My mother was a New York City public school teacher for over 20 years. She loved it. She was great at it too, partially because she knew it was one of the most important jobs in the city. Both in the classroom and at home, Mom relied on a very effective teaching technique: repetition. My siblings and I can recite, word for word, dozens of “Mom-isms” which she said to us over and over in multiple contexts as we grew up. One of those lessons still echoes in my mind, years later:
“With every privilege comes an equal and corresponding responsibility.” —Mom
As a child this meant I didn’t get the privilege of my allowance unless I did my chores and cleaned my room. As an adult the concept is the same, but on a larger scale. Given the privilege of my education, experience, access, and financial status of comfortably paying the bills, I have a responsibility to work on something meaningful.
Use Your Power for Good
Geeks have more power and privilege than we think. There’s a mythos attached to the geek identity: that we are the outcast brainiacs who got beaten up in the schoolyard, had no friends, wore glasses and pocket protectors, and only found solace at the comic shop and behind the keyboard. Some of us identify with that experience more than others. (I’d argue that everyone feels like an outcast in some capacity, so anyone can identify with that part of the geek experience.)
Whether or not you got tossed into the school garbage by a fifth-grader pissed off because you corrected him in class (happened to me), that’s over. Today, nerds rule the world. Gates, Dell, Jobs, and Zuckerberg are gazillionaires. Summer blockbuster movies are based on comic books. Software developers have their choice of job openings in an economy with a stupidly high unemployment rate for everyone else. Techies have an army of gadgets which do their bidding because they know how to use those gadgets. Coders can deploy world-changing applications to the globe from their spare room. Geeks enjoy incredible privilege.
With that privilege, the responsibility is twofold. First, we have to acknowledge the power that comes with it. This means we stop acting like mistreated outcasts and using our skills to get back at the ghosts of our former bullies because we will show them. Second, when we have choices about what to do with our time and in our careers, we have a responsibility to choose the things which put our powers, skills, and experience to their best use. We’re obliged to do meaningful work.
Do What You Love, and…
Along these lines, back in March, Alex Payne wrote about the responsibility of technology entrepreneurs to take on difficult problems rather than setting their sights too low. He used the example of a certain community of techies focused on creating a self-sustaining lifestyle businesses. I read his thesis as simply “Aim higher than just paying the bills.” Anil’s post, Making Something Meaningful, has a similar message: build things not just because you can, but because they make people’s lives better. It’s an important point. Alex has since taken down most of his original post because it hurt some feelings.
Yesterday he followed up with Obligation, a post about doing what you love. His revised, less controversial argument is that you’ll only be effective at work if you love doing it. Of course! I’d go a step further and say, “Don’t settle for loving anything less than great work.”
Steve Jobs said this well in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech:
Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.
Don’t settle. Those two words are the difference.
What Do You Believe Is Great Work?
The problem is that this is all subjective. Everyone has a right to a different opinion about what is great work. Personally, it pains me that the smartest brains in our business put their time and effort into things like satisfying the whims of advertisers, or founding a startup to flip, or making a carbon copy of an existing tool. Others may consider those worthwhile undertakings, things that help people and make the world better. The point is doing what YOU believe is great work.
Since technologists are problem-solvers, I tend to think about this in terms of interesting problems worth solving, and boring ones whose solution has less impact. Here are three criteria I think makes a problem important:
- There isn’t already a solution.
- The solution would change the world for the better on a relatively large scale.
- Working on the solution engages your skills and interests to the extent that you are happy and being the best you can be at what you’re doing.
That last point addresses the part about doing what you love. But that criteria cannot stand alone. I love eating chocolate, but I shouldn’t do it all day every day. Work on something that’s bigger than pleasing yourself. Aim higher.
The fact that I’m not a billionaire isn’t a worthwhile problem to solve. Building a business with the sole goal of paying for itself isn’t that interesting (to me). Showing that bully who’s boss now doesn’t matter.
These days, marketers have more tools to connect with customers than our elected leaders have to connect with citizens. (Insert ThinkUp plug here.) Individuals know less about what public information is available about themselves online than big companies do. Still, geeks are still debating the details of systems to organize our email.
There are bigger fish to fry. Get out your extra large frying pan and go to it.