On Meaningful Work

Saying that a project, a career, a life is meaningful is weird. I don’t know what it means, but I know when I don’t buy it. I know when I find something devoid of meaning.

Maybe I’ve just been reading a bunch of movie news or wondering what a Kardashian is. Meaningless.

Maybe I’ve just eaten the biggest chocolate bar of my life and ranted for 45 minutes about why I will never learn to play card games. Meaningless.

What I’ve done matters to me in a momentary sense, but it doesn’t have any significance in the overall arc of my life. But I did it anyway.

According to one survey, 71% of software engineers don’t find their work highly meaningful, but 57% do find their work highly satisfying. Literature teachers find their work highly meaningful (96%) and highly satisfying (74%). Guess who gets paid way more?

Maybe the survey is bogus. Maybe not. But it fits personal experience with literature and software. It also fits with some work on meaning discussed by Emily Esfahani Smith in her book, The Power Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters*.

Meaning, Esfahani Smith says, comes from activities such as caring for people, animals, and plants. It comes from developing and maintaining a sense of belonging in a group. A sense of meaning can come from story telling, and it can come from moments that we might regard as sacred or awe inspiring.

Let’s do this as a numbered list. To craft a life that matters, at least in your own mind, you should try to abide by these four pillars of meaning:

  1. Take care of other beings
  2. Find your place in a community
  3. Tell a story about who you are and why you do what you do
  4. Regularly experience awe inspiring, sacred, or transcendent moments

How many software developers get to feel like they’re taking care of anybody when they’re doing their job? How many get to do much story telling? An interesting technical solution might induce a transcendent moment, but that’s probably a vanishingly rare experience for most. Community? If you work at a company with the right culture, maybe you’ll feel like you belong. If you work remotely, maybe not so much.

What’s interesting about the sense that software engineering isn’t highly meaningful (at least to those who do it) is that it can still be highly satisfying to do it. What kind of satisfaction are we talking about? Could it be the pay check? The sense of achievement? The knowledge that you’ve made something that works, generates “value”, and makes you look smart?

The sense of achievement isn’t something to be taken lightly, but achieving  –Lebowski — is not all there is to life. Meaning matters, too. Pursuing the four pillars of meaning can help with that.

*The Power of Meaning should have just been called Crafting a Life That Matters, since the “Power of…” just about anything sounds like a woo-woo manual. But seriously, it’s a great book.