Don't worry that your job is pointless

11 March, 2013

A fellow developer friend and I often used to enjoy validating our career choices by comparing them to the ‘unproductive’ careers of our investment banker friends who were earning twice as much as us. We would scoff at the life choice of someone to pursue a career so utterly vacuous and money-driven. How could anyone be content to just earn? Surely the great calling of humankind is to create, to build, to give back.

But upon recently re-reading Tim Kreider’s now famous New York Times article The Busy Trap, a particular sentence has been replaying itself in my mind. Kreider surmises that “if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary”. If bankers fall into this category, then so surely do web developers.

I’ve known my oldest friend, Pete, since the age of ten. Even at that age he knew that he wanted to be a doctor. Between the ages of ten and eighteen I considered being a physicist, engineer, architect and bohemian skater layabout as career paths before eventually settling on graphic designer - probably the least prestigious job on that list and one I haven’t even ended up doing. Pete worked hard right through school, sixth form and university, and now when I see him at Christmas and ask him what he’s been up to he’ll say “saving babies” or “working at a hospital in Uganda - saving babies.” To say that I’ve been optimising the Javascript performance of a website for a company no one’s ever heard of sounds fairly trite by comparison.

The fact is that if all the web developers (or investment bankers) disappeared tomorrow the world wouldn’t change much - at least not compared to doctors or nurses or firemen. There wouldn’t be a global meltdown. People wouldn’t die. And even though we try to justify our jobs in a universal sense by saying we’re ‘disrupting industries’ or ‘democratising information’ or whatever else, ultimately these tend to just be mantras we repeat to make ourselves feel like our work is more than just ‘doing what we want to do’. In reality, we do what we do because we’re good at it and doing it makes money. And if we are to be at peace with this, with doing the same thing every day for all our adult lives, there becomes a necessity to align our sense of purpose and self-worth with it.

I’ve certainly experienced my share of cognitive dissonance when it comes to determining the social value of my career. But, like most people in their twenties, I find it very hard not to derive a lot of my self-worth from that career. For any recent graduate taking their first steps onto the ladder, a job is the culmination of fifteen years of education and all of the hard work, money and striving that comes with them. It seems like the most important thing in the world because it’s what finally qualifies us as grown-ups. In career terms, being in your twenties is a time to be selfish, to take what you can and claw your way to the top. The consideration as to whether or not this career, this badge that we wear so proudly, is actually of any significance to the universe can wait until later. Right?

Wrong. Part of the reason people burn out and have mid-life crises is because they reach a point where they realise that they’ve given the best years of their life to a career that didn’t really mean anything. And because all their self-worth was built around their job title, when that becomes devalued then so does everything else.

The only healthy way to come to terms with doing a non-altruistic day job is to realise that life will offer you more opportunities to do good than you will find within the four walls of an office. There are plenty of people that do Richard Scarry jobs that don’t care what they do for a living as long as they can afford the lifestyle they want. Just as there are probably investment bankers who only care about making a ton of money so they can make life more comfortable for other people. The point is that if you obsess about pursuing a worthy career path, deluded by the sense that it’s the only way you will be a useful person, then you may well be forgoing the chance to profit from the talents that you were born with. Just because optimising Javascript isn’t making the world a better place right this second doesn’t mean you’re destined to a life of misanthropic selfishness.

Let’s look at an example from my industry: Bill Gates. He founded and ran Microsoft on a policy of aggressive expansion and saturated the market with software that wasn’t really that great. But throughout his career he’s used his immense wealth to do more to alleviate poverty and disease around the world than he ever could had he decided to embark upon some virtuous and altruistic career thirty years ago.

I suppose what I’m saying is: don’t fret that your day job isn’t necessarily useful or altruistic or virtuous, but at the same time ensure that you are not defined by that job. A job provides the means, not necessarily the venue, to do good things.

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