I recently made a decision to leave the company where I have been employed for the last 6 years, Bridgewater Systems Corporation, and become a contractor (gasp!) working with a very small group of high-tech entrepreneurs to form a new start-up. Starting a new company can be rather risky, and the golden age of startups in the Ottawa Valley may have passed, but its the sort of opportunity you don't get every day. There are a lot of reasons why I decided to do this, and as I was reading Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham, I began to feel even more like this is the right decision.
Graham gives an example of a galley ship, powered by 1000 rowers. He says there are a couple of factors limiting the speed of the ship. One is that the individual rower isn't going to see any noticeable improvement from working harder. The other is that, on a boat of 1000 rowers, the average rower is likely to be... well, an average rower. If you took 10 rowers and put them in a dinghy, their performance might double, because they'd be able to see the effects of rowing harder. And instead of taking 10 average rowers, if you took 10 of the best rowers, their performance might be 5 times better than average. The problem is when you can't see measurable results from your efforts.
The other thing Graham says is that you need leverage, which means the decisions you make will impact the success or failure of your endeavor. One way to tell if you have leverage is if making the wrong decision could result in a catastrophic failure.
These two things, measurability and leverage, are what Paul Graham says you need to contribute significantly to the wealth of society. And starting or working for a startup is how you get them.