Friday, March 30, 2007

If You Do Anything At All, Make Some Meaning

If you do anything, anything at all, make some meaning.

If you are thinking about launching a startup or are a programmer unhappy in the company you work for, this advice is for you. But really, it's mostly for me. In the future I'll need to hear it again and again. I don't know if you’ll need to hear it too but if you do, come back to this anytime you feel like it. I know I will.

The Importance of Making Meaning

As programmers, we wield an enormous amount of power. We can take 1s and 0s and forge them into something useful. We can create programs that do truly amazing things. We can (and have) fundamentally change the way the world works. We write beautiful code. We develop elegant techniques. We design and use brilliant patterns. And we’re learning quickly. We’re getting better at it all the time. The power and influence we have is growing at a rapid pace. This is our golden age and we know it.

But there’s a question that keeps cropping up for me and it is: What are we making? What does it mean?

As a programmer with the ability to influence so much, this question is terribly important.

I can’t answer that question for everyone but I can tell you what mine is.

What I’m hoping to convey here is the idea that once you discover what’s important to you, you'll gain a sense of clarity. Everything else becomes secondary.

I didn’t realize until last week that I was stuck between deciding if I wanted to make money or make meaning. They aren't mutually exclusive, but I had to decide what I wanted to truly focus on. My answer was to "make meaning".

But hang on. WHAT, for the love of god does “make meaning” mean?

For me, it has to do with people. All of our beautiful code, technology and technical advancements mean nothing if they don’t do something meaningful for humans. Even though we might not like that messy, emotional humans get in the way of our programs, it will always be that way. I tend to get lost in the details of what I’m doing and lose the sense that in the end, if it didn’t improve someone’s life however marginally, it didn’t matter. You can make beautiful code that is completely worthless and completely meaningless. To put it bluntly, I’d rather write terrible code that improved our ability to connect on a human level than write the fastest, most elegant routine for solving a Sudoku puzzle. When I’m at the end of my life I’ll be thinking about the human interaction I’ve had and certainly not that elegant piece of code.

So there's my bed and I'm lying in it. I DO hope to make money of course, but I hope to make money as a by product of doing what I love.

What’s meaningful to you? Figure that out and then do it with everything you’ve got.

It’s the only thing that matters.


duncan said...

I hear what you're saying and I think it makes a lot of sense. For me, answering this question honestly meant leaving the programming field entirely. But even once you've figured out what it is, exactly that you want to *do* with your life, it's still very easy to get caught up in the old patterns. It's all well and good that I found what I consider to be my "calling" in life (teaching at the college level is what works or me), but it's just as easy for me to sink into a rut in a field that I love as it was to get caught in the minutiae of hammering out code for systems I didn't really believe in supporting in the first place.

Frankly, wallowing in mediocrity and doing just enough to get by is a hell of a lot easier than constantly reminding yourself that you want to produce purposeful and meaningful work. I can tell you without the least bit of hesitation that there are just as many academics who theorize for the sake of theory as there are programmers who write code for the sake of code. But if I understand your point correctly, the idea is to find and make meaning in whatever it is that you do. Doing what you love to do in the process is like the proverbial icing on that proverbial cake.

So... what shall we create, my friend?

Parag said...

Nice post. Abolutely agree with you.

As a bonus if you do something that makes meaning, then the work is an end in itself. The financial payoff becomes a fringe benefit. Not to say that finances are not important, but when work is satisfying and a passion, then finances will usually follow.

Can't think of anything more satisfying than having helped some people get better at a skill or become more productive. Mentoring is an activity I find extremely satisfying, and as a result I have directed most of my activities (in my one person company) towards mentoring and sharing knowledge.