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Does your work give you meaning?

I believe we all need to work. But I wonder, how many people seek out jobs that they feel provides them with more than just monetary rewards and status.

We all have some responsibilities, school, car, mortgage, family, etc.; and require some economic means to sustain our level of lifestyle. But remove all that and I bring forth the question of what, if any, does your job give meaning to you?

I ask this out of curiosity and wonder since I myself am pondering mainly what my focus in a life of work with computers and software should fulfill.  With this brief opportunity in my life; at 28 and being a software developer for 5 years since graduating, it has become important for me to do something worthwhile with my time, and hopefully something I can show for in the future.

My answer:
I am trying to start my own venture in a software dev. company.  In the hopes to grow it in developing tools and working with others that help and aid our explorations in this world. Hopefully to be a part, if not whole, of something much larger than myself. I love computers, and think that to be able to use them as a tool for greater good in aiding people, must bring buckets of satisfaction. Now it might not solve world hunger, but it’s worthy to be aware of the bigger picture.

As an example, I have worked on projects for many large institutions for the human genome community.  Yet it never felt that I was making a difference. So maybe my piece of software somewhere will be in the chain that helped defeat cancer. Great!  But its ownership and immediate gratification that seems to bring most satisfaction.  Build a pump for Africa to bring them water in the desert, and when it works, you know it right away; not ten years later.

A level of success and independence in life where your satisfaction is derived from the ownership of working in a job that has meaning.

I realize we all have choices, though some more than others, but if you could, and even better if you are; then ponder for a moment “what, if any, does your job give meaning to you?”

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

For what it's worth, I work for the Humane Society.  I've always liked animals, and frankly -- I sometimes think I'd rather help animals than people.

I putter around with computers in my spare time.  I'm a rank amateur.  Half the time, I don't even know what you guys are talking about here.

Alex Chernavsky
Wednesday, January 8, 2003

At the moment, the only meaning that my work gives me is that it means I can feed myself and have a roof over my head.  It satisfies me enough for now, especially in this economy.

However, I don't see myself developing software, selling, and jumping all around trying to chase the almighty buck since it gets extremely tiring after a while.  And what do we get out of all of that?  Just some paper that is colored green with pictures of dead presidents in the bank account.

If I make it big someday (ie. hopefully a couple of IPOs) then I'd like to be a venture capitalist and fund ideas that will help third-world countries get past the poverty level.  Those people or missing out on so much, but then again some of them may be just content the way they are living the simple life.  Sometimes I wish I too could simplify things in my life.  Anyway, however, I think they would still appreciate the finer things life has to offer given the doors and the opportunities to walk through them.

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

When work has meaning it's either selfish or alturistic.  Neither is intrinsicaly better than the other.  Selfish meaning that the work rewards you personally, i.e. working with animals, sick people, a non-profit, etc.  Alturistic means work you don't enjoy, but that has larger benefits to society.

If you're willing to accept alturistic meaning, an interesting point is raised.  For many of us, we can "contribute" more to society by living cheap and donating our excess to efficiently run charities than we could by doing socially meaningful work ourselves.

For example, a single techie making $70k, could probably live a comfortable existance on $30k salary and donate $40k a year, the approximate cost of 2 people doing full time "socially meaningful" work.  This has the added societal benefit of employing three people and is likely more beneficial than the techie taking a low-pay, meaningful job himself.

I don't do this personally, but it's an interesting way to look at things and an alternate way to achieve meaning while doing boring, for-profit work.

Bill Carlson
Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Wow. What a great topic! I'm really interested in seeing others' responses.

For me, no, it doesn't. Indeed, there is still some satisfaction of intellectual curiousity, puzzle solving skills, and creativity by doing programming and system design.  When I first started working, that was very satisfying.

But since probably 80% of the code I've ever written in my life has been thrown away before it was a year old, I doubt it's done much good to anyone. The reason it has been thrown away generally has been changing corporate priorities.  Projects get cancelled, shelved, don't sell well, get replaced with the newest/latest tool, etc. etc. This theme comes up again and again. It's getting old.

As Bill suggests, there is some satisfaction derived from being a productive member of society in that:
1) I am able to contribute to charities rather significantly due to my salary
2) I pay a LOT of taxes - to support national parks, pay civil servants, fund schools, etc. (Well, OK, those are the things I'd like to think *my* taxes support, not bombs, bailouts, military buildup. :-)
3) I generally work a 40-hr. week, so I have time to volunteer and participate in other more satisfying activities.

But since I spend so many hours, so much of my life, working, I really want it to be something that feeds my soul and makes a difference. I don't want my gravestone to say "She paid her taxes well and we are so grateful."

Ideally, I'd like a job that is a combination of Bill's selfish AND altruistic categories. If it could involve programming/systems too, wow, that would be great!

Lauren B.
Wednesday, January 8, 2003

I don't know what's wrong with me but I find developing software meaningful. I don't know why. It doesn't have to be for a charity or anything like that.
Why it seems meaningful to me is hard to explain. I got into this field for philosophical reasons (see God and Computers, down there somewhere).

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

<i>For example, a single techie making $70k, could probably live a comfortable existance on $30k salary and donate $40k a year, the approximate cost of 2 people doing full time "socially meaningful" work. </i>

charities are not such an "efficient market".  See this guys' FC post for details:

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Bill Carlson,

I agree with your viewpoint on the matter.  Although you haven't quiete stated which side of the fence you're on.

But as human beings, I believe we are naturaly selfish.  And for most, a job is mainly to suffice our own interests and goals.  If it didn't, why do it?  Assuming you have a choice, why suffer in misery doing work you detest.

So we search for a place where our work gives us a little more purpose then just a pay cheque; and by keeping us happy, we can focus on the alturisitc view.

Giving away your hard earned money to other's may seem like a good idea; but personally, the moment of alturism diminishes quickly after that, and you're left once again; pondering on a better way to make a more gratifying change.

"Chose work that you love and you will never have to work a day in your life."  -Confuscious

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Addressing a few comments:

sedwo:  My personal plan is to live frugally, marry someone who is also frugal, retire at a modest age and leave our estate to charity.

There's a difference between charity and sacrifice.  An individual MAY make a greater contribution by sacrificing his/her own agenda, but not necessarily.  There are giving people in this world, but most do it for their own sense of satisfaction, not really for the greater good (which is not a bad thing).

Bella:  To assume that all charities are inefficient based on one person's experience is childish as is assuming that you could run a more efficient non-profit than those who are experienced at it.  An efficient charity only wastes a small fraction of contributions.  Give anonymously if you like.

Lauren:  I agree with your post.  A person shouldn't underestimate the net positive gain the average cheerful soul makes onto the world.  Are other people happier because of you?  Is your government richer because of you (taxes minus usage)?  Are others employed because of you?  Are you a role model?  Are you generally nice and respectful of others?  Are you environmentally conscious?  In my mind, a person who can answer yes to most of these questions is a "good enough" person.  They can always try to give more, but it's a good baseline.  This benchmark is necessary otherwise some people always feel like they're not doing enough.

Bill Carlson
Wednesday, January 8, 2003

My job (and I suppose life more generally) gives me two things that I consider much more important than just money to live on. One is personal satisfaction -- the enjoyment of learning new things, tackling new challenges, reveling in a job well done. That's very important to me. The second is knowing that I've done something, even something seemingly trivial in the grand scheme of things, to make people's lives better.

One of my favorite moments was a year or two ago when a user of one of the tools I'd built for a big, big company said "This software has made my job *so* much easier." He went on to say how he liked the interface and the fact that I had listened to his needs and made sure the tool met those needs, rather than just pumping out whatever would've been easiest for me to code.

No, I'm not saving lives or ending world hunger, but getting those little acknowledgements that I made a tiny corner of the world a tiny bit more pleasant -- and that I had fun doing it -- really makes me feel good. Maybe I'm just easy to please :-)

John C.
Wednesday, January 8, 2003

As one who has done overseas volunteer work and observed and shared war stories about many situations, I would caution anyone regarding 'throwing money at the problem', meaning sending cash to any organization, private or public. Most often, the cash does more harm than good. The reasons for this are complex and varied. If you have a substantial amount to invest, you would be well advised to take a vacation and volunteer for the prospective charity you are interested in supporting in order to get the full story.

I am not speaking against the practice, just advising you to be cautious and conscientious if your intent is to improve the lot of someone in a third word country.

One obvious example: massive western grain aid to Somalia (and others) depressed the price of grain, driving the few local farmers who were hanging on out of business during the one time in which they may have been able to earn a decnt profit and grow their business. Instead, the crops they sweateid and suffered to bring to market sat unwanted and unbought while people gorged on free western aid. The farmers were left with nothing to buy the materials they needed for the next season and went out of business. The result of the western aid was to knock the country back 5,000 years into the stone age, causing untold suffering and misery. Of course, none of the happy donors bothered to stay around long enough to see the results of their activites and to this day insist they have done a wonderful thing.

A subtler example: building free homes for poor people in Tijuana has been shown to upset the balance of power in a poor neighborhood, creating a new royalty class of privledged homeowners while doing nothing to improve the situation for any of the parties involved.

The best you can do is to remain personally involved, or to directly finance someone who is capable of staying involved (a zealot, basically) and commited over a long time and who has the experience and forsight to avoid these sorts of feel-good traps.

X. J. Scott
Wednesday, January 8, 2003

No, intrinsically my work doesn't give me meaning.
It is merely a means to an end.  Hopefully that end will have some meaning.

Bob Greene
Wednesday, January 8, 2003

I donated once to an animal rights group.  They've since spent the original donation plus more by sending me stuff I never requested, including additional solicitations.

I didn't stop giving though.  Now I buy supplies for and donate money to the LOCAL no-kill animal shelter.

Bob Greene
Wednesday, January 8, 2003

I find that I must (internally) find meaning in my work - to design and develop easy-to-use and powerful creational software - to do good work...

So yup my work gives me meaning... =)

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

You're right about that Bob. I hate when they delude me with their glossy four-color brochures begging for donations sent biweekly.

Such an unfortunate waste. And kind of sickening.

There is of course no better way to assure I will never give another dime.

X. J. Scott
Thursday, January 9, 2003

Interesting topic.

I think you've made an interesting point Bill, but for me your suggestion completely misses the point. There is no way that completing mundane work for the rest of my life and giving a big chunk of my salary to charity every year is going to give me quality of life results. The complete opposite infact - it sounds like a guilty cop out to me.

Firstly, and most importantly, by not tackling the issue of what life really means to me and not focusing on utilizing my precious time in ways that I'll look back on your death bed and be proud of I'm just cheating myself. I want my life to have a real meaning, to make a difference to people's lives, for me to have a positive impact and to leave a legacy. Earning 70 grand and giving 40 each year to charity doesn't really meet that criteria, does it?!

Secondly, like somebody else said here, throwing money at Charities *can* be dangerous. Your time is far more precious than your money.

Thursday, January 9, 2003

I think the best way to help the world is to get to know yourself and be yourself. For some people, that means doing something to help the poor. But a genius who invents something that ends up creating jobs has done more to help the poor than Mother Theresa ever could. Giving people food or medicine so they can hang on one more miserable day is only a short-term solution. People want to be self-sufficient and to have self-respect.
I don't know how the world can be fixed up so no one is poor, if that is even possible. We should all contribute to charities now and then, but that is not the way to put meaning into your life. Just learn to be yourself, and you will discover your true inner compassion and genius. Maybe you will only help a small number of people but that could mean more than sending off charity checks.

Thursday, January 9, 2003

For me, my work definitely does give me meaning. This has nothing to do with the great scheme of things, I fear. I wish I could say: yeah, I do something that is crucial to the survival, wellbeing and development of humankind, but this is not the case. Still, my live has changed 100 % when I started to work (having been a long term student before). I am proud of my work, I love to solve challenging problems. Being in the social environment of a company is also something that has proven very important for my well being. Gone are the depressed lonely days I spent in my apartment, knowing I should do something but not being able to focus on it. Now I spent my days happily in the office, knowing I should do something but posting to Joel's forum instead ;-)

Have fun,

Jutta Jordans
Thursday, January 9, 2003

Maybe this all boils down to motivation towards something.

For a review of those, check this:

under "motivation"...

and check where you are now in:

And remember: "Just be, life asks nothing special out of you..." (... and then Zen will seem appealing ;-) )

Philippe Back
Thursday, January 9, 2003

Yandoo, I appreciate the response.  I wasn't advocating the keep $30k, give $40k philosophy, just arguing that it MAY be more beneficial for people OTHER than oneself.

I would get satisfaction by going out on the weekend and fixing a poor person's leaky roof.  The same result would be accomplished by hiring a roofer  - and the patch would last longer.  :)

The joy of helping is a selfish consideration and this is NOT BAD.  However, the efficiency question is raised.  Many people get the same sense of satisfaction giving to Save The Children (a wildly inefficient charity) as they do to Habitat for Humanity (a relatively smart organization). 

Good for them, but as engineers, we're managing two projects, engineering the happiness of others and engineering our own happiness.  My argument is that the former sometimes comes at the expense of the latter.  It's okay to enjoy helping people, but the enjoyable, hands on work is not always the best use of your time.

Example:  Would it be better for Bill Gates to A) Donate $40B to charity -or- B) volunteer full time at a local homeless shelter and watch his MS stock decline by $40B in his absence.  The latter would be good for B.G., the former, good for humanity.

It's a tradeoff.  Doing either should make you feel good about yourself.

Bill Carlson
Thursday, January 9, 2003

Bob Greene wrote: "Now I buy supplies for and donate money to the LOCAL no-kill animal shelter. "

No-kill animal shelters are essentially a marketing scam.  They simply push the dirty work onto other shelters.


According to the Humane Society's Martha Armstrong, many no-kill shelters turn away more animals than they accept. The "rejects" often end up at publicly funded shelters -- which must take every animal brought in. When cages fill up, those shelters euthanize animals to make room for others. Net result: A large number of unwanted animals still die. The only difference is who euthanizes them.


Another potential problem with no-kill shelters: Animals may languish in cages for months.


Alex Chernavsky
Thursday, January 9, 2003

I agree with you partially on that point Bill.

However for me Bill Gates contributution to this world is not the money he gives to charity every year, but it's the impact he's had on all of our lives. He's made a real difference to a lot of people's lives - and as much as we all complain about Microsoft their contribution to personal computing over the last decade or so is  immense. He also employs a massive number of people around the world who, so I believe, generally work in a very positive environment and are rewarded quite well. That's where his impact is. Of course, the money he gives to charity is good, but for me that is not his 'life purpose' or whatever you want to call it.

Personally, I feel that I can have more positive impact on people in my life through the private sector than I could probably ever have through the government or charities. I intend to build something great, some entity which people can be proud to belong to, that actually does something that makes people lives better or easier.

What that is I don't know, but I'm in no rush.

Friday, January 10, 2003

All this talk about no-kill animal shelters and starving people in the Third World makes me wonder whether we can't combine the two efforts and donate our money to animal shelters that send unwanted pets as additional protein to the malnourished. We could even recycle some North Korean nuclear scientists as the cooks, and thus contribute to world peace.

Stephen Jones
Friday, January 10, 2003

Starving people in the third world need birth control.
We are very lucky to not be starving, and that gives us a chance to contribute to the evolution of human knowledge and understanding. You can have a meaningful life without being a charity worker -- helping starving people survive and reproduce and stay in exactly the same miserable condition for generations. By improving your own knowledge and understanding and contributing in your field, whatever it is, you might help the world as a whole. Of course, advances in science and technology are just as likely to hurt people -- better weapons, more pollution, jobs made obsolete.
We are not in a position to predict what the results of our work will be. Having good intentions and hoping for the best is all we can do.

Friday, January 10, 2003


They can't take in _all_ the pets.  That's a given.  Some will have to be turned away.  Does that mean they should give up and turn over all the ones that they _are_ able to care for?  As for languishing in cages, that's where it helps to know your local shelter.  The one I give to is located on several acres.  Some animals are caged, but they get walked.  A great many others are kept in fences together.  Cats are still kept in cages, but they're room-sized playpens. 

Bob Greene
Friday, January 10, 2003

Just to wander further off-topic:

"We are very lucky to not be starving" -- presumably referring to those living in the First World

There's a dangerous flaw in that reasoning:  A lot of people worked very hard to make America, Europe, Japan, etc. so wealthy and prosperous.  It's not all luck.

There are reasons for the world's current state.

Brent P. Newhall
Friday, January 10, 2003

" There's a dangerous flaw in that reasoning:  A lot of people worked very hard to make America, Europe, Japan, etc. so wealthy and prosperous."

False logic here Brent. Even if you were bone idle in America you would not starve, and if you're starving in India you don't get too much chance to be hard working.

It's possible to claim that Britain and America are better off than India or Uganda because of more thought and organization by their rulers, but whether you're born in one or the other is purely a matter of luck.

Stephen Jones
Friday, January 10, 2003

"A lot of people worked very hard to make America, Europe, Japan, etc. so wealthy and prosperous.  It's not all luck."

You mean things like plundering the colonies or enslaving the natives, right?

Just me (Sir to you)
Friday, January 10, 2003

"There's a dangerous flaw in that reasoning:  A lot of people worked very hard to make America, Europe, Japan, etc. so wealthy and prosperous.  It's not all luck."

ouch.  The flip side of that would be:

<insert nationality here> are poor because they are not hard workers. 

Friday, January 10, 2003

I am lucky to be born in a rich country. I did not have to work hard to make that happen -- it was chance.
And my country (the US) owes a lot to luck. Of course people worked hard but people have worked hard in other countries also, and are still poor.
I'm very glad I was born here and that I'm not starving. But I don't feel I should donate half my salary to starving people. Having some extra money and a little extra time might help me contribute to the world in some little way. I agree we should give something to charities. But keep in mind we give an awful lot just by paying at least a third of our pay in taxes, some of which goes to poor people.

Friday, January 10, 2003

I guess I wouldn't have a problem with no-kill animal shelters, if they didn't try to claim some sort of moral high ground.

On the subject of donating to charity:  Australian philosophy professor Peter Singer (now at Princeton University) has some interesting theories about ethics.  He claims that living a life of luxury (e.g., dining at nice restaurants, owning expensive cars, etc.) is morally equivalent to selling orphans for their organs.  Well, something like that, anyway.

See this _New York Times Magazine_ article called, "The Singer Solution to World Poverty":

Alex Chernavsky
Saturday, January 11, 2003

That's a neat article about Singer's argument that every dollar you spend on yourself at a restaurant results in a child dying somewhere.

Here's another possibility: Joe stops eating at his favorite restaurant for a $50 lunch and sends the $10,000 saved yearly to "Help the Starving Kids Inc." which spends $9,800 on administrative costs and sends $200 to an aid agency that donates needed food to North Korea and which actually goes to feed their military officers. Joe convinces his friends to stop eating at the restaurant as well and it goes out of business. Dora, Jose, Stella, and 15 other Guatemalans who were working in the kitchen lose their jobs and can no longer sent their half their salaries home to their villages, whose sole source of income is their receipts sent, 100% (not 2%) of which go directly to alleviate poverty and disease. 2500 children die the next year of cholera because the villages can no longer pay for the electricity for their well pumps but must now get water out of ditches with a bucket.

I say this is more likely. Let Singer show the facts that prove me wrong and his idle speculations and fine tuned hallucinations right. Otherwise, his claims are just a form of madness, as is his advocacy for killing crippled children and unwanted elderly folks as part of a systematic eugenics program to improve the gene pool and create a Master Race.

His argument and donations are merely a political technique to have a convenient way to belittle his detractors. This is a commonly used propaganda technique -- the 'moral high ground' manueveur.

X. J. Scott
Sunday, January 12, 2003

X.J. Scott , you're probably thinking more about the matter than many, but I'm not too sure you're coming to the correct conclusion.

Your figures for administrative overhead are way too high, and more important you are not explaining what gets hidden under the name of administration. If your were a businessman looking into the feasibility of buying a few tons of food from a farmer at a certain price at the farm a few thousand kilometers away, and selling it in small packages to consumers in New York delicatessens you would not consider that the difference between what you paid the farmer and what the consumer paid is net profit. In fact you would consider that a markup of two or three hundred percent would still leave you with a whopping great  loss. For some kind of reason this kind of thinking disappears when dealing with charities.

The linking of charity to starvation relief certainly tends to confuse the matter. People don't normally die of starvation (death from diseases exacerbated by malnutrition is a different matter) in societies at peace unless the government actually exacerbates the crisis (either for political reasons as in the Sudan, or because of economic fundamentialism as happened in India at least twice under the British - and never since indepencance and not recorded before). As a result emergency food aid must normally be sent out to people displaced by war or natural disaster with the consequent ballooning in distribution costs.

Another trap people fall into when they talk about donations to charity, is expecting every penny to count when they would never dream of this happening in other fields. If you invest in the stock market it is taken for granted that you are taking the long view (can be as long as thirty years) and you know that "some you win, some you lose". Even when dealing with your own personal expenditure where you are in complete control you know that you probably waste thirty or forty percent of all the money you spend.

Another trap is that of saying that if everyting is not solved, nothing is solved. You yourself provide a fine example of that:

" A subtler example: building free homes for poor people in Tijuana has been shown to upset the balance of power in a poor neighborhood, creating a new royalty class of privledged homeowners while doing nothing to improve the situation for any of the parties involved."

I'll repeat the phrase you used "doing nothing to improve the situation for any of the parties involved"

What about the people who now had houses, albeit  very basic ones. Are you saiying that having decent shelter is no better than not; if these people were no better off, why were they considered a "royalty class". Sure, giving them a new house would not increase their income (unless they could rent part out on the sly) or lift them out of poverty, but having a house is just that - having a house - and it's a hell of a lot better than not having one - just as having your own borehole is a lot better than having to walk two kilometres down the road.for water.

Two things that could be done to improve the lot of the poor in the Third World are firstly to stop the obscene subsidies given to rich American and European Uniion farmers and farming corporations . The effect is twofold; firstly Third World farmers are deprived of a market for their goods, and secondly subsidized western foodstuffs flood the markets of Third World countries depressing prices for the indigenous farmers, as you remarked has happened with emergency food aid on occasion. Tariff barriers to other Third World imports should also be lifted. What's the point of giving a man a fishing rod if you block access to the market where he can sell the fish? Secondly pressure should be put on the IMF and other organizations to rein in the twenty-something college grads they routinely send off to developing countries to sit in a five-star hotel for a couple of weeks and then come up with a bunch of economic measures that cause untold hardship to the poorest in what is already a poor country. It is pretty pointless to be collecting money to for hospitals for cholera relief when people are having their piped water and electricity cut off because of massive price hikes to make the balance sheets look better for Western multinationals to take over.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, January 12, 2003

"Are other people happier because of you?  Is your government richer because of you (taxes minus usage)?  Are others employed because of you?  Are you a role model?  Are you generally nice and respectful of others?  Are you environmentally conscious?"

Damn. I am the anti-christ.

Monday, January 13, 2003

Stephen Jones wrote, "False logic here Brent. Even if you were bone idle in America you would not starve, and if you're starving in India you don't get too much chance to be hard working."

I think you misunderstand my point (no offense intended; it was an oblique point).  I'm not talking about the luck of the current generation.

My point is that, when you look at why the first world is prosperous and the third world is not, it's not purely a matter of luck.  Many people worked very hard to make the first world prosperous.

And, of course, many people work and have worked in the third world to make it prosperous, and a lot of human evil and a lot of unfortunate circumstances have contributed towards the failure of that hard work to succeed in the way hard work has succeeded for the first world.  I'm not saying that the first world has done everything right and the third world has done everything wrong.  I am saying that it's a dangerous mindset that attributes the success of a society to luck.

(And I acknowledge that PC may have intended his/her post to be refer to purely personal luck of having been born in a first-world country.)

Brent P. Newhall
Monday, January 13, 2003

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