The impact ratio (why it’s hard to know what’s important)

We like to think we know how important everything is when it happens. But looking backwards, it’s clear some events that seem minor in the moment have  large consequences. While other events that seem major in the moment have small consequences. I call this the impact ratio: the relationship between your initial perception of the importance of something, and how important it turns out to be a year or ten years later.

Consider the pretty girl, with the sad brown eyes, you see on the train one ordinary Tuesday morning, whose presence you somehow remember 10 years later. That experience had more impact than seemed possible that very afternoon. More impact than all the meetings that week, all the lunches that month, and maybe even the majority of waking hours the entire year.

We’re not built to be good at evaluating the significance of most events when they happen. Since we can’t know the future, it’s hard to know which things will turn out to be valuable, forgettable, pivotal or trivial. Depending on what happens tomorrow, the value of past experiences changes.

An old fable called “We shall see” illustrates this well:

A farmer’s horse ran away. That evening the neighbors gathered to commiserate with him since this was such bad luck.

He said, “We shall see.”

The next day the horse returned, and brought with it six wild horses, and the neighbors came exclaiming at his good fortune.

He said, “We shall see.”

And then, the following day, his son tried to ride one horse. He was thrown down and broke his leg. Again the neighbors came to offer sympathy.

He said, “We shall see.”

The next day, conscription officers came to seize young men for the army, but because of the broken leg the farmer’s son was rejected. Then the neighbors came to say how fortunately everything had turned out.

He said, “We shall see.”

6 Responses to “The impact ratio (why it’s hard to know what’s important)”

  1. Scott Berkun

    Also related:

    “We live life forwards, but examine it backwards”

  2. Ryan Grimm

    I’ve found that not only am I poor at judging the importance of a moment in time, but a whole sequence of them as well.

    Perhaps it’s an anecdotal experience, but I tend to assign more importance than necessary to the work I do for someone else. Maybe it’s a subconscious action in order to get excited about the task. Maybe it’s the encouragement and optimistic thoughts from management. Not really sure. But when I look back at those projects they always seemed more important at the time than reality necessitated.

    On the flip side, the work I’ve done for myself has been more important than I realized at the time. I’m not saying that my personal projects have provided more value or are more important to others, but there is no question in my mind that they’ve taken me further than I imagined they would. Maybe it’s the lack of outside expectations, who knows.

    Anyway, I’d love to know how common this pattern is.

  3. Scott Berkun


    I know what you’re talking about (re: valuing work you do for others). I experience the same thing myself. I think we’re wired for tribes, which means most of us do place high value on our sense of how others judge us. I think the current American obsession with fame is a perverse manifestation of this – we want other people to value us. Almost moreso than we want to have value to ourselves.

    One trick is finding work that makes this situation not mutually exclusive – you can do work that satisfies both the objective to earn respect of others, while also earning your own self-respect.



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