As I See It: Rolling the Rock
July 26, 2010 Victor Rozek
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a huge stone up a hill. Each time he neared the top, the stone would escape his grasp and roll back down. Up, down, and back up. So it would go for all eternity: The frustration of meaningless work.
The guy who designed the pyramids probably loved his job; the guys who stacked the rocks, probably not so much. Soul numbing, repetitive work has been humankind’s burden since frontal lobes became fashionable. Still, in every epoch a select few rise above the survival grind to leave impossible legacies: cave dwellers had their artists; Egyptians had their architects; and somebody dreamed up Stonehenge.
With few exceptions, however, the quest for meaning through work is a post-industrial phenomenon fueled by widespread prosperity. No longer fixated on survival, humans were free to chase fulfillment. Which gives rise to the question: what gives work meaning? Why is one task satisfying and another not? Why is one experience fulfilling and another leaves us hungry? What makes something significant? The answers are so basic to our happiness that they should be instantly obvious. Yet often an individual’s criteria for meaning remain unvoiced and can therefore be elusive.
It’s like asking “How do you experience love?” Most of us never pause to consider how we actually know we’re loved; what sensory evidence exists to confirm that desired state. Is it attitude or action? And, if so, what type of attitude and what sort of action? Is it being caring enough to ask questions, or trusting enough to respect privacy; sharing intimate feelings, or not being pressured to express them? Problems arise when couples don’t communicate their unique criteria, expecting that anyone they care for would automatically be like-minded.
The same holds true for the workplace. All criteria are not shared. And when they go unacknowledged, the lack of communication between management and employees saps meaning from work.
Thankfully, the love of work is less complicated than the work of love. For IT professionals, meaning can be found in one or more of the following criteria that exist across all facets of the industry: the chance to exercise higher order cognitive functions; take on challenges; employ creativity; solve problems; and, depending on context, be in service to a larger vision.
Starting at the top of the talent heap, R&D labs provide homes for a host of mental mammoths whose work meets all of the above criteria. Scientists and engineers may use the same cognitive functions the rest of us rely on, but their results are certainly of a “higher order.” They convert imagination into form, turning science fiction into everyday fact. Creation is a powerful meaning generator, and one of the reasons for the popularity of programming.
Of course, not every project is successful and not every breakthrough is marketable. Success, in and of itself, does not provide meaning, but it does provide validation. Management generally delivers ample validation for galloping success, but seldom acknowledges striving. In an R&D setting it is understood that experimentation may, in Edison’s words, result in finding “1,000 ways not to make a light bulb.” Still, whether someone is working in the lab or on a laptop, unless they are totally self-sufficient, some recognition of the travail and commitment required to carry on is in order. “Failure” should not be allowed to strip meaning from effort.
Beyond the rarified world of R&D, software development provides meaning through challenge, problem solving, and the opportunity to be creative. But whether it’s a new algorithm, an elegant subroutine, or the next killer app, programmers generally toil in anonymity, competing in an environment that can be merciless. As priorities and strategic directions change, must-do projects get cancelled, and work that was valuable just yesterday becomes as desirable as Detroit housing. The project team, however, should be no less commendable for that. The “top of the hill” repeatedly denied Sisyphus is not simply the opportunity to complete a task. True completion requires closure that includes a clear understanding of the project’s meaning, of how it was designed to fit into a larger strategy–even if it no longer does.
When honest, sustained effort does not yield hoped-for results, it need not go unacknowledged. The missing communication from management–the message that gives meaning to effort–is gratitude. Like a parent’s appreciation for a child’s artwork, the meaning of the drawing lies in the reaction it evokes. When effort ceases to be acknowledged, motivation withers.
If management often misses opportunities to express gratitude, the communication employees fail to share is identifying how they personally derive meaning from their work. It should be discussed during employment interviews and revisited during performance evaluations. What’s more important? Challenge or creativity? Problem solving or service? Support or development? Asking for what you want may not guarantee you get it; but not asking doesn’t improve your odds.
As important as it is to have clear criteria, one ingredient is still missing, because having a job that meets your criteria does not ensure a full measure of meaning. Like the choice of a partner, many people possess the same desirable qualities, yet only one inspires commitment. Here, again, work imitates relationship: in both cases the evidence of meaning is the presence of passion. It’s the sauce that makes the meal a feast.
Passion will manifest in an eagerness to get to work and, once there, the experience of time slowing as a result of intense focus. (Time slowing should be contrasted with time dragging, which turns each day into Sisyphean eternity when work is void of meaning.) I have a small sign in my office that says “Passion is the way I assert my right to live.” A reminder that a meaningful existence without heart is like filling up on grapes when you can have wine.
The value of passion and meaningful work cannot be overstated. For a minimum of 2,000 hours every year we invest our precious life energy performing tasks our employers believe to be important. It helps if we actually share that belief.
For all of its universality, meaning is paradoxical. One person finds meaning in writing a program; another in using it well. Some create technology, while others spurn it. Many yearn to be in service, many more long to be served. And for every person who enjoys solving problems, there’s someone who relishes being the problem. Just ask the guy rolling the rock up the hill.
Sisyphus, Greek mythology tells us, was punished for repeatedly offending Zeus. And if you read the story, Sisyphus was not a nice guy. But for reasons that were never clear to me, gods of every flavor and tradition enjoy not only punishing humans, but making them suffer for all eternity. Seems harsh. You’d think being saddled with that silly name would have been enough.