Two decades ago, John Elkington introduced the Triple Bottom Line (TBL), a disruptive corporate tool to measure a company’s success based on three Ps: People, Planet and Profit. TBL and its derivatives are widely used by companies around the world. While some companies have embedded the TBL into the core of their business, many others loosely practice it to varying degrees.
However, unless all stakeholders of a company - including the shareholders, directors, managers, workers, suppliers and even the customers - understand the importance of TBL and change their behaviour to meet the requirements, it is difficult to fully transform a company to score highly in all three bottom lines. In other words, the bottom lines ultimately come down to individuals. Therefore it is useful to think how the concept of ‘bottom lines’ can be applied to people. Here I’m proposing the Personal Bottom Line (PBL): Insight, Impact and Income (3 Is), as a tool to measure your personal success.
Change starts with insight. If you are not insightful of the problems (and solutions) around you, then you will not be able to make a difference. Insight is more than having knowledge of something. For example, take a cigarette smoker: Despite the graphic warning on the label and perhaps even being well informed about the health risks of smoking to self and others, he/she continues to smoke. Similarly, the shareholders of a tobacco company, despite having the knowledge of scientifically proven dangers of smoking, and the wider cost to the public, continue to manufacture them. Unless those individuals gain personal ‘insight’ into the problem, they will fail to change their behaviour. We can apply this to every individual in society, from the abusive spouse to the mass murderer, from the crooked policeman to corrupt politicians, from the lion (trophy) hunter to the CEO of Shell; they all do what they do because they lack insight.
Insight is the deepest state of realisation, understanding and awareness. You may have all kinds of knowledge about something, but until that knowledge permanently and radically changes your behaviour for the better, you have not gained insight on that specific matter. It is in such moments when Ray Anderson famously realised “people like him should be convicted for doing business by plundering the Earth.”
Insight starts with learning. The more you learn about something from many perspectives, the higher your chance of gaining insight on that specific matter. But learning alone is not enough. You need to constantly and critically think about what you are learning. This ‘learning and thinking cycle’ will lead to insight. Insight is a personal state of mind, therefore I believe it cannot be taught by someone else.
Gaining insight can lead to immediate shifts in behaviour. For example, gaining insight (not knowledge) into the cruelty of the meat industry, the health risks of consuming meat, and alternative sources of protein, has led many to immediately stop eating meat and killing animals for meat. Once people gain insight into water scarcity and pollution, they tend to take actions to conserve and protect water.
Gaining insight into the negative environmental impact of its products can lead a company to change its sourcing and manufacturing processes. Those who know there is a problem but have not taken a serious course of action to change the situation do not have insight. Therefore, insight can be measured by observing a person’s behaviour.
Impact is the change you bring about throughout your lifetime, and in some cases after your death. If you waste drinking water, you have made a negative impact. If you recycle and reuse your waste, you have made a positive impact. If you are selling a product that will harm the planet, you have made a negative impact, even beyond your death. If you are making a product that will save people’s lives, you have made a positive impact. Impact can be as small as switching off an unnecessary light bulb or as large as an entire city made to run on renewable energy.
Impact leaves a legacy. If you are a parent, your impact can be seen in your children. If you are a manager, your impact can be seen in your staff. If you are a leader of a large corporation, your impact can be seen in your people, suppliers, customers and the environment. If you are a politician, your impact can be seen in an entire nation or sometimes all around the world. No matter how small you think you are, each and every person creates impact. The greater your impact (both positive and negative), the greater your success or failure. From Mahatma Gandhi to the social activist in your village, from Adolf Hitler to the bully in your office, from Ban Ki-moon to the most inefficient worker at some government department, from Elon Musk to Arunachalam Muruganantham – every single person creates impact.
Impact is the result of insight or the lack of it. If you make large-scale positive impact, you will be considered as highly successful. If you make large-scale negative impact, you will be remembered as a failure or possibly be condemned forever.
Like Profit for a company, Income is usually the single most important criteria used by individuals to measure their own success as well as others’. From childhood, people are taught that the more money you make, the more successful you are.
There is no doubt that financial independence is very important to your personal success. You need to have sufficient money to provide for your family. You need to have savings in case of an emergency. Sometimes you will not be able to make any significant impact without the financial resources, even though you may have insight.
Income is not the purpose of life; people don’t truly honour you for your wealth. But they will remember what you choose to do with your wealth. Most wealthy people lack insight of the real social, environmental and economic problems around them, and are often part of the problem. Future generations are likely to respect Bill Gates more than Steve Jobs, because Gates has been able to gain insight into some of the world’s biggest problems and use his wealth to help make a difference. Similarly, social entrepreneurs who have insight into certain problems and are trying to solve them while generating income for themselves and others are often applauded, rather than profit-driven entrepreneurs who will do just about anything to make money.
Whether you are a CEO of a company, a middle-level manager, a fresh management trainee or a freelancer, being cognizant of the 3 Is throughout your professional journey is a simple recipe for building your personal success.