of great people to do great things.
I do not doubt that services like social games and coupons bring delight to people’s lives, and I mean no disrespect to the hard work that has made them possible. But in the face of threats to humanity’s future on the one hand and the extraordinary potential of mankind on the other, at some point we must ask: are we capable of more?
I wrote this post from my heart to remind you, my peers, to look regularly and honestly into yours and reflect on your deepest values. Life is short, youth is finite, and opportunities endless. Have you found the intersection of your passion and the potential for world-shaping positive impact? If you don’t have a great idea of your own, there are plenty of great teams that need you — unknown startups and established teams in giant companies alike.
Don’t lose the fire you started with. If you’re going to devote the best years of your life to your work, have enough love for yourself and the world around you to work on something that matters to you deeply. Something that’s beating out of your chest and compels you to throw yourself at it completely. No one knows whether you and your teammates will realize your audacious visions, but in order to do great things, we must attempt great things.