Give your Reasons for Working a Second Look

Lately at work I have been inquiring why we work where we do. I assumed that the reasons that I worked were the same reasons everyone worked. My reasons no doubt comes from my years spent supporting the local helpdesk at my college. The goal at the helpdesk was simple; a person has an issue, and you have to figure out how to solve that issue. When I moved into the “behind the scenes” support for our helpdesk I managed enterprise applications. Any issues that were the result of a malfunction with our infrastructure we set out to correct. Do what you need to do to get the system back up and running.

I am the type of employee that derives job satisfaction from making changes that solves people’s problems.

It is frustrating to me to contribute code that is immediately discarded, as can often be the case in my current job. Most of our projects have no clients currently using the software. As a result, there is no feedback to gauge the success or failures of our changes. This type of code could be classified as vaporware that may be implemented somewhere down the road just as easily as it could be scrapped. I proposed this question to my coworkers that seemed to be able to find peace where I could not: “If you could make a million dollars a year to dig a hole Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and fill that same hold back in Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, would you take it over your current work?”

This “ditch digging” was an analogy to how I felt about writing code that was soon deleted.  “Ditch digging” was a real job in the public works projects of the FDR’s New Deal aimed to pull America out of the Great Depression. People were paid to do this exact thing, just to keep them busy doing something. This unproductive work was designed to filter out those that were willing from those that were unwilling.

I figured no one would take a job doing useless work over something with meaning. Instead of an answer, I was surprised to hear inquiries about the conditions surrounding the hole digging. Among them:

  • How hot is it outside when I am digging the hole?
  • How big does the whole have to be?
  • Can I use a backhoe to dig the whole?
  • Is the job union?

Some of these questions are probably meant in jest, however the focus of the scenario was alarmingly off the mark that I had assumed it would be. I felt like they didn’t “get it”. Perhaps the person who summed up the situation best was my own father with his response:

“Depends on the weather, how hard the dirt is, what kind of shovel I have, how many people I have telling me how to do it and how many are bitching about the way it is being done. Then you have to weigh the socialization opportunities with the other hole diggers, the quality of the after work “hole digger” bars in the area, how much demand there is for the skill set if you get tired of the particular hole you are working on and start looking for a new one…Boredom over time may be a more dreadful companion than stress.”

I can see that to my dad, the specific job doesn’t matter much , but the environment the work is done in is important. With my own dad considering, and most of my coworkers choosing to go with the ditch digging, I was at a loss. I upped the stakes, thinking one million dollars was tainting the results: “If you didn’t make a million dollars, but instead just got paid your current salary, would you still dig the ditch instead of your current job?”. The answer for some was still yes.

I found out a lot about myself by asking this question to others. I assumed that people all worked for the same reason I did – contributing something meaningful to society. That is how I have to work to be happy with what I do. I need to fix things. Others, in contrast, are happy working for a paycheck. The satisfaction for them isn’t the product they produce, but rather the paycheck with which they get to spend as they choose. Their happiness isn’t affected by work satisfaction whatsoever. Others work for praise and recognition. There are probably many more reasons than I ever realized. It is important to note that there is no “right” answer for why people work. Its about personal happiness and a person’s own sense of the world.

It was important for me to recognize what motivates me, because now I can progress with my own personal growth with or without my job. Ideally, I can find a way to produce something at my current job that is introduced into the world that is meaningful to me. If that isn’t the case, I can do it independent of my job as a hobby. I now know what the missing spark was for me.

As luck would have it, my new assignment at work is building a business solution for a company. I get to talk with clients, and solve “real” problems. This work isn’t research work, its making a system that works for people. Without having asked this question to my coworkers, I would have been going through the motions without realizing the personal impact that talking to clients would have on me.

With this change in work assignment, I have already begun to look forward to days where I work on that project, and have started applying my development skills outside of my 10-6 workday. Suddenly I am reading more articles about coding. I have taken an interest in finding out about new technologies again. A big part of this new job is Information Retrieval (IR). I have been researching Sphinx, Solr, Lucene, stop words, LSA, and other mathematical methods of completing fuzzy searches. I have subscribed to news sources discussing emerging trends in my field of work. Even while I read, and write and brainstorm I feel connected again. Having a purpose in my work has been the breath of fresh air that I needed.


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