Work on Stuff that Matters: First Principles

I spent a lot of last year urging people to work on stuff that matters. This led to many questions about what that “stuff” might be. I’ve been a bit reluctant to answer those questions, because the list is different for everyone. I thought I’d do better to start the new year with some ideas about how to think about this for yourself.

First off, though, I want to make clear that “work on stuff that matters” does not mean focusing on non-profit work, “causes, or any other form of “do-goodism.” Non-profit projects often do matter a great deal, and people with tech skills can make important contributions, but it’s essential to get beyond that narrow box. I’m a strong believer in the social value of business done right. We need to build an economy in which the important things are paid for in self-sustaining ways rather than as charities to be funded out of the goodness of our hearts.

There are a number of half-unconscious litmus tests I use in my own life. I’m going to try to tease them out here, and hope that you can help me think this through in the comments.

  1. Work on something that matters to you more than money.

    I addressed this topic in my commencement address at SIMS a few years ago, and I’ll think I’ll just quote myself here.

    Some of you may end up working at highflying companies. Some of you may succeed, and some of you may fail. I want to remind you that financial success is not the only goal or the only measure of success. It’s easy to get caught up in the heady buzz of making money. You should regard money as fuel for what you really want to do, not as a goal in and of itself. Money is like gas in the car — you need to pay attention or you’ll end up on the side of the road — but a well-lived life is not a tour of gas stations!

    Whatever you do, think about what you really value. If you’re an entrepreneur, the time you spend thinking about your values will help you build a better company. If you’re going to work for someone else, the time you spend understanding your values will help you find the right kind of company or institution to work for, and when you find it, to do a better job.

    Don’t be afraid to think big. Business author Jim Collins says that great companies have “big hairy audacious goals.” Google’s motto, “access to all the world’s information” is an example of such a goal. I like to think that my own company’s mission, “changing the world by sharing the knowledge of innovators,” is also such a goal.

    Don’t be afraid to fail. There’s a wonderful poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that talks about the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, being defeated, but coming away stronger from the fight. It ends with an exhortation that goes something like this: “What we fight with is so small, and when we win, it makes us small. What we want is to be defeated, decisively, by successively greater things.”

    One test of a bubble is how many entrepreneurs are focused on their upcoming payday rather than on the big things they hope to accomplish. Me-too products are almost always payday-focused; the entrepreneurs who first made the market often had much less expectation of easy success, and were instead wrestling, like Jacob with the angel, with a hard problem that they thought they could solve, or at the very least make a dent on.

    It’s also clear that if you’re thinking more about the competition than you are about customers and the value you’re going to create for them, you’re on the wrong path. As Kathy Sierra once put it, “In many cases, the more you try to compete, the less competitive you actually are.”

    The most successful companies treat success as a byproduct of achieving their real goal, which is always something bigger and more important than they are.

  2. Create more value than you capture.

    It’s pretty easy to see that Bernie Madoff wasn’t following this rule; nor were the titans of Wall Street who ended up giving out billions of dollars in bonuses to themselves while wrecking our economy. It’s harder to judge the average small business, but it’s pretty clear that most businesses do in fact create value for their community and their customers as well as themselves, and that the most successful businesses do so in part by creating a self-reinforcing value loop with their customers.

    For example, a bank that loans money to a small business sees that business grow, perhaps borrow more money, hire employees who make deposits and take out loans, and so on. The power of this cycle to lift people out of poverty has been demonstrated by microfinance institutions like the Grameen Bank. Grameen is clearly focused on creating more value than they capture; not so the like of Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, or WaMu, or many of the other failed financial institutions involved in the current financial meltdown. They may have started there, but at some point, they clearly became more concerned with how much value they could capture for themselves.

    If you’re succeeding at this goal, you may sometimes find that others have made more of your ideas than you have yourself. It’s OK. I’ve had more than one billionaire (and an awful lot of startups who hope to follow in their footsteps) tell me how they got their start with a couple of O’Reilly books. I’ve had entrepreneurs tell me that they got the idea for their company from something I’ve said or written. That’s a good thing! I remember back in the early days of the Internet, when the buyer at Borders told me after one of my talks, “Well, you’ve just given your competitors their publishing program for the year.” If my goal is really “changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators,” I’m thrilled when my competitors jump on the bandwagon and help me spread the word!

    Look around you: How many people do you employ in fulfilling jobs? How many customers use your products to make their own living? How many competitors have you enabled? How many people have you touched that gave you nothing back?

    There’s a wonderful section in Les Miserables about the good that Jean Valjean does as a businessman (operating under the pseudonym of Father Madeleine). Through his industry and vision, he makes an entire region prosperous, so that “there was no pocket so obscure that it had not a little money in it; no
    dwelling so lowly that there was not some little joy within it.” And the key point:

    Father Madeleine made his fortune; but a singular thing
    in a simple man of business, it did not seem as though that were his
    chief care. He appeared to be thinking much of others, and little of

Focusing on big goals rather than on making money, and on creating more value than you capture are closely related principles. The first one is a test that applies to those starting something new; the second is the harder test that you must pass in order to create something enduring.

Take Microsoft. They started out with a big goal, “a computer on every desk and in every home,” and for many years unquestionably created more value than they captured. They helped grow the PC industry as a whole; they built a platform that helped many small software vendors to flourish. But over time, they began to capture more value than they created: as the cost of PCs plummeted, hardware vendors had to survive on the slimmest of margins while Microsoft collected monopoly rents; bit by bit, Microsoft consumed its own developer ecosystem by building the features of successful startups into their own products, and using their operating system dominance to crush the early movers. As I’ve written elsewhere, I believe that Microsoft must re-commit itself to big goals beyond its own profitability, and to creating more value than it captures if it is to succeed. (Danny Sullivan wrote a great piece about the strategic relevance of this very idea just last week, Tough Love for Microsoft Search.)

Or take Google. Again, a huge goal: “Organize all the world’s information.” And like Microsoft in its early years, they are enabling others while making a pile of money for themselves. Any business with a web presence need only take a look at its referrer logs if it questions that assertion. How much of your traffic comes from Google? But again, as I’ve written previously, this test still looms in Google’s future. Will they continue to create more value than they capture, or will they seek to capture more of the value for themselves?

It’s a matter of balance. Every business needs to pay attention to its bottom line; every individual needs to put a roof over his or her head and provide food for loved ones. But take a look inside: how much are you thinking about yourself and what you might gain, versus what you might create?

It’s particularly tough to stay focused on big issues in the face of an economic downturn, because getting paid looms large. I look back at some of the decisions I made after the crash in 2001, when I became far more focused on the survival of my business than on the value we were going to create in the marketplace. We did some me-too publishing that I really regret; the things that ultimately made a bigger difference to our bottom line were commitments to the future: our Web 2.0 events were driven by the goal of reigniting enthusiasm in the computer industry as well as helping people to understand the new rules of the emerging internet platform; Safari Books Online was driven by the desire to create a new revenue model not just for ourselves but for all publishers; Make: was a celebration of the next generation of hackers; Foo Camp started as a way to give something back to all the people who’d contributed to our success.

But these two tests are not enough, because it’s become clear that we need a long term ecological perspective as well. So I’d add a third principle:

3. Take the long view.

Brian Eno tells a great story about the experience that led him to conceive of the ideas that led to The Long Now Foundation:

It was 1978. I was new to New York. A rich acquaintance had invited me to a housewarming party, and, as my cabdriver wound his way down increasingly potholed and dingy streets, I began wondering whether he’d got the address right. Finally he stopped at the doorway of a gloomy, unwelcoming industrial building. Two winos were crumpled on the steps, oblivious. There was no other sign of life in the whole street.

“I think you may have made a mistake”, I ventured.

But he hadn’t. My friend’s voice called “Top Floor!” when I rang the bell, and I thought – knowing her sense of humour – “Oh – this is going to be some kind of joke!” I was all ready to laugh. The elevator creaked and clanked slowly upwards, and I stepped out – into a multi-million dollar palace. The contrast with the rest of the building and the street outside couldn’t have been starker.

I just didn’t understand. Why would anyone spend so much money building a place like that in a neighbourhood like this? Later I got into conversation with the hostess. “Do you like it here?” I asked. “It’s the best place I’ve ever lived”, she replied. “But I mean, you know, is it an interesting neighbourhood?” “Oh – the neighbourhood? Well…that’s outside!” she laughed.

In the talk many years ago where I first heard him tell this story, Brian went on to describe the friend’s apartment, the space she controlled, as “the small here,” and the space outside, full of winos and derelicts, as “the big here.” He went on from there, along with others, to come up with the analogous concept of the Long Now.

It’s very easy to make local optimizations, but they eventually catch up with you. Our economy has many elements of a ponzi scheme. We borrow from other countries to finance our consumption, we borrow from our children by saddling them with debt and using up non-renewable resources.

It’s hard to see beyond the “small here” and the “short now,” especially if you live in a favored place and time. That’s why so many of the really important things do end up on the plates of non-profits.

That’s why a time like this, when the bubble is bursting, is a great time to see how important it is to think about the big picture, and what matters not just to us, but to building a sustainable economy in a sustainable world.

  • i am sure you have seen umair haque’s latest …

    i am so glad you are using your influence now to ask big questions …

    only the fringe has been doing this since the 70’s, and mocked for it by the established, or the wanting to be established ..

    thanks .. and get even tougher in the next posts …

    enjoy, gregory lent

  • Very thoughtful for a baby boomer..

  • Tim I really appreciate your comments and I also appreciate you posting them right now since I’m deep into a re-evaluation of the focus of my small company. I’m not sure what the final answer will be as I review my vision and mission, but the small size of my company will not mean I have small goals.

    Cheers and Happy New Year.


  • I agree except insofar as we’re currently in a situation where we’re in the car and we’ve run out of gas… we can’t see a gas station on the horizon, so we’re stuck… AAA is out of gas too, and we can’t expect them to bail us out on an individual level… or can we?
    If the banks and investment firms were granted an amnesty on their greed and corruption, would it be unreasonable to expect the same for each individual? If the average personal debt is only 10K would the bailout of that end of the economy (the real business end imco) break the banks that are already broken? Surely if they can wipe the slate clean, individuals (equally corporal in their own right) should be able to get a clean slate too.
    Maybe we just need a free tank of gas to get moving again, and then all of those principles so aptly discussed would be much easier to gain traction on.

  • Hi Tim

    That’s nice. I love the Jean Valjean reference. One of literature’s all-time great and most enjoyable heroes.


  • Very timely in this season of recommitment and reassessment. Well-said and inspiring.

    I notice myself smiling over this essay, and I wonder if it has to do with the duty to be happy and how that fits a commitment to something larger than ourselves. (I’m also reading “The Pillars of the Earth” for the first time. There are no coincidences?)


  • Right on the mark, our business wake up call was in 1994 with the implementation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) that almost put us into bankruptcy. Today we are almost 100% domestically made, organic cotton t-shirts and run a business based on a triple bottom line, People, Plant and Profit. We look at sustainability as a journey not a destination and along the way we have picked up biodiesel, solar and wind power and growing food for our employees. Although making less money, I am so much happier with my life and business.

  • Mohamed Amer


    Each of us needs to find our own “first principles” in doing things that matter…..

    – Understand who you really are, allow self-reflection, be honest to yourself.
    – Make a positive difference in everything you do.
    – Build trust in all your relationships.
    – Hold leaders accountable for their decisions and actions.
    – Difficult yet constructive dialogues trump journeys into the land of compromises.
    – Believe in the impossible!

  • Great post. This reminds me of a Paul Graham essay on reasons by startups should be good:

    There are lots of reasons: people will like you more, your company will have a strong guide through decision making, you will improve your morale. I think working on things that matter to you and to other people definitely helps.

    There is a concrete example in my micropayments startup: (we’re funded by YC, hence the Graham link), where we recently had a bump from a trend of microgiving on twitter:

    Micropayments can certainly be a big business. Billions of mp3s have been sold. Selling goods in virtual worlds is exploding.

    But I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we become successful from creating functionality that people are passionate about because it does good things for the world. We have more along the same vein coming really soon. We might ask you for some coverage actually :P

  • Thank you for sharing these insights. As a retiree, my first thought was that these principles would have been nice for me before retired. But, of course, on reflection, they apply even now, as they speak to the theme of going beyond ourselves.

    That must be something “the universe” is trying to drive into me today, because Steve Rubel just twittered a link to an interesting BNET article on Google’s School of Growth:

    The following quote from the article fits nicely with your thoughts:
    “Word of the company’s dip into spiritual waters first leaked out when Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan spoke on a panel at the Happiness conference. A practicing Buddhist and company tastemaker, Tan was a founder of the project:

    Tan suggested that Google’s School of Personal Growth is a futuristic model for every workplace. “Google wants to help Googlers grow as human beings on all levels,” Tan said in his presentation. “Emotional, mental, physical and ‘beyond the self.’”

    Thanks again.
    All the best.

  • Tim Well said. Your post offers actionable ideas for passion or cause based innovation. I agree that your ideas apply to both for-profit and non-profit initiatives. I have been thinking along these same lines and suggested in a blog post this week that we need to move from a knowledge-based economy to a passion-based economy. My post can be found at .

    Saul Kaplan
    Founder and Chief Catalyst
    Business Innovation Factory

  • Tim, Thanks for taking the time to write this! I am committed to “Working on Stuff That Matters”.

    I have been caught up in me mode for awhile, but that has changed. I am thinking of higher goals and purpose
    It’s easy to get caught up in the heady buzz of making money. You should regard money as fuel for what you really want to do, not as a goal in and of itself.

    I am surrounding myself with great mentors and making myself available to mentor others. I am helping my community church with their web strategy and their service today was very similar to this post, love it.

    I truly appreciate this insight.

    Thank you,

    Daniel Hudson

  • Sean,

    I think we are in a much better position than you describe. The USA has:

    – The best research universities in the world
    – A legal system that is relatively favorable to entrepreneurs
    – High quality infrastructure. It needs work, but it could be much worse.
    – An eco-system of technologists, business people, and related industries that make it possible to create new companies fairly easily.
    – An electorate that has shown a willingness to put aside partisanship to address the massive challenges we face.

    I think our biggest problems are based on attitudes and mindsets rather than structural limitations. If we focus our efforts on problems that matter, businesses that can contribute meaningfully to society over the long term (while still being focused on business metrics), and creating meaningful work for people this economic tumult will be a memory.

  • I think that we all want to get paid in the end, but doing things that make a difference is payment in and of itself.

    Thank you for this post, Tim.


  • Lionell Griffith

    It is my belief that if you create true value, its value will always be greater than you can capture. At least that has been my experience since I have been creating value – 40+years.

    That’s OK by me. I don’t mind making other people rich as long as I can live well and do my own thing my way. Enough is enough. Too much simply gets in the way. Although, not enough is a real pain.

  • If you are looking for stuff that matters, why not science? Stewart Brand said: “Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly”

  • Paul B

    The Rilke poem you describe is “Der Schauende”. The most prominent English translation of the title is “The Man Watching”.

    I debated inserting a link to a google search, but the top return currently is a community development website in South Africa, and I didn’t want to facilitate its being knocked off-line.

  • Hi Tim,

    I really appreciate the leadership you are giving on ways technologists can contribute to creating sustainable economies and sustainable living.

    As the internet leaves our desktop and devices and becomes embedded in our environment we will all be deeply involved in creating the “new rules of the game.”

    The emerging internet now is the world as a networked, enhanced reality environment (sorry about the inadequate terminology). This puts areas once seen as the realm of government and big business – cities, transport, economies of energy consumption and waste increasingly in our hands to influence in new ways.

    Your writings and the work of O’Reilly Media are showing us (as you did after the crash of 2001 when you helped people “to understand the new rules of the emerging internet platform”) how we can have the kind of big picture visions that will direct our networked world onto the path of sustainable living.

  • I agree, and I had a lifetime software career doing what felt important, and my work was my play, and there was plenty of fuel to share with friends and family. I could say “no” to big money offers if there was more important work elsewhere.

    But now the tank is empty and my creative attempts to offer my lifetime of skills in exchange for even a modest addition of fuel are not bringing in the response I had grown accustomed to. These are strange times.

  • Very inspiring. I have read it heardly breathing.
    What a breath of fresh air!
    Thanks for sharing

  • Robert B.

    Yawn. The writer has obviously never been divorced or had his job outsourced. Again, why should the Feminized ANTI-MALE West Survive? Personally, after having 80% of my assets stolen from me because the Govt. decided my ex-wife should have them because she was “bored”, and that extremely patriotic American Tech Corporation that decided it was best for me and the USA that my job be given to somebody in India, I could care f*cking less what happens to the USA. Take your ideological musing and stuff it.

    The Huns are coming and there’s nothing The Great American Wimp can do about it.

  • Great post. A few more thoughts on entrepreneurs and their attitudes:

    “The American entrepreneurial spirit, driven by hyper-competition will not hesitate to take every opportunity to grow a business, which would be great if the ultimate objective of such business was to enhance the life of all the people that depend on it. But too many times we’ve seen greed triumph over the high ideals of the early capitalists, leading to an early sell without concern for long term prosperity. However, a life style without such ambition may lead to stagnation. Feeling entitled to long lunches, 35-hour weeks without producing the output that the world needs to overcome the current crisis, may be just as damaging, though.”

  • Tim,

    Appreciated having the opportunity reading your post this morning. I believe many times we lose the focus and clear thinking necessary to consider what the ‘stuff that matters’ really is.


  • Thanks for working on this.

    This matters to me.

  • Regarding things that matter and First Principles as it applies to technology and the problem of homelessness:

    Years ago I created what may have been the very first site online dedicated to the principle of shortening the distance between points a and b to reduce systemic waste to enhance quality of life for helping the homeless. It was a time in which libraries were first coming online and homeless people themselves were learning to use computers at libraries. The purpose of the site was to empower the homeless by giving them all the information available for resources for two cities (Milwaukee, Wisconsin and, later, Columbia, South Carolina: ) all in one place online to overcome information bottlenecks barring them away from help.

    Why doesn’t every city in the world have Resources for the Homeless site for their city to help the the homeless find resources faster? This is something that can easily make life better for many people because it can reduce “down time”.

    I challenge your readers to do something like Resources for the Homeless for their individual cities. While it may not eliminate the root cause of homelessness, it can speed up the process of getting people back on their feet again.

  • Gary S. Weaver

    Great stuff! Thanks for spending the time to write this.

  • Tim: “Create more value than you capture” is a meme, like “harnessing collective intelligence”, that we all need to think about a lot more.

    When I did my MBA back in the 1980’s the zeitgeist was all about “maximizing profits”. Fast forward 20 years and you can hardly pick up a business magazine or book that doesn’t trumpet this relentlessly, through stories about “destroying the competition” and “capturing customers”. It seems almost every company in every industry is in a competitive struggle to try to monopolize it’s niche and extract as much money as it can, while it can. This rapacious approach seems to be the obvious ecolutionary path for business strategy, but, as you imply, is it?

    I’d be interested in the math (game theory?) that shows that “creating more value than you capture” is not only a viable strategy, but possibly even a better one than the existing models. If true, then when it becomes evident, businesses will start to embrace it.

  • Tim, it’s really great to hear another entrepreneur talking like this. I get very frustrated at times listening to fellow entrepreneurs talking about startups as if they are sitting at the poker table, totally focused on the big score and not on creating lasting value. I blame, in part, the culture of Silicon Valley for this mindset. their VCs and media tend to favor the quick (2 – 5 year) big payday instead of the company that has a long-term vision for creating value (with profit as a result). IMHO, this short-term investing mentality is as destructive as the big banks short-term profit mindset. It’s inspiring to hear someone with your success and track record talk about an alternative value system. Cheers.

  • Joel Weierman

    A great article that really puts things into perspective. All the more timely given the current economic downturn. I know the challenge for many (including myself) is really to actually take that leap of faith and execute on your ideas.

  • Thanks for this one Tim – I am working on a small project that has hit each of these from the outset… and felt perhaps a little too lofty in it’s goals. I hope this type of thinking begins to grow deeper roots in the valley and across the globe – especially with thought leaders in all industries. It’s really our only hope as a species and planet.

  • Nice post. But there’s a word that I didn’t see there: fun.

    Perhaps it’s implicit in your first point about working on something that matters to you more than money. But to many people that suggest altruism or some kind of sacrifice. To the contrary, working on something that you care about and enjoy doing is the ultimate self-indulgence.

  • On “something that matters”, I think you will enjoy reading Hidden Value by a couple Stanford professors:

    On “the long view”, I like this quote: “Forget about shortcuts. Run a business as if it’s forever.” – Norm Brodsky,

  • “rather than as charities to be funded out of the goodness of our hearts.”

    It often seems that ‘the goodness of our hearts'(in other words, love) is the most self-sustaining thing of all. I don’t mean that the world should be run by charity…wait…yes I do. Now wait a second. By “charity”, I do mean “GOOD BUSINESS”. I want just, fair, organized, business that looks out for who is being served. However, by “good business” I mean “unselfish business”, and by “unselfish business”, I mean “non-profit business”. Why do we need profit, anyway? We have everything we need, all we have to do is share it. And if we don’t have everything we need, then nobody should have everything we need. If any of us really cared about the world, even the “business world” then we sure would be focusing on non-profit work.

  • Tim: Thank you for the thought provoking post. I especially liked the way that you described how self-sustaining businesses for profit can be a vehicle for doing big things that matter. It sometimes seems that our country’s university system is designed to teach people interested in big ideas and big changes in the world to trend toward the “non-profit” world, while it also encourages people who want to become independent to seek the big payoff in the completely focused on profit world.

    For the past 15 years I have been wrestling with a very large angel. It has been a wonderful learning experience, but I have found that the learning occurs faster if I can get some more people in the ring on my side. As a young man I was blessed with the opportunity to learn more than most people would care to about producing massive amounts of emission free energy on demand. (I was a submarine engineer officer and in charge of a small group of people that ran the nuclear engineering plant.)

    Since we made our own air and fresh water, and since we moved about with great freedom for 15 years on a quantity of fuel that could fit under my office desk, I felt like I had learned some valuable information that needed to be shared. Along with some other chance experiences and a bunch of time in a library and in laboratories, I developed some ideas for how to make the basic technology of atomic fission a bit more accessible and useful for additional applications. As you may or may not know, that has not been a terribly popular technological field for a number of years, partially because there are a lot of very powerful people that make a great deal of money from selling an addictive alternative to nuclear fission known as fossil fuel. They have successfully spread a great deal of FUD about nuclear power.

    Anyway – I need to get back to doing stuff that matters. If you or anyone else on this forum wants to know more, they can find me via a search for Atomic Insights, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. or The Atomic Show . Note: Cameron Reilly already knows what I am about and has been one of the enablers of my work for the past couple of years through the services and support provided to The Atomic Show by The Podcast Network (TPN). He is also the reason I found your post – he twittered the link.

  • Thank you, Tim. I’m going to focus on taking the long view.

  • Boy, you hit the nail on the head with this one

  • Jason Horowitz


    Agree with all of your points here and, like many of your readers, have tried to practice this approach throughout a twenty-year international, high-tech career. However, please be mindful that that being able to choose your work is a luxury enjoyed by

    – Jason

  • Robin Harper

    An inspirational post Tim, particularly the reminder that “It’s a matter of balance. Every business needs to pay attention to its bottom line; every individual needs to put a roof over his or her head and provide food for loved ones. But take a look inside: how much are you thinking about yourself and what you might gain, versus what you might create?”

    I fear that this seeking for balance is getting lost in the fears for the 2009 economy, and I’m glad to see you remind people not to forget that the ultimate success lies in the value you create for others.

  • Todd

    “…Microsoft must re-commit itself to big goals beyond its own profitability, and to creating more value than it captures…”

    HA! Never, ever, going to happen as long as Ballmer is in charge.

  • csknet

    In response to 1. here is a great poem by Rudyard Kipling that i love

    enjoyed your post.

  • 13ren

    Inspirational article; a good time for me to hear it.

    Typo nitpick: unbalanced quotation marks in:

    “work on stuff that matters” does not mean focusing on non-profit work, “causes, or any other form of “do-goodism.”

  • “We need to build an economy in which the important things are paid for in self-sustaining ways rather than as charities to be funded out of the goodness of our hearts. ” Yes!

    We have been remarkable in the ‘rules’ by which we decide how society runs: we tax ‘goods’ and labour (a very good) and savings; and we don’t tax pollution, resource use and abuse (e.g. deforestation), greenhouse gasses and waste. We subsidise depletists, particularly oil & gas companies; and we argue about subsidising wind or solar power. We support bad business so long as it is big. And raise the relative cost of doing business to smaller businesses – business that could not have brought down on us the international financial state we are in now.

    We need to build an economy in which we limit inequality (an important factor in societal stress), in which we think of building economies and creating lasting value and preserving/renewing our resource base. And do so in a way that meets basic human needs. Then we will have met your conditions, and created a generous and abundant planet.

  • I couldn’t agree more. I am reading “Broken” Billionaire Adolf Merckle committed suicide by throwing himself under a train. And these other guys:

    New York based money manager Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet, 65, who may have lost client funds invested with Bernard Madoff, apparently killed himself in his Madison Avenue office, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said on Dec 23.

    Kirk Stephenson, who helped start Luqman Arnold’s investment company Olivant Ltd., committed suicide, a U.K. coroner’s court judged last month. Stephenson, 47, jumped in front of a train on Sept. 25 at a railway station in Taplow, 28 miles west of London.

    What kind of chicken-shit actions are these. Value, character, honor, and integrity money does not buy.

  • I read this post over the weekend and have been mulling over how to comment. Your recent posts have struck a deep chord with me, and I feel compelled to add something, but can’t imagine what. So I’ll just add my own story:

    I spent most of the last 10 years working for creative agencies, marketers, or small software companies. At the best of times, I felt that my contribution to the betterment of our world was tangential: by helping Company X sell more Product Y, I’m improving the world’s aggregate value. My feeling was: I’m a good person, I take care of my family and friends, I don’t engage directly in any enterprise that exploits or harms other human beings. (In fact, I routinely turned away work — mostly advertising-related — that I thought ethically suspect.) But I couldn’t fight this sense: perhaps filling the world with more consumer goods did not, on balance, make it better.

    About two years ago, after a stint living and working in China, I came to work full time for Mercy Corps. All my past work has secretly been preparation for this work. Every so often something I’m working on these days will make me cry. I can’t ever recall having a similarly emotion when I was helping a client move HDTVs or optimizing business communications. If I don’t pour myself into getting Mercy Corps’ message out to the world, the consequence isn’t slack sales or a dip in someone’s investment portfolio, it’s kids starving to death. I want to live a world where my job isn’t necessary.

    For too long I separated “life” from “livelihood.” I think this might be a false dichotomy. You strike the right note here: we can’t all work for nonprofits, but we can all do business as if the business we do matters.

  • This is truly inspiring. Having spent my entire career struggling to “work
    on stuff that matters” I’ve been challenged to explain my mission and the
    criteria by which I choose where I put my time, attention, and resources.
    You’ve made a profoundly important contribution by making these criteria
    explicit and by presenting them as First Principles. I hope they will become
    a guiding light which will help entrepreneurs, visionaries, technologists,
    and investors alike make the kinds of trade-offs that fuel real innovation
    and change. Thank you.

  • Kathryn Shantz
  • Emilio Cantu

    tel-evangelist sell fear and profit. fear of those who don’t agree with “their god” and profit as a promise if you contribute to their tel-evangelist movement and just believe. yet they win in red states because they are coheisive in both beliefs. will it take genertations to embody your principles of creating value for others? perhaps the commercial on tv “are you in good hands” will also remind listeners to those tel-evans that contributing hard earnded money to rich speakers is a ruse.

  • Joe Hu

    Wonderful.It is the first time I finished reading an english article that is so long.It is very impressive. Thanks.

  • first up – Affiliate Marketing is not something that matters, and is often a barely disguised pyramid marketing scam.

    second – Tim has written something really important here, doubly so as we are entering one of the toughest times in memory for doing business and having motivation is going to make all the difference.

    If you are thinking of making a change in your life, my advice (FWIW) is not to wait for things to get worse (economically), but to make that change now. Do so, and the passion you bring to the new thing will help you succeed.

  • mb

    “It’s pretty easy to see that Bernie Madoff wasn’t following this rule; nor were the titans of Wall Street who ended up giving out billions of dollars in bonuses to themselves while wrecking our economy.”

    If a member of the U.S. Armed Forces behaved in such a manner they’d be brought up on charges of “conduct unbecoming.” If a politician did this (ideally) they’d be voted out of office or hauled up in front of the ethics committee. If a small business owner did this, they’d be arrested.

    In all cases, they’d have to make restitution for the money. Is there some way to get financial restitution from Bernie Madoff & Co.? Maybe the first few billion dollars of the bailout plan should come from their golden handshakes.

  • Good stuff, Tim. Even for us do-gooders in non-profit work. :-)

    Seriously, a major part of my work as a pastor of a local church is to equip people in all kinds of different workplaces to live for something bigger than themselves and to make a positive difference in the world.

  • Vahe Katros


    As a long time burner(as in Black Rock), I’ve always liked your ethic (and as someone who remembers Interop when 200 attended or Decus when sessions were held at 1:00am or hell, when I’ve lived thru what Ham Radio folks have done since being licensed in ’72, I pick-up on the same arc of history – hats off to you.

    Anyway…you are asking for comments to help and it seems this has been a long thread of affirmations(I believe I did that above) so here are some ideas:(taken from a presentation I put together to recruit people for a project I am working on to help farmers and farmers markets

    A. Paradox
    1. People are looking for meaning projects
    2. At a time when we have pressing needs
    How do you choose?

    B. Where to spend your time
    1. On projects that reflect your values
    2. That can use your skills, energy, and know-how
    3. And have a chance to succeed.

    C. Gartner Magic Quadrant
    Applied to Projects with social Good.

    -Quality of Vision
    -Ability to execute

    (note: I use the above to have the volunteer exam my project thru a practical lens – just like a start-up I argue that my project, that includes some hard core subject matter experts from evil companies who want to do good – I sell the idea that my team can pull it off. The vision needs to be sustainable – that means explaining the need for business model innovation

    D. Gross Domestic Happiness
    (google/wikiP this)
    think: another metric to use when you are in the business of valuating good things.

    I hope some of that is helpful and drop me a line if you want to chat.


    PS:Call me cynical but Microsoft public vision may have been a PC on every desk but the private one was always to get developer lock-in through API’s etc, and we all knew it because it was good for us and we were trying to escape other evil empires, when the time was right, we jumped ship to open systems and open networks – the wisdom of the crowds or put another way, don’t try to play a geek.

  • have a look, this is Eva Bartlett blog form Gaza and her flickr photo stream
    they really work on something that matters ( blogging the reality that happens in Gaza and you can’t find it in CNN, BBC, Aljazera, Foxnews )
    beside of technology and innovation we should works on this stuff too, what we can about the reality?.
    consider that is not about the politics and causes.

  • I just finished reading Alice Schroeder’s recent bio of Warren Buffett, and your post resonates with his own philosophy.

    Buffett wrote in a 1968 letter to shareholders: “It also does not seem sensible to me to trade known pleasant personal relationships with high-grade people, at a decent rate of return, for possible irritation, aggravation, or worse at potentially higher returns.”

    Upshot: work on things that matter to you more than money (for Buffett: this was honesty, frugality, sensibility), and the money will take care of itself.

  • Vahe Katros

    Michael – I loved that quote and be he was very human and from the same book:

    He was a bad bad husband to his wife Susan from most peoples views. She was a care taker and never deserted him, although she moved out for the last 15 years of her life.

    He was also cheap to a fault.. He called the family home “Buffetts Folly” for a big waste of money! Told his adult daughter when she
    called looking for a $30K loan to repair her house… “You get loans from banks, call them, I’m not your bank…”

    So the question is: how do you account for personal values in your evaluation?

    PS: Tim, I realized that my post was not answering your question since it focused on non-profits – oops. But hey, do a foo camp for this subject and bring in another crowd – sort of a TED or ETECH for business model innovation or whatever you want to call it – you can get a better grasp of this BIG question using the un-conference approach.

  • Mark

    Very nice thoughts, but very Pollyanna-ish also.
    I see these “uplifting” and inspiring essays all over the internet. They are very easy to write, while you sit on your own nestegg, with your wellpaying job, pontificating about philosophy and how everyone can make the world a better place. But for the masses of people who have no savings, with the Sheriff at the door, and the bill collectors on the phone, these things all fall on deaf ears, when day to day survival is the prime concern. No, I am not one of those people, so far. But I do sympathize with those who have fallen on hard times. I know quite a few of them, and I would be embarassed and uncomfortable preaching to people who have nothing left, about how they need to give back.
    I’m not criticizing your ideas; I’m just explaining why these thoughts of yours may just be a little unrealistic, when putting food on the table is the prime concern. Of course, most of those people are in no position to be idly surfing the internet and reading your thoughts, since they are either too poor to have a computer anymore, or they are over at Monster looking for work.

  • Tim,
    I couldn’t agree with you more. Positive Pscyhology (which studies things such as happiness and life satisfaction amongst other things) has found that the relationship between income and happiness appear to have model a log function, i.e. they are related, but it’s really hard to move the happiness and life satisfaction needle by increasing earnings – to double happiness, you’d have to increase income by 10x, and to quadruple it, you’d have to have 100x increase in income. Having engagement with your work, building something that matters, building great relationships, etc are going to help you be more satisfied with your life, and since positive emotion and psychologial well being correlate with performance, you’ll perform better and be more likely to have a big exit…Sounds counterintuitive, but if you’re just focused on the monetary outcome, you’re actually less likely to get there.

    Great stuff… if you’re interested, would recommend books by Martin Seligman, Jonathan Haidt, Richard Laird, and Barbara Fredrickson.

  • Among your more important posts, Tim. Good on ye.

    What we do is who we are — and who we are is what we do.

    The choices we make, in how we live our lives, define us; in times of chaos, it’s especially telling.

    What’s “important” fluctuates, but in these times, what truly matters is pretty clear, and becomes the overriding importance — shifting to a new paradigm.

  • Very nice and timely post Tim. I really enjoyed reading it.

    There are so many people who go on for years with that little voice in the back of their mind saying to them that they are not doing what really matters.

    Far more important to listen to that little voice, than we give it credit.


  • This has to be one of the better “concepts” of looking beyond oneself that I have read in a long time.

    This was a true pleasure to read.

  • The biggest question we may face is how do we make it worthwhile for everyone to “work on stuff that matters”: are the current incentive systems and cultural standards in society sufficient enough to guide us toward that path?

  • Taylor –

    I think you miss my point. There are huge entrepreneurial opportunities in stuff that matters. For example, I talked to an entrepreneur yesterday who thinks his company can replace a $25K medical procedure with a $5K one via improved computer algorithms, building a $500 million company while saving lives and shrinking US medical bills by $15 billion.

    He may not be able to pull it off, but it’s a great example of how work on stuff that matters is not about building non-profits.

  • Tim: oh, I agree that there are HUGE opportunities in stuff that matters; I’m just wondering if there are any structural impediments that keep people taking on those “big hairy audacious goals”.

    And by no means am I advocating a non-profit approach: the profit motive is still the most effective way to allocate resources.

    Perhaps the societal need is to broaden the idea of what “profit” means: and honestly it’s your thoughts and practical examples in a very public forum that will help spread that idea.

  • A very big thank you for the motivational and inspiring post.

    I’m really excited that I could find many keywords that can help build my future.


  • People who find this important may appreciate this discussion thread.

  • Quote

    Tim, I am sorry but I disagree with your point of view. It is really true that the company SHOULD and MUST put their customers as the first-class. But then if customers know that there is no competition between companies, I am sure that they will not be happy. Why? because if a company want to please their customers, they will have to lower or decrease the goods for an example thus automatically create a competition among companies. So at that point, I will think that the company should their customers as same and serious as they treat the competition otherwise they will lose their business very soon.

  • Tim,

    The article takes me back to what I have generationally been handed down as ‘human values’. Are we seeing ‘Heart Capital’ emerging as the new world currency. I sure hope so.

    Imagine, things haven’t changed at all since the days of Einstein as is reflected in his quote – “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” ( Albert Einstein)

  • Thank you Tim O’Reilly. At a time when public anxiety about money could stimulate the worst of selfish business behaviors, this is an inspiring reminder that real success long term is built by adding value.

  • Lorraine Egan

    Important also for non-profits. Many are in survival mode, but we shouldn’t be surviving for its own sake. Too many non-profit leaders are focused on their own jobs or maintaining a worn out mission, rather than posing the questions you so clearly articulated.

  • arthur

    i am glad to hear someone talking about an issue that has concerned me for quite some time. i am tired of people getting paid and getting respect for doing nothing. why is it that we have people getting paid hundreds of millions of dollars for hitting a ball with a stick i.e. baseball players or folks like oprah winfrey are somehow considered important for doing little more than talking about mindless dribble? on the other end of the spectrum how is that places like fermi lab cannot get funding to perform basic research? how did out country become like this? a nation of celebrities who are celebrated for doing nothing while the real heroes who actually make something are considered geeks and losers. this is what happens when put losers on pedestals. they secretly hate and envy “the makers of things” people of real ability and now they have the resources to do something about it. we have got to get back on track. a celebrity should be celebrated for doing something not for shaking their asses on stage or hitting balls with sticks or running around in shorts with orange colored balls.
    thank you.

  • Tim, I was all ready to hunker down with your article on my PDA, but
    $ validate work-on-stuff-that-matters-fir.html |wc -l

    Therefore, um, please work on valid HTML.

  • Brett Martin


    Thanks for the great thoughts and my new favourite quote.

    Another great speech by David Foster Wallace:

    “work harder to keep the truth up-front in daily consciousness.”


  • Joseph

    This is brilliant. The question I always ask myself is: does this product add value to society or take away value from society. I think people picking the former is key to the rehabilitation of our economy.

  • Tim, thanks for sharing this important message. What you call your “half-unconscious litmus tests” I call “my edge.” I wrote some thoughts about it about back in 2007, borrowing ideas from lots of inspiring people:

    I hope more people and businesses are able to tap into the essence of their creative energy — we’ll have better businesses, better economy, and a better world as a result.

    And thanks for attending Transparency Camp 2009 in DC as well. Enjoyed seeing you there.

  • Great comments

    the long and the sort term benefits are two things to look into too.

    Social enterprise and not for profits enable any work you create to have self sustaining long term benefits. is a way to create long term benefit and short term gain for any product/service by investing surplus funds in innovation. too check it out.

  • “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?” in May 2009’s Scientific American might be something that matters.

    While I agree with hypothesis that food shortages could wreck havoc,at least on a gut level, the science especially the data analysis, could be tighten up considerably. Some of the data is only through 2006. The world economic problems of late 2008 – 2009 could add convincingly to the story.

    My interest is in wester American wilderness, which as with all wilderness, will be greatly stressed if “civilization,” (ore perhaps more properly, “global commercialization,” fails catastrophically. There are few plans for a graceful transition to a more robust survival system.

    Development of a widespread localized food storage with democratic ownership/control might go a long way toward avoiding big problems in the future.

  • Excellent remark about how Microsoft “consumed its ecosystem.” In the end, if you are consuming more than you produce, you destroy. If you consume less than you produce, you create. I hope my business will be sure to always produce excessive value because, in the long run, that is the only model that is sustainable. Do it the other way around, and you consume your ecosystem, and everyone loses.

  • I just stumbled upon this oldy but goody!

    “I want to remind you that financial success is not the only goal or the only measure of success. It’s easy to get caught up in the heady buzz of making money. You should regard money as fuel for what you really want to do, not as a goal in and of itself. Money is like gas in the car — you need to pay attention or you’ll end up on the side of the road — but a well-lived life is not a tour of gas stations!”

    This is something I need to remind myself of everyday……

  • Hi Tim,

    A great post, thank you. Written, I think, shortly after you ran a session at WPP’s Stream event in Greece where you were talking on the same themes. That too was much appreciated and inspiring.

    I’ve since started something that speaks to these issues of new value creation and sustainability and is certainly not lacking in large-scale ambition.

    One day it will pop up on your radar.


  • Tim B

    Have you ever thought of bringing your ETech conference back? I gather the last one was a financial disaster for O’Reilly, but some of the previous ones must have been lucrative, and they were the most inspiring technology events I have been to, and I’ve been to a lot of O’Reilly (Web 2.0, Velocity, Ignite) and other technology events.

    I attended 4 or 5 ETechs, paying full freight for some, getting comped for one (thank you) in the depths of the bust, and getting a discount to another.

    They changed my life. I started working on technology for (non-profit) social good as a result of the special session on digital democracy you did, I think at 2004 ETech.

    Etech exposed me to big ideas, and helped me work on things that mattered. I’d love to go to another one.

    Tim B

  • Maybe Buddha was the first one to urge people to find “the right livelihood”, to work at something that feels right for you, and also contributes something positive to the world.

    Jobs are disappearing rapidly in the western world as they are being shipped overseas to the developing countries in Asia where labor is much cheaper.

    Maybe it is time to simplify the way our economy is structured. Maybe we need to step back some from the global economy that does things like grow grapes in Chile with the heavy use of pesticides that are banned in the United States and then ships them of to California where they are sold weeks after being harvested.

    Maybe it’s time to begin withdrawing our support from people who do not engage in “the right livelihood” and re-shape our economy to be more local and more healthy as opposed to being more efficient.

    …Jason Frost

  • don

    I’ve been around in the industry for over a decade now. I’ve seen training departments who were more interested in their own bottom line and their perceived importance in the organization than they were about what they actually contributed to the people. They were more interested in controlling information, than they were about growing knowledge. Maybe you’ve known a department like that? Maybe you’re still working in one…

  • Tim, I am trying. See top two projects here:

    Thank you for posting!


  • David

    Here’s someone who Works on Stuff that Matters: Salah Boukadoum. He builds companies that invest 100% of their profits to women in poverty around the world to help them start their own business and raise themselves from poverty.

    See his TEDx speech:

    Visit his blog:


  • Finding truly inspirational companies with big goals is not always easy, but they are out there, and we should all be more conscious about who and where we spend our money. Consumerism is a massive boat and one that it can be difficult to turn around as it is so ingrained in our western world where we are trying to balanced our lives between what we want and what we need. We hear our governments talk about creating economic growth, companies about delivering increased value to shareholders. But until we as humans, citizens, shareholders start measure value in more than just money, this ship will be a difficult one to turn around.

  • Andrew

    Our children will have technology beyond our greatest imagination and will be unbelievably wealthy. Why shouldn’t we borrow from them? Compared to them, we are the poor.

  • What a fantastic article. Years later… still relevant. Thank you for it.

  • What should we make about the worrying trend to distrust our institutions? Yes, it sounds glorious and noble to work on what matters, where you (individually) decide what matters rather than institutions or the marketplace abstraction of money. But what happens when everyone does this? Have we data or extended experience to know that paradise will be the result, or even higher individual satisfaction? The replacement of our current failed system by one where everyone decides for herself what matters is just another system. Let’s think about what such a system might bring about. One would be a shift from money as a motivator to PR and advertising, emphasis on groupthink or other defining mechanisms of “what should mattter” – it’s hardly an unambiguous terrain. It’s unclear to me that such a world would be an improvement. The power brokers will persist in any case. Tim’s examples are just that, examples and anecdotes. It’s relatively easy to find those: rent-seeking is evil, for instance. If you would like a more nuanced view, I recommend the book “Breakfast at the Victory” by James Carse, who observes that all our choices involve a tradeoffs.

  • Bruce F. Donnelly

    From Google search: “A description for this result is not available because of this site’s robots.txt – learn more. . . . Tim O’Reilly shared this”

    Hmm. Do as I say . . . ?

  • Bruce F. Donnelly

    Yay! It’s not a deliberate choice, it’s an oopsie! Mac Slocum is looking into it.

    Thanks so much for being so helpful, & sorry I doubted you.

    • Thanks very much for bringing it to our attention. We’ll dig into this and see what’s up.