Eric Karjaluoto

An Undented Universe

Original image from the Library of Congress: Workers at the roundhouse of the C & NW RR Proviso Yard, Chicago, Ill. (I added the speech bubbles and cheeky words.)

“We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why else even be here?” says Noah Wylie’s character in Pirates of Silicon Valley. (At some point, Steve Jobs might have said something like this, too.) The questionable origin of this quote doesn’t make it any less seductive. Business speakers and marketing bloggers repeat it like scripture.

I recently spoke with a startup founder. She had returned from Silicon Valley where she met with other tech people. She explained, “No one there cares about what you’re making. They want to know how you’re going to change the world.” This experience affected her. She no longer believed it was enough for her team to create a good product. Without some grandiose vision to share, she felt inferior.

I didn’t challenge this viewpoint. She was convinced—and I doubted my ability to shake her new belief. Silicon Valley lore is so potent that it often defies common sense. Persuading her would have felt like attempting to convince a teenager that high school popularity doesn’t matter. Even if she agreed in principle, she might be powerless to the gravity of that Bizarro World.

You and I? We don’t put dents in the universe. Nope. Not a chance. To the universe, our species represents a blink of an eye. As individuals? Not even that. So, even if your new digital audio player dominates the market, it’s still only a digital audio player. The universe doesn’t care—and there’s nothing wrong with that.

You know what people need? All kinds of stuff that doesn’t put a dent in the universe. They need soap bars to clean themselves. They need spark plugs to start their cars. They need reusable containers to store their leftovers. They need belts to hold up their pants; movies to distract them from tough days; and tissues to blow their runny noses into. Few of these things put a dent in the universe, but that doesn’t make them any less necessary (nor profitable).

There’s nothing wrong with doing something meaningful. Just don’t get tricked into thinking that what your company offers isn’t meaningful. Even if what you do only benefits one or two people… Even if it’s sometimes mundane… And even if it’s imperfect… Do something meaningful.

(Because no matter how mundane it might seem, I still need toilet paper.)

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