I recently listened to a talk by Bill Burnett about finding meaning in work. Burnett is an instructor of the tremendously popular Designing Your Life college class and book, and one particular idea that resonated with me was trying to figure out the sort of impact we each have in our work.
He laid this out along two dimensions: broad versus narrow and restorative versus innovative.
For example, a nanny might be in the far bottom left with a 1-on-1 scope and maintaining a child. On the other side, a climate scientist might be trying to globally address climate change with innovative ideas. And a single person may have several distinct roles or types of impact within their job.
As I mapped out my own role, I actually extended this concept further into my side projects and hobbies to understand why I did them. Since I live in Silicon Valley, my natural inclination is to think about how to “scale” and have an outsized impact compared to my effort, and yet, I realized that my hobbies largely didn’t have that flavor. I run D&D games, but that’s a few hours of preparation for about four people over an afternoon. I enjoy cooking, but a dinner party or a loaf of banana bread only feeds so many people.
This realization didn’t make me think less of my hobbies, but it did make me think deeper about what my motivation was. And I stumbled into perhaps an inherent tradeoff between scope of impact and how well I feel appreciated for it.
The Power of Thanks
I think receiving a heartfelt “thank you” is one of the best feelings in the world. Maybe someone went out of their way to find your tickets to a sold out concert, or maybe it’s just the bagger at the grocery store who took a minute to get your food into your cart. Whatever the scope, it’s real when someone looks you in the eye and really notices and validates your effort.
Today, service and hospitality jobs are valued less in society as measured by income. And yet our food delivery drivers and IT support people occupy this unusual space where they are both most present and also most ignored in daily life. Currently, the people I interact with the most outside of my household are the checkout people at the local grocery stores. On the other hand, it’s easy to treat them as just another aspect of life like a car or a closet that’s just part of life.
This sort of work is roughly where my cooking or DMing fits in. Although I enjoy it and like to make it social, it does take work and really is sustained by the “thank you” or a similarly personalized gesture. I don’t think I would enjoy running a restaurant or recording my D&D sessions for others to listen to: it just feels like I would lose that direct appreciation.
Open Source Impact
In my job, I rely tremendously on free open source libraries to build web applications and other software tools. It is no exaggeration to say that I literally could not do my job if it wasn’t for the hard, unpaid work of Apache, Django, and countless other libraries that I directly and indirectly use in writing my code.
The people who write these libraries have tremendous breadth of impact. For example, Daniel Stenberg wrote curl, a command line tool that has indirectly supported a majority of existing software. And until I looked it up right now, I didn’t know who he was, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t get paid to do it.
There’s a recurring discussion about whether open source maintainers deserve to be paid for their work given their impact. It usually comes up when the maintainer of a popular project gets burned out and leaves because they are spending all of their time responding to bug reports and not making a cent for it.
This problem can be mitigated through soliciting donations or companies hiring maintainers just to work on critical open source projects, but I think the problem is somewhat inherent to the system: when you have a broad impact, you probably don’t feel appreciated for it.
My Project at Scale
My biggest side project is Spawning Tool, a site to share StarCraft 2 strategies. It has been unexpectedly successful at scale as it’s used by tens of thousands of users a month around the world, and I actually spend very little time maintaining it now. The site largely runs itself.
And yet, I have wondered whether I should shut it down because on a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t feel like it’s making a difference. I know that no news is probably good news, but it’s easy to feel unappreciated when no one says “thanks”. In fact, the most positive feedback I typically get is when someone reports a bug, and they also add in “And thanks for running the site” in the email.
The site is still running since I have figured it’s still valuable to users, but I have to rationalize that by looking at the data. When the graphs still show lots of site visits, clearly somebody finds it valuable, and with enough of those, it’s probably worth doing. It’s just tough to logically override the lack of emotional validation I would get from a few “thank yous”.
So despite Silicon Valley’s obsession with scale through technology, I think it actually can be a largely dissatisfying effort on a day-to-day basis. Excluding all other factors that make them better or worse jobs, I think a waiter gets more gratitude in a day’s work than a software engineer does.
And I think that’s something that we who choose to work at scale need to accept to some degree. We do user research and solicit feedback from interviews to get some of that validation, but when we choose to try to touch thousands or millions of lives at a time rather than just one, it’s hard to expect to get all of those “thank you” along the way.
Of course, it is possible to have both high impact and high appreciation roles: however, they are extremely rare because the general population only has limited capacity to track these people. But everyone knows celebrities and public figures.
Rattle off a list of famous people. Movie stars are seen by perhaps billions of people and are adored on social media. Professional athletes have stadiums full of people chanting and cheering for their success. And even CEOs of big companies both shape the direction of the world and get plenty of attention.
And it does seem like many fans and regular people aspire to be beloved, followed, famous.
However, it does have a downside. Direct appreciation at scale can be overwhelming and intimidating when you’re living life under a microscope. Along with the fans come the haters, and especially today, it seems like cancel culture always threatens to turn the world against you for the slightest missteps.
Despite my point about a general lack of appreciation in working in a job at scale, I really like my job and wouldn’t quit because my users aren’t adding me onto their Christmas card list.
So how do I deal with it? I find other outlets. At work, I find I can have a direct impact on working with my team and helping them.
In my hobbies, I have fantasized about running an epically popular D&D game like Critical Role, but what really keeps me going are the players around the table, and that’s enough.
I have been tutoring high school students for a few years now, and I find that tremendously gratifying. I have had brief doubts where it seems like a poor comparative use of my time and knowledge to help a high school freshmen figure out how to isolate a variable in Algebra 1 homework. And they often don’t say thanks at the end, but it’s still a different and important type of appreciation to see them get to the end of the worksheet.
On a planet with billions of people, we can’t all expect to change the world. And yet, each individual thank you both given and received can be enough to make a difference and keep each of us going.