How We Strive
Your life… is in service to your work?
Eric Zhang • December 8, 2022
I want to know what career path I should take. First, what kind of work is best for the world, and second, what kind of work is best for me?
This is a conversation I hear a lot. It seems to come from a universal desire to do something greater with your life, which connects you to others, fulfills a need to create, and makes you feel like you’re making a difference. Also, we mostly are required to work to make a living, so it’s natural to want to do something we enjoy. Right?
Indeed, labor, life-activity, productive life itself, appears in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need—the need to maintain physical existence.
—Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
For a long time I’ve felt like I’ve been in service to my work. It starts from an early age, where in education the overwhelming narrative is to “work hard” and “be a leader” in order to succeed. You’re told to “follow your dreams” and eliminate distractions. Discipline meets responsibility.
A fascination with one’s output also shows up in the personalities that we idolize: larger-than-life figures who change the world (JFK, MLK Jr., Steve Jobs, Einstein, …) as their principal accomplishment.
I also have many friends who are not in service to their work. They’re aware that they’re not doing something that they want or believe in, or both. And that’s okay since there’s many other ways to find satisfaction in life!
But if you’re like me, you surround yourself with ambitious individuals and think, wow, I want to be like that! But I think this is not healthy if unregulated. I think wanting too much ultimately makes me unhappy with my work, and I should try to be more realistic about expectations for what I can accomplish.
A selection of personal thoughts follow.
I’m pretty sure I can get things done, but where do I want to be going? That’s a difficult question. Maybe I can draw inspiration from people who are older and have been working on what they find meaningful for decades?
Here I mostly see communities of people all working toward a common goal. Each community has its own values and perspectives. Their participants share time, ideas, and resources. Gradually people’s words and actions create something larger than themselves as individuals, while still retaining normative purpose. They are in service to their work.
What is the goal of the liberal arts? The field as a whole tries to understand the world through analysis and scholarship. We idolize intellectual pursuit; aiming to discover and search for truth. We sit in classrooms and lecture halls making decisions about the world with our minds, deciding on what matters.
Dispict: Design a growing artistic exhibit of your own making, with semantic search powered by OpenAI CLIP. Bring your own labels and context. ^link
What is the goal of technology? Technology is more of a method than a worldview, but I’ll try to describe one common optimistic perspective. We hope that we can improve lives by creating tools and systems that make the world a better place. Our goal is to impact others by solving problems.
Percival: Percival is a declarative data query and visualization language. It provides a reactive, web-based notebook environment for exploring complex datasets, producing interactive graphics, and sharing results. ^link
Do these descriptions seem alike to you? I think they are. They both extol the virtues of mind work and impact on communities of people. And in all cases, the scholar, technologist, or even artist is in service to their work.
Today I woke up and realized that I don’t think achieving my work goals will make me happier.
People deserve to be loved and respected by others. In particular, we strive for kindness and empathy as part of being a good human. It’s something you do for your own sake. Happiness is health; it should be bulletproof.
I don’t think your higher purpose should be bulletproof. Part of creative ambition is trying out grand ideas and exploring things that might not work.
My professor describes some of the ways we look for happiness in her talk:
- Men: wealth, adventure, achievement, respect, family, freedom, attractiveness → spirituality, personal peace, honesty, growth, humility, forgiveness, faithfulness to others
- Women: family, independence, career, fitting in, attractiveness, knowledge → growth, self esteem, spirituality, generosity, personal peace, honesty, forgiveness
All of these are personal traits. They may be influenced by our work, but they’re separate pursuits.
True, work can certainly help me find fulfillment and scratch the itch for something to do with others. (And I need to do it to earn a living, of course.) But that’s about the process of doing something. The actual result or contribution — solving that math problem, designing that software system — probably doesn’t intrinsically make me happier. I might feel elated for a day or two, maybe even a month, but the excitement then fades away. Achievement ultimately doesn’t reflect happiness.
I’ll end with something I wrote in my journal half a year ago, in May 2022.
What’s slightly worrying is that I’ve been losing motivation to accept contributions for some of the open source projects that I’ve started. Even when you’re working with random people who are curious about what you’ve made and bring their energy to write more code and turn the project into something bigger, it’s like, still somehow kind of lonely.
It’s difficult creative work. You have to focus very hard to review code written by a stranger on the Internet and maintain high standards. Software communities are tiny, and even when you’re completely in the public, there’s usually not that many people who will see or understand this kind of creative output anyway.
So what’s the point? Honestly I’m not really sure if there is a point. A year ago I would’ve said that the goal is to explore, or to inspire others, or to make the tools that the next generation of programmers wish they had.
But before our dreams and ideals comes biological and spiritual factors: personal happiness. It’s difficult to motivate spending so much time pursuing some higher goal if you’re not healthy; what’s the point? We can strive on and on, build our convictions, but at the end of the day if it only isolates us then there’s no one to stand by. It’s just like bolting something onto a signpost in the middle of the desert that no one reads.
Perhaps our achievements will all fade into Ozymandian obscurity, but journey and friendship, by being so transient, somehow live on forever. And maybe what I always needed was more time to invest in people I care about.