I’ll start with a disclaimer that the companies I’ve been working with lately are doing a fantastic job in solving real-world problems. My reflections here are not meant to undermine the value of projects I was part of. Instead, I wanted to explore the feeling that to do something really meaningful, perhaps I would need to leave IT industry completely. Do I?
What is meaningful and what is meaningless?
Firstly, the question of what work is “meaningful” and “meaningless” is a pretty hard one 😉
For example, I’m a fan of Cal Newport’s books about the “deep life”. I read the philosophy in Cal’s work like that: craftsmanship makes the work fulfilling and meaningful. Hard work has intrinsic value. The idea of a “dream job”, something exciting and unconventional that you would want to do instead of your current “boring” job, is likely delusional and even dangerous. But I don’t exactly agree with that.
I can agree that programming can totally be fulfilling. In my experience, solving problems, the focus it requires, the flow-like state it produces makes the job of a developer who likes it a really fun one. I’m truly enjoying it. But is it enough to also call it meaningful regardless of what’s the end goal?
My intuition is that it isn’t. I try to choose jobs and projects that I believe contribute to some general well-being of the society. Even in such projects, sometimes I find myself working on tasks like crippling the product to create a cheaper pricing tier. Sometimes spending weeks or months just to have it released with slightly different design and brand name and reduced feature set. I can understand that it makes business sense, but still, it feels like a waste to put lots of time into reducing the capabilities of a product.
There are other things that might subvert the faith in daily software development work. Some projects might not seem worthwhile from the start. Every once in a while, developers might find themselves in a cancelled project that will never see the light of day. Occasionally, they might feel like fighting with a complexity or a technical debt that should have never happened in the first place 😉 I think it’s a part of the job.
Is it better to build schools and dig wells instead of developing software?
What would you do if you had enough money to never have to worry about earning it again? There are studies that show that the majority of the people feel they would accept a lower wage for the opportunity to do a more meaningful job.
I sometimes feel that way too, but I must say I’m not convinced. When I’m volunteering, I usually feel quite inefficient or incompetent. So far, it was less fulfilling than I expected. I think I enjoy programming more 😉
Interestingly, there is a middle ground. If we assume we would accept a significant pay cut or even do volunteer work in exchange for more, we might also consider redirecting some of our earnings to a cause we believe in. Theoretically, such commitment should improve the “meaningfulness” of our actions. Unless such indirect help is not good enough to induce meaning in our lives?
Some time ago, I learned from Sam Harris in his podcast about the interesting initiative named Giving what we can. The idea is that you publicly commit a specific fraction of your income to a charity of your choice. For example, a “Trial Pledge” is a commitment of donating 1% of income to charities for some specified time. I’ll try too. It’s funny how difficult it is for me to commit to even such a tiny fraction to some good cause, even though it still leaves 99% of the income to my disposition. And people decide on much higher commitments.
I try to keep posts short, so I didn’t explain the complete meaning of life here. Sorry if you expected to find it and failed. I might post it the next time 😉